One lesson that the Holocaust taught us was that the genteel cloak of academic respectability had little to do with one's moral compass, especially when it came to the Jews. Take, for example, the case of Baron Otmar von Verschuer, a distinguished academician and researcher. Formerly chairman of the anthropology department at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, he was appointed professor of human genetics at Germany's University of Munster in 1951. Professor von Verschuer's work was often cited in the scientific literature on genetics and earned the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. Undoubtedly, many students learned much from this eminent scholar, and few could dispute that his sharp mind and industrious attitude was the epitome of a classic academic.
Some may have known about von Verschuer's wartime work, where what he termed "anthropological investigations" were carried out by one of his assistants, Dr. Josef Mengele. But despite the fact that he was found to be a Nazi collaborator and despite the evidence of his participation in the horrific experiments that took place at Auschwitz, von Verschuer continued his academic career virtually unblemished and untainted till his death in an automobile accident in 1969.
Although many may think that the likes of von Verschuer have disappeared from the ivory tower, a generation later, Jews are again facing an academic world where professors espouse views that could have tragic results for a significant portion of the Jewish people.
While much of what passes as academic freedom on campuses throughout America can be perceived as anti-Semitic, activists engaged in a campaign of demonization of Israel and deligitimization of the Jewish people's state claim that while they may be anti-Zionist, they are not enemies of the Jewish people. And several of the best-known academics of this nature are Jews themselves with distinctly Jewish names. But make no mistake about it. Through a campaign of activism, intimidation and classroom bullying, the "anti-Zionist" goal of erasing Israel as a Jewish state is not simply an academic exercise, but something that would make people like von Verschuer proud.
When one thinks of the anti-Semites of the Nazi period, images of black-booted storm troopers come to mind. But among the worst of the Nazi anti-Semites were people called "Professor" and "Doctor" who sipped red wine while listening to classical music, mingled with their students and then went off to work to support the Reich's cleansing of the Jewish problem.
So when Columbia's professor Joseph Massad says that Israel "does not have a right to exist" and when Yale geneticist Dr. Mazim Qumsiyeh calls the claim that Jews share a common ancestry a "misuse of genetics," is the objective to further scholarship and science, or rather to move politically toward a time when removing Israel from the community of nations of the Middle East would be possible? And as researchers Edward Kaplan and Charles Small have demonstrated in Europe, anti-Israel sentiment "consistently predicts" the probability that an individual is also anti-Semitic.
Campus environments like the University of California at Irvine that provide a platform for calling Israel a "4th Reich," and movements that sponsor college events like "Israel Apartheid Week" draw nourishment and support from those who would like nothing more than to see the Jewish people disappear from Israel. Yet, perhaps out of a fear of being accused of stifling free speech or perhaps wary of being painted as a biased and blind supporter of anything Israel does, right or wrong, many have shied away from labeling academic opponents of Israel as truly anti-Semitic. Thankfully, some Jewish organizations are pointing out the differences between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and illegitimate support for positions that would result in the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state.
The Holocaust taught us to be wary of political demagogues who pose a danger to humanity. History has taught us however that the academic elite, like Professor von Verschuer, can be no less threatening. And as Yom HaShoah approaches (April 15), we would do well to remember that promoting a world without Israel may be but a first step toward a world without Jews.
And no matter how you look at it, that plainly spells anti-Semitism. n
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf lives in Raanana, Israel, and currently directs the David Project/Targum Shlishi-funded "Fellows" program in Israel studies at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem.