Monday, June 30, 2003

An Oxford professor of molecular medicine recently sent a truly shocking email, turning down an Israeli graduate school applicant on the grounds that the latter had served in the Israeli army. "I have a huge problem," wrote Andrew Wilkie, Nuffield Professor of (appropriately enough) Pathology, "with the way that the Israelis take the moral high ground from their appalling treatment in the Holocaust, and then inflict gross human rights abuses on the Palestinians because they (the Palestinians) wish to live in their own country." (The professor has since issued a formal apology, and the university is investigating the matter.)

Although the professor's action--rejecting an Israeli simply because of his nationality and previous military service--is outrageous in itself, his explanation for it is even more staggering. For in fact the Holocaust plays virtually no role in Israel's or its supporters' justification for its policies or operations involving the West Bank and Gaza or its inhabitants. It would surely be foolish even to try to use it that way, since even the most sympathetic observer would be unlikely to consider the suffering of Jews sixty years ago as some kind of excuse for any misdeeds Israel might commit today.

On the other hand, supporters of the Palestinian side of the conflict (of whom this professor appears to be one) routinely make precisely this kind of argument. Palestinian terrorism, while not (always) fully condoned, is nevertheless "explained" in terms of the Palestinians' endurance of decades of suffering and "humiliation". Why, then, would Professor Wilkie lob such an accusation against, of all people, Israelis?

Roger Simon explains the professor's outburst as an example of Ron Rosenbaum's hypothesis that modern European anti-semitism stems from a desire to purge European guilt for the Holocaust by "blaming the victim." I'm skeptical; a British academic is far more likely, I imagine, to think of himself as an intellectual descendant of, say, the European leftist anti-Fascists of the thirties than of European Nazis.

On the other hand, the Holocaust is occasionally invoked to impute anti-Semitism to European Israel-bashers. I would guess, then, that Wilkie was simply anticipating accusations of anti-Semitism, and decided to strike pre-emptively, by declaring references to the Holocaust to be nothing more than excuses for "gross human rights abuses."

Now, I'm generally reluctant to lob accusations of anti-Semitism against someone who criticizes Israel, however unfairly. But when a fellow's reaction to an ordinary student application for a research position is to respond, in effect, "I hate Israelis--you're always accusing people of anti-Semitism to defend your misdeeds", one has to ask if anti-Semitism isn't just a little bit too much on his mind.

Then again, given the incoherence of his views on Israel, I suppose we can't exactly expect clear thinking from him on the subject of Jews in general, either.

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