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Chronicle of Higher Education

June 23, 2000 Vol. 46 Issue 42, pA19, 3/4p


A California State Professor Is Attacked for His Defense of a Holocaust Denier.

By Alison Schneider

AFTER DEFENDING the academic freedom of a Holocaust denier, an evolutionary psychologist at California State University at Long Beach says his own academic freedom is on the line. Last month, a vocal group of colleagues demanded that Kevin MacDonald, the Cal State psychologist, publicly defend his views connecting Judaism, positive eugenics, and the rise of anti-Semitism.

Mr. MacDonald found himself on the hot seat after he testified in January in a controversial libel suit in Britain on behalf of David Irving, an independent scholar who has challenged the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz and suggested that only one million Jews were killed by Nazis.

Mr. MacDonald said he testified for Mr. Irving in the name of academic freedom. The independent scholar -- who sued Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of religion at Emory University, for calling him a "Holocaust denier" -- argued that various Jewish groups were trying to silence him by squelching his publishing opportunities. Mr. Irving thought Mr. MacDonald, who has written that some Jewish organizations have fought anti-Semitism by crushing critiques of the religion, could help bolster his claim.

A TRIAL'S IMPACT The testimony didn't help. Mr. Irving lost the case, and now, Mr. MacDonald claims he's losing out as well -- on academic freedom and a comfortable work environment. In the wake of the trial, the New Times Los Angeles, an alternative weekly, published a cover story detailing Mr. MacDonald's views on Judaism. The psychologist's colleagues didn't like what they read, namely that Mr. MacDonald accuses Jews of being responsible for the Holocaust and fomenting a race war in the United States.

After the article appeared, a group of Mr. MacDonald's colleagues called on him to defend his views in a public forum. The professor, fearful of a hostile media spectacle, requested an e-mail discussion instead. A slew of e-mail exchanges, some of them fairly pointed, have been flying back and forth ever since. Those messages as well as other documents relating to the Long Beach controversy can be viewed on Mr. MacDonald's Web site (

The longest messages, by far, were from Mr. MacDonald himself, who was eager to set the record straight. For starters, Mr. MacDonald said in an interview, "I am not a Holocaust denier." And he doesn't blame the Jews for the Holocaust, either, he added. What he does argue in his trilogy -- A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (Praeger, 1994); Separation and Its Discontents: Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism (Praeger, 1998); and The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (Praeger, 1998) -- is that anti-Semitism can be understood as a natural byproduct of a Darwinian strategy for Jewish survival.

Here's how his theory works: Jewish canonical writings encourage eugenic marriages between wealthy Jewish daughters and successful Jewish scholars, Mr. MacDonald asserts. Those marriages have led to a Jewish population with higher I.Q.'s. As a result of those higher I.Q.'s, Jews have achieved extraordinary levels of success.

That success, coupled with a Jewish tendency toward self-segregation, has been at least partly responsible for anti-Semitism among non-Jews. Mr. MacDonald does not rule out the role that irrational fears and half-truths play in the rise of anti-Semitism, he said. But he does insist that Jewish behavior must be part of any adequate explanation of the recurrent persecution of Jews.

As for theories about Jews inspiring a race war, "that's way off the map," Mr. MacDonald said. "I do think that we may be heading into a period of increasing ethnocentrism on all sides resulting from ethnic diversity." And he does think that some Jews have combated anti-Semitism by using intellectual movements, like the Frankfurt school of psychoanalysis, to critique Christian culture. But that's not the same as predicting ethnic warfare, he maintained.

IMPLICATIONS OF HIS WORK Some of his colleagues disagree. "MacDonald may not say outright that the Holocaust never happened," said Sharon Sievers, the chairwoman of Long Beach's history department. "He doesn't say outright that Jews were responsible for the discrimination they faced. But that's the implication of all his work. The implications of the three volumes that he wrote are so incredible that I think it clearly needs some response from the faculty."

That's why Ms. Sievers, backed by other professors, began pushing in early May for a public forum to air Mr. MacDonald's views. She thinks the forum will occur next fall, with or without Mr. MacDonald's participation. Ms. Sievers said she's not seeking to oust the psychologist from the institution or to censure him. And she's not aiming to trample on his academic freedom. "But my own view of things is you are responsible for what you write. And the more objectionable the implications of your work, the more likely you'll have to defend them. That's part of the responsibility academics have."

Mr. MacDonald isn't trying to wriggle out of that responsibility, he said, but he has no intention of participating in a public forum which will "only lend itself to sound bites and hostility. This seems more like an inquisition than an attempt to find out the truth about anything." And, what's worse, he added, "it sets a terrible precedent" for academic freedom.

CALLS FOR DISMISSAL Long Beach faculty members aren't the only ones seeking an accounting from Mr. MacDonald. The Human Behavior and Evolution Society held a forum on his writings in early June at its annual meeting. Meanwhile, the president of Long Beach has received letters seeking his dismissal, the professor added. And a particularly vicious note by a Long Beach lecturer was posted on the New Times Web site, stating that the writer hoped Mr. MacDonald would lose tenure and "be thrown into the street" and that "it would also be good if everyone on campus pissed on him as he walked by."

"It is a pretty hostile environment," Mr. MacDonald said wearily. The university has stayed out of the fracas, merely issuing a statement upholding the right of faculty members "to express themselves freely under the First Amendment" and asserting that Mr. MacDonald's personal and academic opinions "do not necessarily represent the opinion or beliefs of the university or the faculty."

Mr. MacDonald would be only too happy to keep quiet himself. "I'm done with Jews," he said. "I don't think I have any more to say about them."

By Alison Schneider