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Profs compare Nazi-era, current campus atmospheres

Cary Nelson, left, and Susannah Heschel. BARBARA SILVERSTEIN PHOTO

One would think the racist ideology of the Nazi regime would have been abhorrent to Protestant theology professors, but in the early 1930s, they were among Hitler’s first supporters.

Fast forwarding to today, one might expect academics be open to scholarship examining all facets of Zionism. However, many will only teach material with an anti-Israel bias.

Both eras of scholarship were discussed at the 2017 Leonard Wolinsky Lectures on Jewish Life and Education, held March 26 at York University. This year’s topic was “Anti-Semitism and Academia: Past and Present.”

Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, spoke about the anti-Semitism of German theologians. Cary Nelson, professor of English and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, discussed the anti-Zionist obsession in contemporary academia.

About 100 people attended the lectures, presented by York’s Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies.


Around 1930, many professors of Protestant theology in Germany were early adopters of the Third Reich’s anti-Semitic ideology, according to Heschel, a Guggenheim fellow and the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the late famed theologian

Much of her lecture was based on research for her 2008 book The Aryan Jesus: Christians and the Bible in Nazi Germany. Heschel said that when Hitler first rose to power, he thought the church would oppose his racist ideology. But Protestant theologians were eager to embrace Nazism. The Vatican was also the first state to recognize the Third Reich.

Heschel was able to access the Nazi-era archives from Jena University, in Thuringia, a southeastern German state. The university was ground zero for race studies and the nazification of theological scholarship.

The Nazi party got its first taste of power in Thuringia in 1930, when Wilhelm Frick, a Nazi, became the state minister of the interior. He appointed Friedrich Karl Günther chair of racial theory at Jena University. This area of scholarship gave academic legitimacy to anti-Semitism and Hitler’s notion of the superiority of the Aryan race.

Heschel said Günther’s 1930 lecture linking racial deterioration in Germany to non-Aryan immigration resonated with students, and she noted that “1,500 students marched through Jena to demonstrate their support and enthusiasm for the nazification of their university.”

Walter Grundmann, a professor of the New Testament at Jena, led the academic movement to “dejudify” Protestant Christianity. The Jewish connection to Jesus and the Bible was severed. These theologians gave Jesus Aryan roots.

Regarding academia today, Heschel said she worries about “the corruption of scholarship and the role of money. There is an anti-intellectual atmosphere.”

Nelson said this anti-intellectualism is affecting scholarship on Zionism.

With the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel dominating many campuses, lectures and reading material about the Jewish state are growing increasingly one-sided

He suggested the dissemination of anti-Israel sentiment might be instigating anti-Semitic incidents like the recent desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Missouri and Pennsylvania.

He said many academics who are committed opponents of the Jewish state are teaching courses that only offer a one-sided view of Zionism. Reading lists are replete with anti-Israel material to support the views of these academics, which, Nelson said, is permitted under the auspices of academic freedom. He urged donors to use their leverage by asking universities to balance their curricula.

“There should be space for other perspectives and alternate views,” Nelson said. “Donors should make it clear that universities must guarantee a balance in course work across campus and a faculty that is well informed.”

Nelson also raised concern about the violation of academic freedom when Israeli speakers are shut down by student protesters, who are finding intellectual justification for targeting and silencing Israelis.

Many pro-Israeli faculty members are keeping a low profile, while other Jewish professors are openly anti-Zionist.

Nelson said many Jewish studies programs are eliminating courses about Israel from their curricula.

“UCLA Jewish studies has no faculty supporters of Israel,” he said.