Temple University is seeking to reassure donors and top officials after a member of its staff engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric on a secret listserv and questioned the deaths of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.
Temple president Neil Theobald blasted out a message to university trustees over the weekend after the school came under fire for initially defending the controversial professor in comments made to the Washington Free Beacon.
Temple University adjunct professor Alessio Lerro originally came under fire from Jewish scholars after he and other professors were caught on a secret listserv engaging in highly inflammatory anti-Semitic discourse about a resolution by the Modern Language Association (MLA) to boycott Israel.
Lerro accused "Jewish scholars" of having "humungous influence" over the entirety of academia and said, "It is time that Zionists are asked to finally account for their support to the illegal occupation of Palestine since 1967," according to one message left on the listserv.
A Temple University spokesman initially defended Lerro’s right to engage in such discourse when approached by the Washington Free Beacon last week.
"Temple University promotes open discussion and expression among its diverse community of scholars," the spokesman said. "The exercise of academic freedom necessarily results in a vigorous exchange of ideas."
After Jewish scholars and others expressed outrage at the university’s refusal to condemn Lerro’s remarks, Theobald addressed the issue in an email to the school’s trustees.
"You may have heard media reports about highly contentious statements made by a Temple adjunct instructor regarding the holocaust," Theobald wrote in an email titled, "media issue," according to a copy of the note obtained by the Free Beacon.
"The statements were made in a private, members-only academic forum, not at Temple University," he wrote. "These statements have incited strong reaction, and rightly so. The university, predictably but nonetheless inappropriately, has been painted with those statements, which were those of the speaker and not Temple."
Theobald then attached a new statement that he said the university is giving to reporters asking about the controversy.
"The statement below has and will be provided to media inquiries in order to make it clear that the adjunct instructor does not speak for the university," he wrote, before attaching the statement, which read:
It is Temple University's position that the ample historical evidence, scholarship and research regarding the horrific impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish people is a strong counterpoint to Mr. Lerro's statements. Mr. Lerro's opinion is solely his own and not that of Temple University. Temple University condemns in the strongest possible terms the disparagement of any person or persons based on religion, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or identity.
"Please let me know if you have any questions," Theobald wrote.
Lerro’s comments and the subsequent statement from Temple sparked outrage among Jewish scholars, who said that questioning the Holocaust does not amount to scholarly discourse.
"Vigorous exchange of ideas? Let us be clear. A person who questions and mocks the central fact about history’s worst crime is not acting like a scholar but a bigot," Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told the Free Beacon at the time.
"I refuse to believe that the true scholars at Temple University would equate hate with historic fact when any group would be targeted in such a way," Cooper said.
Other professors on the listserv also were found to be engaging in controversial rhetoric about Jewish people and Israel.
Professor Elizabeth Ordonez, a retired Spanish professor from Metropolitan State University in Denver, wrote that "Zionist attack dogs" are unduly pressuring the resolution’s supporters.
"As on the broader political scene, moves to seek justice and opportunity for Palestinians (or to remove obstacles to achieving those goals) are countered by Zionist attack dogs," Ordonez wrote in a March 22 post on the leaked listserv. "When the Zionist lobby railroads its way through Congress, universities, and civil society no request is made for equal time for the other side."