Trachtenberg: As Jewish community faces challenges, Holocaust-denying professor has no place at NU

Ben Trachtenberg, Op-Ed Contributor

Monday marked an occasion called Yom HaShoah, a Holocaust Remembrance Day for communities throughout the world to honor the 11 million innocent Jews, Roma, Poles, mentally disabled and LGBTQ people — among others — who died at the hands of the Nazis. Here on Northwestern’s campus, however, student tuition contributes toward the salary of a professor who would rather we forget.

Arthur Butz, a professor of electrical engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering, is a Holocaust denier. He’s not just a skeptic or someone who made an insensitive Holocaust joke. He is a consistent denier of one of the most destructive, well-documented events of the 20th century.

In 1976, two years after receiving a tenured professorship at Northwestern, and 10 years after joining the University’s faculty, Butz published a book called “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry.” In over 500 pages, Butz attempts to disprove the commonly-accepted knowledge that the Holocaust was meant to exterminate Jews, that Nazi camps were responsible for the deaths of six million Jews and that the gas chambers and crematoria even existed.

In response to this, University administration did nothing at the time. It’s hard to blame them; in 1976, memories of World War II were not so distant and the concept of Holocaust denial — now burgeoning across the internet — was new, often prompting bemusement rather than revulsion as a result. In 1977, then-University Provost Raymond Mack said Butz had “the same right as any person to get published,” lauding the administration as “great First Amendment people.”

Butz’s book was one of the first U.S. works of Holocaust denial and has served as a basis for much of the writing that has followed in that supposed field of study. The administration’s initial response can be excused, but its further inaction is unacceptable.

Butz’s actions have dragged NU’s name through the mud along with his own, as he slings the so-called “Holocaust revisionism.” Until 2006, Butz promoted “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century” on his Northwestern Pubweb page and even congratulated former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his bravery for calling the Holocaust a “myth.” The extent of Northwestern’s major sanctions against Butz have been to offer duplicates of his electrical engineering classes, so students who disagree with Butz’s ideas can avoid his classroom.

That is not enough. In a day and age when White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared to use the term “holocaust center” to refer to concentration camps and claimed Adolf Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons, hiding behind defenses of tenure and free speech is unacceptable. It’s not sufficient when a leading French presidential candidate has claimed France has no culpability in the mass roundup of Jews during World War II.

As far as tenure goes, there are restrictions to what professors may do before they are fired. Butz’s actions have gone far above and beyond these limitations; his continued presence on this campus is embarrassing.

The American Association of University Professors identifies moral turpitude, “behavior that would evoke condemnation by the academic community generally,” as grounds for denying professors their pay. AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics also establishes ethical misconduct and the “exploitation, harassment or discriminatory treatment of students” as potential grounds for dismissal. Butz’s book is blatantly false and has done so much harm as a leading source of Holocaust denial that his continued status as an NU professor is therefore a form of passive harassment that uses tenure as a front for academically dishonest work.

Butz’s work has played a role in the growth of Holocaust denial, a field rife with fabrication and falsification. Some may say Butz will soon likely retire on his own due to age. That may be true, but allowing a professor who has done such damage to academic integrity, offended so many people and hurt the reputation of NU to leave on his own terms would be a huge embarrassment to this university.

These are exceptional times. Members of the worldwide Jewish community are scared about their future and the future of their allies. In the first three months of 2017, anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. increased by 86 percent compared to the same period last year. NU must show its commitment to Jewish students and faculty, as well as to those who value academic integrity, and initiate review and dismissal proceedings against Butz.

Ben Trachtenberg is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.