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Resigning in Protest--A New Jewish Tradition

Rabbi David Wolpe resigns form Harvard University’s advisory committee on antisemitism

Dr Rafael Medoff, posted here Dec 7, 2023

 

 

 

(Dr.  Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest is America and the Holocaust: A Documentary History, published by the Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press. )

 

 

    With his resignation last week from Harvard University’s advisory committee on antisemitism, Rabbi David Wolpe joined a small but distinguished group of American Jews who have resigned in protest from positions of stature, choosing to sacrifice their self-interest for the sake of principle.

 

    Wolpe, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that he was resigning because “the system at Harvard along with the ideology that grips far too many of the students and faculty, the ideology that works only along axes of oppression and places Jews as oppressors and therefore intrinsically evil, is itself evil.” Wolpe’s announcement came just two days after Harvard President Claudine Gay, testifying before Congress, said that advocating the genocide of Jews would violate Harvard’s code of conduct only if that threat was actually implemented.

 

    Although his committee position was unpaid, Wolpe’s sacrificed the prestige of that post, not to mention the risk of being ostracized by those segments of academia whom he has challenged. Wolpe’s action brings to mind a handful of other American Jews who went even further, giving up lucrative professional positions over matters of conscience.

 

    Bari Weiss, a prominent pro-Israel commentator, resigned from the editorial staff of the New York Times in 2020, revealing that she had been the target of “constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with [her] views.” Weiss said her harassers called her “a Nazi and a racist” and harangued her for “writing about the Jews again.” In the Times’s internal discussion forums, she was “openly demeaned” by coworkers who said she “needed to be rooted out.” Even staff members who were “perceived to be friendly” with Weiss found themselves “badgered” for associating with her.

 

    Mark Siegel resigned as President Jimmy Carter’s liaison to the American Jewish community in 1978, to protest Carter’s planned sale of sophisticated military aircraft to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Siegel, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee, had been assigned the task of convincing Jews to refrain from opposing the sale.

 
    National Security Council briefers told Siegel the aircraft were intended only for civilian purposes, but he subsequently discovered they were, in fact, “the best-fighter-bombers in the world.” That was the final straw. In an interview with the Washington Post, Siegel said, “Whenever you're in any kind of position in life and there are things you cannot do, you don't do them.”

 

    Walter Reich, executive director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, felt the same way. His conscience would not allow him to escort Yasir Arafat on a tour of the museum. State Department official Aaron Miller conceived the Arafat tour idea in 1998, as a way of trying to improve the terrorist leader’s image in the eyes of the Israeli public. “To many Israelis, among the worst of the Palestinian transgressions was Holocaust denial,” Miller later wrote. “What better way to counter Holocaust denial than by having the alleged denier in chief visit the museum?”

 

    Dr. Reich was instructed by the museum’s leadership to welcome Arafat and accompany him on the visit. “I refused,” Reich later recalled. “I told them the museum mustn’t be used as a political tool and I wouldn’t be part of that. I said it was a matter of conscience in a museum of conscience. I knew that such a refusal constituted an act of resignation. But I felt that the principle of protecting the museum–and, more importantly, the memory of the Holocaust dead–was more important than holding onto my job.” As a result, Reich lost that job.

 

     Ironically, Arafat canceled his visit at the last minute, when the eruption of the Monica Lewinsky scandal drew the entire Washington press corps to that story on the morning of Arafat’s planned tour. The cancelation confirmed that Arafat was interested only in the photo-op, not actually learning about the Holocaust—just as Reich had warned. Years later—far too late to save Reich’s job—Miller admitted that his Arafat scheme was “one of the dumbest ideas in the annals of U.S. foreign policy.”

 

    Andrew Tarsy’s experience had a happier ending. Tarsy, the New England Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, risked his job in 2007 by publicly dissenting from the national ADL regarding Turkey’s mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians. The official ADL position was to refrain from calling it genocide for fear of offending the Turkish government.

 

    Despite the risk to his livelihood, Tarsy publicly characterized the slaughter of the Armenians as genocide. For the sin of telling the truth, Tarsy was fired the next day. “I was not the least bit surprised,” Tarsy later told me in an interview. “But I asked myself, how can we sustain a recognizable moral tradition and presume to lead on any subject of significance in Jewish life or American civic life while being complicit in the denial of a genocide? I knew I could not.”

 

    Fortunately, an outcry in the Jewish community brought about Tarsy’s reinstatement. The national ADL eventually changed its position and acknowledged the historical reality of the Armenian genocide.

 

    Rabbi David Wolpe’s decision to publicly challenge Harvard will no doubt make him anathema in some circles. But he ensured that he will have what Bari Weiss, Mark Siegel, Walter Reich, and Andrew Tarsy earned with their own resignations: a clear conscience.

 
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