Scholars Fume Over Canceled Events

By Gabriel Sanders

Published October 13, 2006, issue of October 13, 2006.
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The Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York decided on Monday to back out of a party celebrating a new book on Vichy France after discovering that the author’s postscript contained a passage critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The party, scheduled to take place Tuesday, was planned in honor of the American release of the Australian-born British author Carmen Callil’s new book “Bad Faith.” The book, which received enthusiastic reviews when it was released in Britain earlier in the year, is a portrait of the Nazi collaborator Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Vichy’s commissioner of Jewish affairs.

News of the party’s cancellation came just six days after an October 3 talk by New York University historian Tony Judt on the subject of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” was canceled just hours before it was slated to begin. The talk was sponsored by the leadership organization Network 20/20 and was set to take place at New York’s Polish Consulate. Judt, an English Jew with roots in the Zionist movement who has in recent years written a number of articles critical of Israel, also withdrew from a talk he was set to give next week at the Holocaust Research Center at Manhattan College in the Bronx after school officials, under fire from a local rabbi, insisted that he restrict his comments to the Holocaust and not touch on the subject of Israel.

Upon hearing that their events had been canceled, both Callil and Judt placed the blame not on the organizations that were to host them, but on Jews or Jewish groups. In both instances, the diplomatic officials concerned have argued that they canceled the events autonomously.

The cancellations arrive amid an environment already charged by a scholarly paper released in March by political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt claiming that America’s “Israel Lobby” — a loose affiliation of journalists, lobbyists, government officials and Evangelical Christians — exerts a “stranglehold” on both Israel policy and the discussion surrounding it. Some have seen in the cancellations proof of the Jewish community’s long reach, while those who have disparaged the paper as the stuff of conspiracy theory have used recent invocations of the pro-Israel lobby as opportunities to further critique the concept.

In an e-mail sent to colleagues and to the media, Judt claimed that his talk had been called off on account of “serial phone-calls” to Polish officials from the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, who, according to Judt, was going to smear the Poles in the pages of every paper in the city should they not relent. Foxman denied the charge saying that while a call to the Polish Consulate was made, the ADL did not “urge or demand” the event’s cancellation and that the decision to do so was made entirely by the consulate.

“Sadly,” Foxman said in a statement issued by the ADL, “Mr. Judt is now using this incident to mount a campaign of disinformation to tar his critics and to further his claim of a conspiracy to stifle anti-Israel activists from having their say.”

Callil, meanwhile, saw the cancellation of her book party as the work of “Jewish fundamentalists” working in concert against her. In an interview with the Forward, she pointed to four similarly worded e-mails that had been sent to her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, among them a letter from Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz, who had been invited to the party.

What sparked the e-mails was a passage from the book’s penultimate paragraph, a more-or-less universal call for remembrance, but with a Jewish focus: “What caused me anguish as I tracked down Louis Darquier,” Callil writes, “was to live so closely to the helpless terror of the Jews of France, and to see what the Jews of Israel were passing on to the Palestinian people. Like the rest of humanity, the Jews of Israel ‘forget’ the Palestinians. Everyone forgets; every nation forgets.”

For Rabinowitz, Callil’s formulation drew too tidy a parallel between Nazis and Israelis. “You may advise Ms. Callill [sic], and her publisher,” Rabinowitz wrote in response to the French Embassy’s invitation, “that any work that equates the murderous designs of the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators, with the Israelis — as she so idiotically does — is scarcely worth any such attention.”

Upon receiving Rabinowitz’s e-mail, which was sent October 6, French officials tracked down the passage in question and ultimately decided to withdraw from the event. “Although the French Embassy was looking forward to the presentation of a work exploring the darkest hours of French history,” the embassy said in a statement, “it could not endorse a personal opinion of the author expressed in the postscript of the book.”

In response, Callil told the Forward: “I don’t, and never would, equate the Holocaust” with the plight of the Palestinians. “What I was writing about was human suffering and how it goes on when nation-states forget the lessons of history.”

Reached by a writer with the Web site, Rabinowitz expressed surprise at the course of events unleashed by her e-mail to the French Embassy. “Who knew they would cancel it?” she said, adding, “I should say it’s not a bad book.”

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