Off Limits? Talk By Israel Critic Canceled


New York University historian Tony Judt sought to claim new ammunition this week for his charge that pro-Israel groups use their influence to stifle debate about their activities.

Less than three hours before he was due to give a talk about the Israel lobby at the Polish Consulate Tuesday night, Poland’s consul general abruptly canceled the event after being contacted by Jewish and non-Jewish organizations.

But the question of whether Jewish groups (in particular, the Anti-Defamation League) pressured Consul General Krzysztof Kasprzyk remained in sharp dispute.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman acknowledged his group spoke with Kasprzyk about the issue, but strongly denied exerting any such pressure. And Kasprzyk denied receiving any threats or pressure from the ADL (or any other group) in the course of deciding to cancel the talk on his own.

Judt, the director of NYU’s Remarque Institute in European Studies and an unremitting critic of Israel, charged otherwise, citing the account he received from the lecture’s outside sponsor soon after Kasprzyk canceled it.

"Whatever your views on the Middle East, I hope you find this as serious and frightening as I do," Judt wrote in an e-mail sent out to a long list of academic and media figures. "This is, or used to be, the United States of America."

The episode took its place on a growing list of hotly disputed allegations that pro-Israel advocates use their influence to stifle debate, or harm the careers of individuals who step out of bounds. The last two years have seen such charges made by Joseph Massad, an untenured Columbia University professor of Middle East studies accused by some students of bigoted outbursts toward Jewish and Israeli students. A university investigation largely, though not entirely, exonerated him of the charges.

Pro-Israel advocates also claimed their lobbying of Yale University donors succeeded in preventing Juan Cole, a University of Michigan Middle Eastern studies professor, from receiving a tenured appointment at Yale earlier this year. University officials denied they played a role.

Also this year, acclaimed British architect Richard Rogers was threatened with the loss of billions of dollars in commissioned design work from New York City until he renounced ties to an architects’ group strongly critical of Israel. The group was threatening to call for an economic boycott of Israel to protest its occupation of the West Bank.

Yet another flap involved the cancellation of an award-winning play in New York about Rachel Corrie, a young college graduate from Washington State who went to Gaza with a solidarity group to protest the occupation. Corrie was run over and killed there by an Israeli bulldozer demolishing a Palestinian home. The play, scheduled to open last spring at the New York Theatre Workshop, was canceled, with the Workshop’s artistic director citing pressure from unnamed Jewish leaders. The play is set to reopen at the Minetta Lane Theatre this month.

In Judt’s case, his cancellation hung in the air as an uncertain coda five days after he took part in a landmark panel discussion on the influence of the Israel lobby. The event, sponsored by The London Review of Books, featured John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago international relations professor who co-authored a hugely controversial paper on the subject published by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government last spring.

Mearsheimer’s paper argues, among other things, that "The Lobby," as Mearsheimer calls it, drives U.S. Middle East policy in directions contrary to the national interest; that it was a crucial factor in pushing the United States into war with Iraq; and that it stifles debate about Israel at home.

The ADL and others have denounced the paper as anti-Semitic for the broad sweep of its thesis: that a sprawling, loosely coordinated yet nevertheless monolithic pro-Israel movement is undermining the nation’s interests out of its attachment to Israel.

At last week’s event, held at Cooper Union, Judt joined Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi in basic support of Mearsheimer’s thesis. Arguing vigorously against the thesis were former senior Middle East peace process negotiators Dennis Ross, who is now associated with the pro-Israel Washington Institute on Near East Policy, and Martin Indyk, who worked for AIPAC and WINEP before he became U.S. ambassador to Israel. They were joined by former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

It was a singular, even exhausting night of untrammeled argument about Israel and its lobby among individuals with deep backgrounds and strong views before an audience of some 2,000óbut no mainstream media coverage. And one of the primary points debated was whether the Israel lobby, through its influence over government, politics and public discourse, suppresses debate about Israel, and about its own activities.

Now, according to Judt, the point was illustrating itself. Foxman and Kasprzyk dismissed Judt’s allegations, offering a starkly different account.

Judt, 58, a former Zionist youth leader in his native Britain, lived on a kibbutz for several years in the 1960s. But he has since become a bitter critic of Israel’s West Bank and Gaza settlements and its occupation over the Palestinians. He has also questioned the long-term legitimacy of Zionism in the absence of a solution to these issues.

"The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ (a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded) is rooted in another time and place," Judt has written. "Israel, in short, is an anachronism."

The outside sponsor of the canceled talk, a group of young business and academic leaders called Network 20/20, has held its meetings at the Polish consulate for the last two years. But at 4:45 on Tuesday, said Judt, Network 20/20 president Patricia Huntington called to inform him his talk was canceled "because the Polish Consulate had been threatened by the Anti-Defamation League."

"She was very angry," said Judt.According to Huntington, said Judt, "Serial phone calls from ADL [leader] Abe Foxman warned them [the consulate] off hosting anything involving Tony Judt. If they persisted, he warned, he would smear the charge of Polish collaboration with anti-Israel anti-Semites all over the front page of every daily paper in the city."

Huntington told The New York Sun this week that the ADL "forced," "threatened," and exerted "pressure" on the Polish Consulate to cancel the talk. She said she would reschedule the talk elsewhere. Repeated efforts to reach Huntington by phone and e-mail went unanswered. But Foxman and Kasprzyk vehemently rejected the account sourced to her by Judt.

"It’s not true they threatened or made any pressure," said Kasprzyk. "They simply expressed concern."

Kasprzyk said the calls moved him to spend an hour-and-a-half Tuesday researching for himself just who Judt was.

"I must say, I didn’t know anything about Judt until yesterday," he said. "I’m a little bit familiar with the public debate about the lobby. But I did not know about the very extreme stand of Dr. Judt regarding Israel, about how he related to the very existence of Israel."

Asked to specify what statements from Judt he regarded as beyond the pale, Kasprzyk replied, "I don’t have to answer this question." The important point, he said, was that "this would not help our foreign policy with Israel, and also with Polish Jewish relations."

As a diplomat here to advance his country’s interests, Kasprzyk explained, "I don’t have to subscribe to the First Amendment. This is not Hyde Park. And this is not an issue of censorship. … I don’t want to overstate the controversial character of Tony Judt. I’m the sovereign consul general of a foreign state, and I am taking decisions for my state’s interests. … Once Judt has his meeting, no one would know or learn that this was just a kind of rented space. Everyone would say, ah ha, what does this mean from the Poles’ point of view?"

Poland, home to 3 million Jews before the Holocaust, has made relations with American Jewry a primary focus of its New York Consulate’s mission. A recorded announcement at the consulate’s phone number offers the hours it is open to the public but notes: "On Thursdays, the consulate is opened exclusively to the representatives of Jewish agencies."

Kasprzyk’s sensitivity to Jewish concerns could make the question of explicit, overt pressure from Jewish groups a moot point once their views were known. But in an interview, Foxman stressed that the ADL explained to consular officials it had no problem with the meeting, once it understood it was not the Polish government but Network 20/20 (an outside group) that was merely using the consulate’s space.

"We said, as long as you’re not sponsoring it, that’s fine," he said.

An ADL staffer did tell consular officials he was calling on Foxman’s behalf after the consulate failed to return a couple of calls, Foxman said. "But I talked to no one there. And we never threatened anyone. They made a decision [on their own]."

Foxman termed Judt’s account "part of the conspiracy theory about ‘the Lobby’ that fuels their imagination," referring to critics who say pro-Israel advocates suppress debate. "This time it’s ADL that is supposedly controlling and intimidating. It’s absolute nonsense."