A planned conference by the American Association of University Professors imploded Wednesday amid reports that the group accidentally distributed to invited attendees an anti-Semitic article, published in a magazine affiliated with Holocaust deniers.
The conference was already under fire over an invitation list that critics said was tilted toward scholars who have backed academic boycotts of Israeli universities. The additional turmoil of the article prompted AAUP leaders to apologize early Wednesday. But the three major foundations that are sponsoring the invitation-only conference called for it to be delayed, and the AAUP's own executive committee voted to do so. For much of the day, the AAUP had a statement on its site saying that the conference would go on, but last night, association officials announced that they would postpone it.
People involved in the AAUP were using words like "disaster" to describe the fallout they feared from the incident. In the apology published on the AAUP Web site, the association acknowledged an "egregious error" in which it had distributed "a deeply offensive article by a Holocaust denier." The apology stated that the article had been collected during research for the conference, but was not intended for distribution to anyone. All conference participants were notified of "this blunder," the statement said, adding that "nothing of this sort will ever happen again."
The article in question is "The Jewish Declaration of War on Nazi Germany," which argues that the Nazi government did not come to power in Germany with the intent of any mass violence against Jews, and that Jewish leaders antagonized Hitler and other Germans by organizing boycotts against Germany. The article appeared in The Barnes Review, a publication that sells books and promotes articles that -- among other things -- question the respect Americans have for President Lincoln, argue that the deaths at Auschwitz were overstated, and suggest that the contributions of Germans to society do not get enough recognition. The New York Sun first reported the distribution of the article.
It doesn't take more than a quick glance at the article or the Web site of The Barnes Review to become aware of the nature of the material. Ruth Flower, director of public policy and communications for the AAUP, said Wednesday night that the association was "trying to reconstruct" how the article came to be included in the materials given out to attendees. She said that she believed that many articles involving boycotts of any sort were downloaded and that somehow this article was included in the materials for participants.
Jane Buck, president of the AAUP and a retired professor of psychology at Delaware State University, said that the executive committee voted unanimously to postpone the conference "out of concern with our reputation and our relationship with our funding agencies." Buck said that she believed that the conference was "salvageable," but that the association needed to regroup, rather than having the session next week.
The idea behind the conference grew out of debates over a movement last year by Britain's main faculty union to boycott two Israeli universities. The AAUP and many other academic groups criticized the boycott as antithetical to academic freedom and the boycott was eventually rescinded. In the wake of that controversy, the AAUP started drafting a statement about academic boycotts (strongly opposing them) and organizing the conference scheduled for next week. The conference was to have been held at Bellagio, in Italy, where 22 scholars from around the world were to have gathered to discuss academic boycotts.
Even before the snafu over the article, critics were upset about the invitation list for Bellagio. British academics who opposed the boycott said it was inappropriate to have so many boycott supporters attend. Last week, Roger Bowen, general secretary of the AAUP, defended the invitations, saying that the association wanted to have a range of opinions represented, and had no intention of endorsing boycotts.
Some AAUP leaders also question how the group was put together. Cary Nelson, the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that when the conference was first described to him, he was told that it would involve leading thinkers about boycotts and academic protest, engaged in serious discussion. He said he didn't think it would involve so many partisans, or people -- like the boycott supporters who were invited -- who are heavily involved in Middle Eastern political matters.
Nelson, a vice president of the AAUP currently running for president, said that had he been invited to Bellagio (he wasn't), he would have withdrawn, based on the attendees.
"I was quite stunned" to learn who was invited, Nelson said. "I didn't see how this could be a calm philosophical discussion if this was largely focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict."
Nelson and other AAUP officials were even more stunned when they learned about the materials distributed to attendees. A statement issued by the Ford Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation -- two of the financial sponsors of the conference -- said that the meeting needed to be postponed. "While we accept that this offensive paper does not reflect the views of the AAUP, we believe its errant inclusion in the conference materials has undermined the credibility of this conference as a forum for intellectually honest and rigorous exchange," the statement said.
The Rockefeller Foundation, which also supported the conference, also called for it to be delayed.
So to did the Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights anti-Semitism.
Caryl Stern, associate national director of the ADL, said that her group deeply appreciated the AAUP's "strong position" against boycotts of Israeli universities. But she said that the makeup of the conference had already undercut the meeting, and that the incident involving the material that was distributed suggested "a hijacking of the agenda" of the conference, in a way that could do serious damage.
Having the conference now would "taint the statements" of the AAUP opposing academic boycotts, Stern said.
While the AAUP ended the day by postponing the conference, that announcement came only after the executive board sent Bowen, the general secretary, its request that he do so. For much of the day, a statement on the AAUP Web site defended having the conference -- even with all the controversy.
"The conference should be held now, with the same group of invitees, and with every intention of mounting an academically rigorous conference," the statement said. Foundations and others concerned about the material distributed "have AAUP's assurance that the proceeding and publications issuing from it will not become a forum for hateful and divisive agendas, nor will AAUP's strong stance against academic boycotts waver."