Utrecht University: The Myth of Jewish Cannibalism, Censorship, and Fear of Muslim Intimidation* – Manfred Gerstenfeld

, September 25, 2008

How much censorship concerning Islam is there at universities in the Netherlands? To what extent are Dutch scholars intimidated by Muslims? How much do universities’ business interests influence what academic teachers can publish? How does the Dutch quality daily NRC Handelsblad manipulate its information on the Middle East? These are a few of the questions raised by a seemingly isolated censorship case at Utrecht University.

There on 16 June 2006, Prof. Pieter van der Horst, an internationally known scholar specializing in early Christian and Jewish studies gave his farewell lecture on the topic of “The Myth of Jewish Cannibalism.” In it he drew a line from the more than two-millennia-old, classic pre-Christian Greek anti-Semitism to the popularity of the anti-Jewish blood libel in the contemporary Arab world.

That same day the Dutch Jewish weekly NIW claimed that the lecture’s text had been severely censored by the university’s rector.[1] Van der Horst later elaborated this claim in an article titled “Tying Down Academic Freedom” in the Wall Street Journal.[2]  

The Committee Meeting

There he wrote:

Much of the [contemporary] Islamic vilification of Jews has its roots in German fascism. Hitler’s Mein Kampf has been on the best-seller lists in many Middle Eastern countries. The sympathy for Nazism goes back to the Führer’s days. Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Huseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, even closely collaborated with Hitler. He spent the war years in Berlin and visited Auschwitz, a trip that inspired his plans to build a concentration camp in Palestine.

Van der Horst mentioned in his article that the dean of his faculty had asked him to delete this and other passages on modern Islamic anti-Semitism from his lecture. When he refused, the Rector Magnificus, Willem Hendrik Gispen, a pharmacologist, summoned him to appear before a committee that included three other professors.

Van der Horst writes that the committee and Gispen told him the university had to protect him from himself. If he did not delete the references to Islamic anti-Semitism he might be threatened by violent Muslim groups. He would also damage the university’s ability to build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. The committee also claimed that the scholarly level of Van der Horst’s lecture was poor.

Van der Horst wrote that Gispen told him he had twenty-four hours to decide whether to remove the contested passages; otherwise he would assume his “rectorial responsibility.” Although the meaning of this threat was unclear to Van der Horst, he understood the broad message: Utrecht University strives for political correctness rather than academic truth. Initially intimidated, he deleted the contested text from his lecture.[3]

A Correct Text

When this author asked Gispen for a reaction, he refused to be interviewed verbally but answered questions in writing, stating that his views reflected also those of the other committee members. These answers leave much to clarify. Gispen writes that the argument was only about the publication of the text by the university, and that several peers criticized the academic quality of Van der Horst’s remarks about Islam. Gispen’s answers do not indicate that there were any concrete threats from Muslims. He denies that the issue of negatively impacting the dialogue with Muslim students was mentioned in the discussion with Van der Horst.[4]

Whatever the university authorities may claim, the major facts concerning Islamic anti-Semitism in Van der Horst’s uncensored text are, however, correct. The lecture understates rather than exaggerates contemporary Islamic anti-Semitism. It does not even mention by name the world’s most powerful extreme anti-Semite, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran and author of frequent genocidal calls. The facts mentioned are widely known and do not need further academic verification. Even if Utrecht University found some scholars who opposed the text, that did not make it unfit for publication, the more so as Van der Horst had deleted an ad hominem remark. The university thus still has to prove that this was not a case of censorship of a valid academic text on an inconvenient subject.

Van der Horst was complimented on his text by leading scholars, such as the Dutch Arabist Hans Jansen and a well-known Dutch Protestant theologian also called Hans Jansen. It should also be mentioned that Van der Horst has been a member for more than ten years of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, to which only some of the Netherlands’ outstanding scholars are elected.

The Story Develops

After the initial story hit the major Dutch media, it developed its own life. Geert Wilders, a conservative politician frequently threatened with death by Muslims, raised the issue of Utrecht University’s lack of academic freedom in parliament by asking questions of two cabinet ministers. He said that the creeping dhimmitude of Dutch authorities had to end. [5]

Articles and op-eds for and against the Utrecht rector and Van der Horst now appeared in the major Dutch dailies. Van der Horst, previously known mainly in his academic field, now became a well-known scholar everywhere in the Netherlands. Initially the university only reacted with a press release stating that Van der Horst had been “advised” not to include certain passages in his lecture because these were not suitable for a scientific text.[6] After a few days of public debate, Gispen replied to questions from the NRC, which had earlier titled one of its editorials “The Fearful Rector.”[7] An editorial in another national daily, Volkskrant, said that if it was true, as Van der Horst claimed, that Gispen had urged censorship out of fear of intimidation by Muslims, then the rector should be rebuked.[8]

Gispen in his NRC interview stated that he had not censored the lecture but wanted to prevent its publication in a university series. He also referred to side issues, accusing Van der Horst of being vengeful because the university had severely reduced the number of positions in his department. Gispen also replied to an irrelevant question, saying that his Jewish wife and daughters wore Stars of David and that he would have liked to consult in this affair with his late father-in-law, David de Wied, an internationally known neuropharmacologist.[9]

Muslim Threat?

