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One Scholar’s Struggle Between Freedom of Research and Self-Censorship

/ 28 May 2021

One Scholar’s Struggle Between Freedom of Research and Self-Censorship

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.

The further I went, the more complex the topic became. I realized the price of falling into the trap of self-censorship, which is in contrast to the academic freedom I seek to enjoy in my works.

Of course, the further I went, the more complex the topic became. I realized the price of falling into the trap of self-censorship, which is in contrast to the academic freedom I seek to enjoy in my works.

Over time, I realized that the lines separating academic freedom and self-censorship were very subtle and might be invisible as well. (See a related article, “The Door for Many Middle East Scholars is Slamming Shut.”)

The idea was confirmed when I began to address certain points, about the Zionist movement and its struggle with Egyptian patriotism currents, as well as when I dealt with the conditions of Egypt’s Jewish schools and the attempts to spread the Hebrew language, and how that was linked to the Zionist movement’s efforts.

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Upon collecting the material, I encountered several Arabic texts written by Egyptian Jews who opposed Zionism, and found that reviewing them might cause a problem upon translating and discussing them in their original form. After deep thinking, I settled on the idea of publishing these texts in Arabic, to be followed by German and English translations. That way, if I faced allegations against my academic work in the future, I could argue  that these texts were copied from an original published in Arabic and that what I did was mere translation.

A Different Atmosphere Outside Germany

At another stage of my work, I got accepted at Princeton University to pursue my Ph.D. studies with my second supervisor, Professor Robert Tignor from the Department of History. While at Princeton, I found it really different from what it is like in Germany.

The conservative atmosphere that dominates Germany’s public sphere and academia regarding Jewish studies is different from that in the United States. I loosened a lot of my restrictions, got rid of psychological burdens and was largely freed from the weight of self-censorship I once accepted. I began to discuss many important points related to the thesis with my professor. I found courage to present and debate in the classroom, as long as it was supported by historical evidence and documents, and this was reflected in my abilities to develop my ideas.

“Leave that which makes you doubt for that which does not make you doubt.”

A hadith of the Prophet Mohammed that influenced the author's decision  

Meanwhile, I realized that my background would not play a big role in what I was proposing, and that the public sphere would not impose further censorship on me, or that the academic field would find it embarrassing to discuss some questions due to historical sensitivity on this topic.

After my return to Germany from Princeton, I received an invitation from Selma Stern Center for Jewish Studies in Berlin-Brandenburg to give an open lecture to academics and the public on the topic of relations of rapprochement between Jewish and Muslim societies. After accepting the invitation, I chose to focus my lecture on the situation of Egyptian Jews between Egyptian nationalism and the Zionist movement. Before the lecture, I contacted the center’s director and asked him to have a look at the text I wrote. He was very welcoming and mentioned to me that my approach was balanced, accurate and bold. He also encouraged me by saying, “I know that this approach is the fruit of Princeton. I am a graduate of Yale University, and I know that what you propose is different from the German way to approach the topic.”

Surprisingly, it happened that when I delivered my lecture, I re-activated self-censorship, because I took into account the historical sensitivity that governs dealing with such a topic in Germany. Perhaps because of the boldness of the proposition, interacting with the public was more spacious and open, compared to interacting with a dozen academics, who expressed reservations mixed with some fear.

I tried to answer their questions with impartiality. But I also realized that walking in this field for me will be difficult; I should either accept its common narrative or leave it for another academic field, which is what I already did, in compliance with the Prophet Mohammed’s hadith that says: “Leave that which makes you doubt for that which does not make you doubt.”

Taqadum Al-Khatib earned his Ph.D. from the Berlin Free University and was a visiting scholar at Princeton University. His main research interests are history and cultural studies, Middle East politics and international relations.




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