Party Packs a Punch for Academic Freedom


By Masha Leon

Published October 17, 2003, issue of October 17, 2003.
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More than 100 guests with stratospheric pedigrees crowded the spectacular New York Times penthouse where its chairman, Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, hosted the September 24 reception for the Columbia/Barnard Hillel Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life (whose executive committee he chairs).

Robert Kraft, chairman of the Kraft Group, owner of the New England Patriots who built the Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., and a benefactor of the center that bears his name, introduced Robert Pollack, a past president of Columbia-Barnard Hillel, with praise.

Pollack, a biology professor at Columbia and Barnard, addressed the question: “How may a Jewish student be brave today and in days to come?” Pollack homed in on “a new danger” on campus, which he said is “not a physical danger. When you hear about academic freedom… you picture someone who looks like me…. You should also be thinking of someone who looks like one of my students…. I have had students… tell me of being mocked for their position on Israel or, even worse, for being presumptively pro-Israel on the basis of kippah or stockings…. Hillel cannot solve this problem… but [it] will be the only place for classroom-embattled Jewish students to feel welcomed, safe, supported, defended…. If we keep [Hillel] as alive as it can be, then no Jew in the Columbia/Barnard community… need ever be alone at the moment when the not-so-simple reality of being Jewish emerges to stun and then enliven the heart and soul.”

* * *

The October 1943 rescue of Denmark’s Jews was a unique and glorious historical event that morphed into legend and begat myth. In his September 22 lecture, “Why Denmark Stood Up for its Jews. Altruism, Pragmatism, Anti-Semitism?,” Therkel Straede, professor of Modern German history and Holocaust studies at the University of Southern Denmark at Odense, validated this national miracle as he injected fact into the legend, thereby demolishing at least one myth: the one about King Christian wearing a Star of David, which he said “was never introduced into Denmark.” He added, “it was a fairy tale.”

He informed the rapt crowd in the Victor Borge Hall of Scandinavia House that in 1943 there were 4 million Danes, 8,000 Jews, “less than half assimilated… [including] 1,500 Jews from Germany seeking asylum… 481 were caught and sent to Theresienstadt, of whom 53 died.”

The revelation that there were a number of profiteers among the overwhelmingly altruistic boat owners who ferried almost all of Denmark’s Jews to safety in Sweden proved unsettling. “Ordinary people helped,” said Straede. “Some [30,000] to 40,000… total strangers… labor activists… The Resistance movement did not play a major part…. The underground stayed clear… too perilous a problem with the security of its own members.” He noted the tendency by “American and Jewish scholars” to credit the rescue to the “goodness of the Danish character.… The Danes did not save Jews as Jews but as Danes.” The rescue was “grounded in the country’s democratic fabric… with emphasis on… egalitarianism.” Denunciations were “rare, to the dismay of the Germans who saw it happen in Poland and France.”

After the liberation in 1945, reported Straede, “a wave of antisemitism swept Denmark…. Returning Jews were not greeted by all…. There was abuse when they tried to reclaim their houses…. The Danes expected the Jews to merge into the majority culture…. When some Jews persisted in their ‘otherness’… it [affected] the fragility of the contract.” This remarkable lecture was sponsored by the American-Scandinavian Foundation and Thanks to Scandinavia, an institute of the American Jewish Committee.

* * *

“Israel must never think that it is alone in its struggle against terrorism,” said former congressman Benjamin Gilman, who was honored at the Jewish National Fund’s October 2 “Tree of Life” reception at the Marriott Marquis.

Gilman applauded the JNF for its monumental reclamation achievements in Israel. “Throughout my 30 years in the House,” he said, “as chairman of our House Committee on International Relations, and then as chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, I did my utmost to support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

“Israel has no better ally than the United States,” he concluded, “and the United States could never hope for a better ally in the Middle East.”

* * *

Vos makht a yid?” I asked world-renowned photographer Arnold Newman. “Scared to death,” replied Newman, moments before being presented with the Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters medal by Jean-René Gehan, the French minister of culture, at the September 18 ceremony held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.

Newman, whose subjects included many of the world’s leaders and modern art’s icons — Chagall, Braque, Cocteau, Picasso — acknowledged that the award had “special meaning… because it comes from the place that gave birth to modern art… and French art influenced my creative roots.” A number of Newman’s world-famous photo portraits were on exhibit around the room in which the ceremony was held.

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