Apart from the unjustified censorship, the interview circumvented the most important issue: was there any factual basis for the Muslim threat that was mentioned? All Gispen said was that he had needed personal protection in another controversy. A few months earlier the university had decided to change the name of an institute called after the prewar Dutch Nobel Prize winner Peter Debye, a chemist, who when working in Nazi Germany had collaborated in anti-Jewish measures and had signed letters with “Heil Hitler.” Gispen did not suggest that the threats he received then had anything to do with Muslims.

Unless Utrecht University finally presents proof to the contrary, its behavior can be defined as advance capitulation to an imagined threat. And even assuming that the university had proof of a threat, it should have ensured the security of a threatened professor to exercise his freedom of speech rather than advising him to desist from making his views known.

The issue of intimidation from diverse origins in the Netherlands is an important one. One of the country’s leading criminologists, Frank Bovenkerk, in 2005 edited a book on the subject with chapters about threats to public officials, the police, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, journalists, and notaries.[10] As a result of threats from major criminals, Amsterdam prosecutor Koos Plooy was moved to another position because the authorities were not sure they could protect him.[11]

The best known among many intimidation attempts by Muslims concern a number of politicians and public personalities whom the authorities have provided with bodyguards since the murder of the media maker Theo van Gogh by the radical Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri on 2 November 2004. One parliamentarian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose life was made almost unbearable, emigrated in spring 2006 to the United States.

Where Do the Dutch Rectors Stand?

The censorship affair developed in many other directions. The NRC claimed that five out of seven rectors of Dutch universities supported Gispen’s censorship. Arnold Heertje, a recently retired prominent professor of economics, approached these rectors and came to different conclusions. Only two of these five, those heading Radboud University in Nijmegen and the University of Twente, considered that Van der Horst should not have been allowed to speak about Muslim anti-Semitism and the Nazi influence on it. Two others stated that they would not have censored Van der Horst’s text on Muslim anti-Semitism.[12]

Heertje wrote that Gispen’s behavior was motivated by the fear that Utrecht University would lose market share by discouraging Muslim students and imams from studying there. He said the rector had behaved like a high school manager who wants to maximize its number of students. Such a business-oriented attitude toward academic freedom was damaging universities. The worst aspect was that this mentality had manifested itself at the level of a rector who was even backed by his colleagues at two other universities. Earlier, Heertje had raised the question of whether somebody who treated academic freedom that way could be maintained as rector of a university.[13]

Doubts about the way the NRC handled the issue also concern another aspect of the discussion. In Van der Horst’s uncensored text he had referred to the propagation of anti-Semitism in Iran, Syria, and the Palestinian territories. About the latter he wrote: “the crudeness of the anti-Jewish brainwashing one can find there exceeds the worst expectations. In many Palestinian schoolbooks children are taught year after year that it is a holy duty to destroy the Jewish people because Jews, as children of Satan, rebel against God and conspire against humanity and Islam.”

Palestinian Textbooks

Van der Horst footnoted this quotation by referring to a book by the aforementioned Hans Jansen who is a professor of Protestant theology teaching in Brussels.[14] Had the NRC wanted to verify this passage, what would have been easier than contacting this fellow Dutchman? Instead they published an article by their correspondent in Israel, Oscar Garschagen, in which he claimed, mainly quoting a Palestinian expert, that there was no anti-Semitism in Palestinian schoolbooks. The article also quoted an Israeli expert who made some confused remarks about the matter. Reading the NRC article, an uninformed reader could only arrive at the conclusion that Van der Horst had misled his audience, raising doubts about his scholarship.[15]

Garschagen, who laid the infrastructure for this impression, is a senior Dutch journalist. He is the former editor in chief of the important Dutch socialist weekly Vrij Nederland. He has been long enough in Israel to know that many in Palestinian society encourage schoolchildren to become suicide murderers. These facts, much worse than the ones cited by Van der Horst, were not mentioned in his article.

Jansen sent a lengthy refutation of Garschagen’s text to the NRC. The paper did not publish it, but only a weak reaction of the Dutch pro-Israeli defense organization CIDI.[16] The latter had a few days earlier organized a very successful debate on academic freedom in the Netherlands with the participation of Van der Horst and several well-known personalities such as law professor Paul Cliteur and Frank William, head of the Dutch Muslim radio who told about the threats against him by radical Muslims.[17] CIDI has since published the uncensored version of Van der Horst’s lecture as a booklet.[18]

Jansen then published his text in another prominent Dutch daily, Trouw, which had been supportive of Van der Horst by publishing the deleted passages of his lecture. Jansen wrote that the central themes in the new Palestinian schoolbooks, in which the NRC article had claimed there was no anti-Semitism, included: the state of Israel has no right to exist; Israel is obsessed by a demon; the Jews are traitors; the Jews are greedy and materialistic; the Jews are heartless and hard; the Jews conspire against God and all humanity. He pointed out that these books make no reference to the Oslo peace agreements of 1993.

