A conservative news website this week criticized Temple’s view of academic freedom and the Modern Language Association’s stance on Israel after an adjunct professor made an online comment regarding the Holocaust, which he later deleted.
Alessio Lerro, a native Italian and adjunct professor of language at the university since Fall 2013, posted on Facebook that “we all know (or should know) that the counting of Jews is a bit controversial,” referring to the common estimate that 6 million Jewish people died in the Holocaust.
The Washington Free Beacon, self-described in their ‘about’ section as “dedicated to uncovering the stories that the professional left hopes will never see the light of day,” reported the story. The website is a project of the Center for American Freedom, a nonprofit conservative organization.
A university spokesman told the Beacon on Thursday, May 29, that “the exercise of academic freedom necessarily results in a vigorous exchange of ideas,” later noting that “the views and opinions of any individual are those of the individual and not those of the university.” At that time, the spokesman did not comment specifically on what Lerro said, according to the Beacon article.
The Modern Language Association, a national organization of academics focused on language and literature, voted 60-53 in January to “urge the United States Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics.” The resolution claimed that Palestinian-American and Arab-American academics have been denied entry to Israel based off of their ethnicity.
In a piece published May 28, the Beacon questioned the validity of that vote, discussing a listserv, or email list, whose participants included some MLA members, supposedly including Lerro.
In the string of emails, Lerro allegedly wrote his support for the passing of the MLA resolution.
Leaning on these comments – which also called Israel’s creation an “illegal occupation” – as evidence, the May 28 Beacon piece claimed that “some professors involved in the MLA resolution to boycott Israel are motivated by the belief that Jewish people are nefariously pulling the strings in American academia.”
The MLA resolution does not call for a boycott of Israel but instead decries its alleged travel restrictions on Arab and Palestinian professors, and Lerro did not serve in the Delegate Assembly that voted on the matter.
Lerro said he was preparing to make a statement on the matter in the near future, which he will release to The Temple News.
Recalling that “Temple’s president and provost have officially come out against academic boycotts of Israel in the past,” the Beacon wrote that “Temple’s response to the current controversy fails to address the core issues of anti-Semitism.”
The university yesterday released an updated statement to The Temple News.
“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,” the statement read. “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.”
In January, the university officially condemned the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions in a statement. The ASA resolved in December 2013 to boycott Israeli academic institutions, calling them “a party-to-state policies that violate human rights,” referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The MLA’s Radical Caucus supported the ASA resolution and wished for similar MLA action, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.
“Rather than limiting its association with other institutions, Temple University calls upon the ASA to remain true to academic inquiry by engaging with those who have divergent views,” the January statement read.
A small sample of students saw the issue differently.
“While discussing the politics behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is important and, yes, part of a ‘vigorous exchange of ideas,’ Lerro’s devaluation of the Holocaust to support his argument is offensive and absolutely insulting,” said sophomore sociology major Halana Dash, who read the university’s updated statement. “I would have liked to see Temple take a stronger stance against such offensive comments and am a little disappointed in the university’s response.”
“What [Lerro] said is not in line with our organization’s views,” said Samantha Pinto, a senior Italian studies major and vice president of Students for Justice in Palestine, the student organization that promotes Palestinian sovereignty. “[SJP] stands against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.”
“To my knowledge, Lerro has never been involved with our organization or any Philly-area Palestine activism,” Pinto said.
Nelly Keisi, a freshman journalism major and SJP member who will take next semester off to go to Palestine, did not condemn Lerro’s comments about Israel and Palestine but did not support his comment about the Holocaust.
“Mr. Lerro, who seems to be stirring up such a controversy, is really just another someone who gets neglected in the favor of the oppressors, because he speaks in the name of justice,” Keisi said of Lerro’s supposed statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the listserv. “The irony is that what the world desperately needs is those who speak in the name of such things.”
Joe Brandt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JBrandt_TU.