Dear President Lawrence:
As a scholar whose 1981 PhD comes from Brandeis, I read the news that you rescinded the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali with particular disgust and anger. Your decision is an act of cowardice and appeasement to those 85 faculty members who signed their document of intolerance, and it has done deep and long-lasting damage to a university whose very existence is predicated on redressing the damage that discrimination within the academy had done to American Jews for so many years. Unless you can find some way to repair the damage you have done, I will not identify with or support Brandeis as long as you are its President.
Ms. Hirsi has had the courage to say unpopular things about the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism. In two of my prize-winning books, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009) and The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006), I have had occasion to address the role of Islam and Islamism in fanning the flames of Jew-hatred. In publishing work that documents the role of the Islamist interpretation of the Koran in promulgating the most absurd and idiotic ideas about the Jews, I have faced intolerance from scholars working on the Middle East. They have denounced well-founded scholarship as “Islamophobia” or “Zionist propaganda” and denied that the Koran or Islamism could possibly have anything to do with anti-Semitism. Like Tony Kushner and Desmond Tutu, to whom Brandeis has given honorary degrees, they have erroneously argued that Arab and Islamist antagonism to Israel is exclusively the result of the alleged sins of Israel. As far as I know, neither has had anything of substance to say about the role of Islam and Islamism in fanning the flames of hatred of the Jews and of Israel. These critics have said that those of us who point to the anti-Jewish elements of the Koran and the Jew-hatred of modern Islamists are guilty of intolerance towards Muslims. I have seen this up close for years now. The last place I expected to find groveling, embarrassing appeasement of this rubbish was from the president of Brandeis University.
No doubt, Hirsi’s comments about Islam offend many believers. The same was true of Sigmund Freud’s Future of an Illusion. Freud, you will recall, dismissed religion as the product of a universal infantile neurosis of humanity. Yet I doubt that if Freud were alive today, those 85 faculty members would have protested his honorary degree. On the contrary, his criticism of religion in general, especially of Judaism or Christianity, would be seen as simply an entry ticket into intellectual respectability.
Your decision reflects a now-widespread double standard of broad criticism of Judaism and Christianity combined with fear—yes it is fear—to write and speak with equal critical spirit about Islam. We historians of modern Germany and Nazism know that the Nazi interpretation of Christianity as well as the core texts of the Christian tradition itself, were used by the Nazis to justify their mass murders. In our own time, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brothers, Al Qaeda and the government of Iran, despite their differences, all draw on phrases from the Koran and in the texts of subsequent Islamic commentaries to find theological justification for antagonism to Jews, Zionism and the state of Israel.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been willing to point this out, something Kushner and Tutu have never done. That the president of a university founded by Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust should have rescinded an honor to a woman who has had the courage to attack the most important source of Jew-hatred in the world today is a disgraceful act and a failure of leadership. Instead of appeasing intolerance in your faculty, you should have taken this moment to reaffirm the values for which Brandeis has stood for so long and reconfirm the place of universities as models of tolerance and enlightenment in our troubled society. Once a proud alumnus, I will be forced to disavow my relationship with Brandeis in the future.
Professor, Department of History
University of Maryland
This blog reprints book reviews, interviews, videos, and scholarly articles for those who are interested in history and contemporary culture.