Jansen concluded that the Palestinian schoolbooks reflect a preparation for holy war against Israel, and that they glorify martyrdom and suicide operations. He noted that in 2003, the Education Ministry of the Palestinian Authority had published a schoolbook meant for the top class in Gaza and West Bank high schools. Titled Islamic Culture, it called on pupils to fight in a holy war and to die as martyrs.[19] Later the NRC would claim that they needed time to get Garschagen’s reaction to Jansen’s critique and in the meantime the latter had already sent his article to Trouw.[20]     

When the story became known in Israel, the Israeli Academy of Sciences invited Van der Horst to give a lecture there. In an ironic retort to Utrecht University, the invitation said that he could speak about whatever he wanted and no influence would be exerted on the contents of his lecture, “as usual in academic circles.”

This Dutch case has proved once again that one of the fastest ways to identify distortions in Western academic systems is to look at matters concerning Jews or Israel. What started as an isolated incident turned into a typical case of how people in power in the academic world censor irrefutable facts that are unpleasant to Muslim ears. The willingness to conceal and manipulate information for reasons of fear, maintaining social peace, or business interests is widespread in the West and goes far beyond the world of Dutch academics.

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* This article is part of a JCPA research project on Dutch attitudes toward Jews and Israel, which is sponsored by the Israel Maror Foundation.

[1] Ted de Hoog, “Censuur in Holland, NIW, 16 June 2006. [Dutch]

[2] Pieter W. van der Horst, “Tying Down Academic Freedom,” Wall Street Journal, 30 June 2006.

[3] Ibid.

[4] W. H. Gispen, written reply to questions by Manfred Gerstenfeld, 7 August 2006. [Dutch]

[5] “Universiteit Utrecht wilde ‘griezelpassages’ schrappen,” NRC.nl, 19 June 2006. [Dutch]

[6] “Islamitische antisemitisme/Censuur Afscheidsrede Hoogleraar,” Trouw, 17 June 2006. [Dutch]

[7] “De bange rector,” NRC Handelsblad, 15 June 2006. [Dutch]

[8] “Academische vrijheid,” Volkskrant, 21 June 2006. [Dutch]

[9] Jannetje Koelewijn, “Ik ben niet bang en van censuur is geen sprake,” NRC Handelsblad, 22 June 2006. [Dutch]

[10] Frank Bovenkerk, Bedreigingen in Nederland (Amsterdam: Augustus, 2005). [Dutch]

[11] Paul Vugts, “Plooy trekt de dreiging niet langer,” Het Parool, 17 February 2004. [Dutch]

[12] Arnold Heertje, “De Rector is geen manager: Academische censuur,” Trouw, 30 June 2006. [Dutch]

[13] Arnold Heertje, “Zwijgen over antisemitisme,” Parool, 21 June 2006. [Dutch]

[14] Hans Jansen, Van jodenhaat naar zelfmoordterrorisme: Islamisering van het Europese antisemitisme in het Midden-Oosten (Heerenveen: Groen, 2006). [Dutch]

[15] Oscar Garschagen, “Geen woord meer over heilige oorlog tegen Israël,” NRC Handelsblad, 25 June 2006. [Dutch]

[16] CIDI, “Palestijnse Autoriteit wel verantwoordelijk voor antisemitische uitlatingen in schoolboeken,” NRC Handelsblad, 1 July 2006. [Dutch]

[17] Saskia Appel, “Politiek correcte gesel,” NIW, 30 June 2006. [Dutch]

[18] Pieter W. van der Horst, “De Mythe van het joodse kannibalisme (De ongecensureerde versie),” (CIDI, Den Haag, 2006). [Dutch]

[19] Hans Jansen, “Geen woord meer over heilige oorlog tegen Israël in Palestijnse schoolboeken?” Trouw, 6 July 2006. [Dutch]

[20] Folkert Jensma, “De krant antwoordt,” NRC Handelsblad, 26-27 August 2006. [Dutch]

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Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is Chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is an international business strategist who has been a consultant to governments, international agencies, and boards of some of the world’s largest corporations. Among the fourteen books he has published are Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (JCPA, Yad Vashem, WJC, 2003), Academics Against Israel and the Jews (JCPA 2007) and Behind the Humanitarian Mask: The Nordic Countries, Israel and the Jews (JCPA and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, 2008).   

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is emeritus chairman (2000-2012) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism (2015). His previous books include Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism; Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000; and The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses.