Holocaust study stirs passions on Harvard's lawns

Academics outraged over 'ethnic standards'. Robert Fisk reports
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The Independent Online
IT WAS not Harvard's finest hour. More than five years after Kenneth and Evelyn Lipper offered more than $3m (pounds 1.8m) for a chair of Holocaust studies at one of America's leading universities, the plan has been abandoned after acrimonious disputes between academics - and attacks on the intellectual integrity of Daniel Goldhagen, the young Jewish historian who wanted the post.

Mrs Lipper said she was "disappointed" and the initial $1m donation, intended to honour the memory of Mrs Lipper's grandmother, Helen, who died in the Holocaust, will now go to a genetic research programme at the Harvard Medical School.

Fearful of becoming embroiled in so sensitive a matter, few Harvard teachers wish to comment publicly on the disbandment of the committee set up in a vain search for a Holocaust scholar. But privately, there is no shortage of opinion. "Holocaust studies is not a valid academic post..." one scholar remarked. "On its own, it is not a valid discipline. There are other genocides in history as well as the Jewish one."

No one at Harvard objected to the chair on anti-Semitic grounds. The problem revolved around the increasingly controversial figure of Mr Goldhagen - author of the recent best-seller Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust - and the historical area that would be covered by the teaching post. Several scholars feared that exclusive concentration on the murder of 6 million Jews would overlook the genocide of other communities - the Cambodian massacres by Pol Pot, the Rwandan slaughter and the wholesale murder of 1.5 million Armenians by Turks and their allies in 1915.

Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish scholar in New York who has bitterly criticised Mr Goldhagen's research methodology and academic work, took issue with the very title of the proposed Harvard post. "It was to be called the Chair in Holocaust and Cognate Studies," he says. "In other words, the rest of humanity and its sufferings got dumped in the residual generic title of 'cognate'. I find this morally repellent."

Finkelstein, whose parents were themselves Holocaust survivors, had already taken issue with Goldhagen's recent book, claiming that the author had in some cases ignored or deleted from his pages and footnotes important material on pre-war Nazi Germany which might have weakened his case that the Germans were prepared to accept the massacre of their Jewish community.

The five-member committee set up to search for a Holocaust scholar were also deadlocked over the legitimacy of the post, and after considering various candidates they suggested as a compromise that Friedlander - who is nearing retirement - be given a guest professorship; the Lippers turned the idea down.

They, it seems, all along favoured Goldhagen. According to Martin Peretz, a lecturer in social studies, some scholars never wanted a Holocaust chair while others simply shied away from the appointment. In an interview with Harvard's local newspaper, The Crimson, Mr Peretz claimed "there were others on the committee who knew there was no one more qualified for a Holocaust studies chair than Goldhagen but for whatever reason didn't want to appoint him."

Finkelstein, who is not a member of Harvard and has written extensively on the Israeli occupation of Arab land as well as the Jewish Holocaust, is savage in his response. "I know that some members of the Harvard faculty were outraged by the fact that a New York millionaire was, in effect, buying a Harvard seat," he says.

"It fell apart. Now it's unclear if Goldhagen will get tenure at all at Harvard. He's published only one book in the US - which is usually not enough to get tenure at a leading university here. This whole Holocaust chair business represents a complete collapse of academic standards and pure ethnic standards instead.

"Holocaust studies are a nonsense. It has nothing to do with scholarship and everything to do with politics."

Finkelstein fears that the promotion of Holocaust studies serves to persuade Americans to support Washington's pro-Israeli policies in the Middle East, and thus carries a heavy political content. According to Mr Peretz, Holocaust chairs are being considered by other US universities, including Chicago, Yale and Princeton.

In fact, the issue of the Armenian Holocaust - and the denial of it - has already become a serious controversy at Princeton where Professor Henry Lowry holds the Ataturk Chair of Turkish Studies. With his post partly funded by the Turkish government, Dr Lowry says that there never was an Armenian Holocaust, merely massacres that came about as a result of civil strife.

Contemporary documentsprove beyond a shadow of doubt that the Armenians were indeed the victims of a planned genocide. In northern Syria, there still exist caves in which Turks asphyxiated thousands of Armenians in a primitive experiment in gas-chamber technology; Hitler is said to have told his generals, before embarking on the murder of 6 million Jews, that no one remembered the Armenians.