Gadfly or Victim?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Gadfly or Victim?

There's been a bit of a to-do here over the past week about a professor at the University of Utrecht. Pieter van der Horst just retired as a theology professor specializing in Judaism. According to him, the university's rector censored van der Horst's farewell address, which was on the subject of the enduring myth of Jewish cannibalism (e.g., the "blood libel" that we drink the blood of Christian children at Passover). The rector supposedly made van der Horst take out the section of the speech that addressed contemporary anti-Semitism among Muslims. Van der Horst accused the rector of "pure Islamophobia."

Now, the picture is getting a bit fuzzier, based on an interview with the rector, Willem Hendrik Gispen.

According to Gispen, the issue came up when the dean of the theology faculty suggested publishing van der Horst's speech in the university's academic journal. Gispen thought the section on Muslim anti-Semitism was not "academic" in tone--although he claims that he agrees with its substance. He told van der Horst that it would be better to edit that section to make it more "academic," rather than "pamphlet-esque."

At that point, van der Horst cut the section entirely and went to the newspapers.

In the end, he delivered a slightly modified version of the address, which was published in the newspaper Trouw. (This used to be a Calvinist paper when Dutch society was a bit more neatly segmented than it is now). Then the university published the entire original text, as it existed when Gispen had his conversation with van der Horst, on its website.

I haven't had the time to read it, since I read very slowly in Dutch. A friend who has read it tells me that the first part of the speech is very scholarly in tone, with lots of footnotes from different sources and so on. This is about the early history of the myth in ancient Egypt and Greece, which is a subject on which van der Horst is an expert. My friend tells me that the part about contemporary Islam is much different in style and tone and is not really appropriate for a magazine opinion piece, let alone an academic journal. But that's one person's opinion.

According to the article about the interview with the rector, the original speech said that the Muslim world had "taken the torch of anti-Semitism" from the Nazis and carried it further "with fire and fervor." It also said that Edward Said had been promoted far above what the quality of his work justified.

Meanwhile, the inteviewer asked Gispen whether the fact that his wife is Jewish had any influence.
"My wife's father was Jewish, that is correct. She and my daughters wears Stars of David. We have a lot of [Jewish] friends in Israel and the US. I have seldom missed my father-in-law more than in these last few weeks. I would have loved to have been able to ask his advice." His father-in-law [says the reporter] was Professor David de Wied, an internationally renowned neuropharmacologist. Gispen is a medical biologist.
Anyway, it's hard for me to discern where the truth lies in all of this. The only thing I know for sure is that Gispen has a cool title: Rector Magnificus.

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