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The ADL and Tony Judt: An Exchange

In response to:

The Case of Tony Judt: An Open Letter to the ADL from the November 16, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

Re Tony Judt and the cancellation of his October 3 speech by the Polish Consulate in New York:

In an e-mail to Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, Professors Mark Lilla and Richard Sennett said they were planning to publish their October 13 letter to Mr. Foxman in The New York Review of Books[November 16], and suggested we do the same. They have rejected Mr. Foxman’s request for a meeting saying, “We would be very happy to discuss the matter in that venue.”

Below is Mr. Foxman’s response to their letter.

Myrna Shinbaum
Director, Media Relations & Public InformationAnti-Defamation LeagueNew York City

New York, N.Y., October 17, 2006

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) calls the accusations that it is responsible for canceling of a program featuring Tony Judt at the Polish Consulate “baseless,” and says the campaign by professors ignores “due diligence” of the facts.

Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, issued the following statement:

On October 13, we received a letter from Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago and Richard Sennett of the London School of Economics accusing ADL and me of violating democratic principles of debate by threatening and pressing the Polish consulate general to cancel a speech by Tony Judt. More than one hundred other academics, journalists, and others signed on to the letter from Professors Lilla and Sennett.

What is so shocking about this letter is that a group claiming to be defending fundamental values of free expression in a democratic society—values that ADL has worked to ensure for decades—employs techniques which completely debase those values.

Neither the principal authors of the letter nor any of the co-signatories ever sought me out to get the perspective of ADL as to what did and did not happen. Professors Lilla and Sennett simply credit as “fact” the comments and opinions of the president of the group that sponsored the event and leap to the unsupported conclusion that “These facts argue against the press release the ADL circulated…disclaiming any role in the cancellation of Professor Judt’s lecture”; they have acted as judge and jury without engaging in the least bit of due diligence to ascertain whether there are facts they do not know; and they use inflammatory words like “threaten,” “pressure,” and “intimidate” that bear no resemblance to what actually transpired.

ADL did not threaten or intimidate or pressure anyone. The Polish consul general made his decision concerning Tony Judt’s appearance strictly on his own.

ADL is justifiably proud of its ninety-three-year record of defending free speech as a bedrock principle of a healthy society. It is disheartening to see leading scholars ignore the very doctrine they invoke by rushing to judgment against our organization. Their behavior is a much subtler and more dangerous form of intimidation than the baseless accusations conjured up against ADL. Now, by raising the specter of “threat and intimidation,” Professors Lilla and Sennett want ADL to fall into line and behave as though “the rules of the game in America…” do not also oblige them “to encourage rather than stifle public debate.”

When teachers speak out on the rules governing “fundamental principles of debate in a democracy,” particularly scholars of the stature of Professors Lilla and Sennett, they have a responsibility to the academy, their students, and society to do so with the highest degree of respect for those principles. Sadly, Professors Lilla and Sennett appear to have lost sight of this responsibility.

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director
Anti-Defamation League
New York City

Mark Lilla and Richard Sennett reply:

While we are grateful for Mr. Foxman’s response, we are also puzzled by it since he does not address the main contentions of our letter.

The issue is not, as Mr. Foxman would have us believe, whether the Polish consul general, Krzysztof Kasprzyk, made his decision “strictly on his own.” It is whether the ADL did indeed “threaten,” “intimidate,” and “pressure” him into making a decision by calling so shortly before Professor Judt’s lecture was scheduled to take place. Since our letter was circulated, Mr. Kasprzyk has confirmed just that, telling The Washington Post that “the phone calls were very elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure. That’s obvious—we are adults and our IQs are high enough to understand that.”1 He then told Larry Cohler-Esses of The Jewish Week, whose reporting on this matter has been invaluable, that “when you look at it from the outside, a call like this [from Jewish organizations], just asking about this on the very day of the event can be seen as exercising a very—I don’t know if this is the word—a delicate pressure.”2

Yes, Mr. Kasprzyk, it is the right word. The Post article is also important because it reveals that the ADL was not the only organization to call the consul general, though we did not know this when we drafted our letter. David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, told the Post that he also telephoned, though “as a friend of Poland.” “The message of that evening,” he is quoted as saying, “was going to be entirely contrary to the entire spirit of Polish foreign policy.” He said something similar to The New York Observer shortly thereafter, remarking that “I wanted to alert him because we’ve worked with Poland for a long time, and Poland has worked since 1989 to build a strong relationship with Israel after decades of poor relations under the Communist regime—and because I knew that Tony Judt was not a universally popular figure in the Jewish community. We had a nice conversation.”3

Even without knowing the substance of those “nice” calls from the ADL and AJC, any impartial observer will recognize them as not so subtle forms of pressure. We are further convinced in this judgment by the fact that both organizations celebrated the consul general’s decision as soon as it was made. Mr. Harris told The New York Sun, “Bravo to them [the Poles] for doing the right thing,” and Mr. Foxman told The Washington Post, in the article already cited, “I think they made the right decision.”4

Why Mr. Foxman offered us a “face to face” meeting to “put the facts on the table” is more puzzling still. What would he have said then that he could not have said in his press releases, interviews, and, now, his letter to The New York Review? If there have been any errors regarding fact, we would be happy to correct them. We can only conclude that, at some very basic level, Mr. Foxman does not “get it.” He does not seem to recognize that public debate and discussion is a healthy thing in a democracy, and that sound public policy in domestic and foreign affairs depends on it.

Mark Lilla
University of Chicago

Richard Sennett
London School of Economics
New York University

  1. 1

    Michael Powell, “In NY, Sparks Fly Over Israel Criticism,” The Washington Post, October 9, 2006.

  2. 2

    Larry Cohler-Esses, “Judt Supporters Rally to His Side,” The Jewish Week, October 13, 2006.

  3. 3

    Suzy Hansen, “Judt at War,” The New York Observer, October 16, 2006. See also Larry Cohler-Esses, “L’Affaire Judt Rattles ADL; High-Brows Snub Foxman,” The Jewish Week, October 20, 2006.

  4. 4

    Ira Stoll, “Poland Abruptly Cancels a Speech by Local Critic of the Jewish State,” The New York Sun, October 4, 2006.

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