Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network. See other articles and commentaries in the package at this link.
Before setting up a plan for any research, scholars read about the topic they wish to study and identify the new points they want to address. Sometimes they find themselves in front of sensitive issues where the social context must be taken into account.
This is especially true for scholars studying anything related to Jewish history in Arab societies, for example, due to the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I have learned from my experience that the issue becomes even more difficult when studying such topics in Germany, because of the country’s Nazi past, when a policy of persecuting Jews ended in the Holocaust. A kind of academic sensitivity around such issues imposes the need to be cautious or reserved when studying them.
Consequently, most researchers practice self-censorship, for fear of facing consequences like those experienced by the late French intellectual Roger Garaudy, who was accused of anti-Semitism when he published a book challenging aspects of the Holocaust and criticizing the “myths” upon which Israel was established.
Similar concerns might arise for me as an Arab researcher who happens to be a Muslim and believes, for example, that the Egyptian Jews faced many crises during the Nasser era, which ended in the departure of most of them from Egypt. Such a complex background makes the author of research on such a subject an easy target of accusations and allegations. Critics inside Egypt would be stalking him and his subject, while those outside his country would accuse him of stereotyping Arabs and Muslims.
Another problem that might face those who wish to approach such topics is that the Jewish studies programs at Western universities are often seen as being dominated by academics who support and promote the Zionist narrative, and confront any counter-narrative.
For all these reasons, researchers are sometimes forced to activate self-censorship in everything they write or speak about, both in the classroom and outside, scrutinizing the terminology they use and choosing their words carefully. (See a related article, “In a Climate of Self-Censorship, Social Research Suffers.”)
The Trap of Self-Censorship
When I decided to work on a similar topic for my Ph.D. thesis, I began reading about matters that are described as anti-Jewish and that lie within the framework of common allegations of anti-Semitism.
Before I started my study in Germany, I read a lot about the history of Jews during the Nazi era, and how the Nazis used not only racist arguments but also arguments derived from older negative stereotypes, including those depicting Jews as communist subversives, as war profiteers and hoarders, and as a danger to internal security because of their presumed inherent disloyalty. After my arrival to Germany to start my doctoral studies, I reviewed German laws in this regard and a number of German Supreme Court rulings. I also referred to the Nuremberg trials to get a deeper insight into the complexity of the overall context.