The Dutch hate censorship. Or at least, so “Reporters without Borders” – an organization, which protects press freedom among journalists - claims in its annual report, labeling the Netherlands “the world champion of press freedom.”
Those of us who have spent the better part of our lives working as professional journalists here in the Netherlands have always prided ourselves on the press freedom so admired by the rest of the world. But increasingly, we’ve begun to see a disturbing and escalating pattern of censorship within academic circles, particularly when the subject is anti-Semitism. Correction: Islamic anti-Semitism.
After almost 40 years of lecturing at Utrecht University and with his eyesight failing, professor Piet van der Horst was looking forward to delivering his retirement lecture last summer. He decided to talk on the myth of Jewish cannibalism, a perennial anti-Semitic theme, and part and parcel of his field of expertise, Judaism in the Hellenistic period. As is customary in the Netherlands, he also decided to add a timely twist to his farewell lecture: the resurfacing of the myth of Jewish cannibalism in contemporary Islamic society.
Van der Horst wanted to trace the myth of Jewish cannibalism from the Hellenistic period through the Middle Ages to the Nazi-era. He then wanted to point to the proliferation of anti-Semitic cartoons, TV-shows, sermons and the like in Islamic societies, particularly in Iran, Syria and the Palestinian territories.
The departing professor wanted to conclude his lecture by saying that “the Islamic world has taken up the cause of senseless Jew hatred from the Nazis and is doing so with great gusto. The Islamization of European anti-Semitism is one of the most horrifying developments of the last decades.”
However, Van der Horst was not to deliver his lecture. Flanked by three tenured professors, the university’s dean told Van der Horst that his lecture was academically sub-standard and would, if delivered, create an immediate security risk.
“It was the most humiliating moment of my life,” Van der Horst says. “I was grilled for one and a half hours by the dean and his co-conspirators. At some point I was so confused that I started to wander if they were right. That I had really gone mad. That was how intimidating it was.”
Not being able to ascertain the security risk in in the short term himself, Van der Horst acquiesced, delivering a sanitized version of his lecture and not mentioning Islamic anti-Semitism at all. Even more worrying was the reaction by Gispen’s fellow deans. When queried by Dutch national daily newspaper, De Volkskrant, eight out of ten supported the decision, arguing that there are limits to academic freedom.
“When a professor delivers a lecture without academic foundation, while clearly relying on his position as a professor, he or she is abusing his academic authority,” said Frank van der Duyn Schouten, the dean of Tilburg University. In fact, Van der Duyn Schouten said he should “be able to interfere with what a professor says or writes at any time.”
Manfred Gerstenfeld of the Israeli think tank Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs is not surprised by the censorship at Dutch universities. “Islamic anti-Semitism is a taboo. Few write or dare to write about it. The Dutch intellectual elite, or what passes for it, is mostly left wing. And the left believes that they have to show solidarity with the weakest. Hence, they can’t see the difference between a victim and a criminal,” says Gerstenfeld, who is about to publish a book on anti-Israel policies on US campuses.
Statistics bear him out. According to the 2005 report by anti-Semitism watchdog CIDI, Moroccans perpetrated almost 40% of all anti-Semitic incidents reported in the Netherlands, down from 45% in 2004. About 2% of the Dutch population is of Moroccan descent.
Van der Horst’s isn’t the only academic to fall victim to Utrecht University’s new political correctness. In June this year, Utrecht University banned a book aimed at clearing the name of Peter D. Debye, the 1936 Dutch Nobel laureate and the man who gave his name to the university’s Debye Institute of Physics and Chemistry.
The book was put together by academics of the Debye Institute who felt they had to defend their famous alumni after allegations surfaced in the Dutch press that Debye had collaborated with the Nazis when he was director of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1930s Berlin. Utrecht University responded immediately by taking Debye’s name off the Debye Institute of Physics & Chemistry. The University of Maastricht, Debye’s birthplace, said it would cancel its Debye scientific award.
Debye left Berlin in 1940 and sought refuge in the US. He started teaching at Cornell University and stayed there until his death in 1966. Cornell started its own investigation after Utrecht and Maastricht universities dropped Debye. It found Debye blameless. “Based on the information to-date, we have not found evidence supporting the accusations that Debye was a Nazi sympathizer or collaborator or that he held anti-Semitic views,” Cornell said in a press release. “It is important that this be stated clearly since these are the most serious allegations.” The Utrecht and Maastricht universities have not yet revoked their decision to drop Debye.
The universities’ reaction is all the more alarming considering that they are largely state-run. The Dutch government provides most of the financing, sets tuition fees and grants student loans. All the more remarkable for a country where film director and Islam critic Theo van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death just two years ago by Mohammed Bouyeri, a 26-year old Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent. Bouyeri, who was sentenced to life, had pinned a five-page letter to Van Gogh’s body, in which he threatened Western governments, Jews and former Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
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