When Chronicles talks, people listen—at least in New Zealand. I have had my allotted 15 minutes of total fame, all because of a couple of paragraphs snatched by the Kiwi press out of a little piece of mine (Letter From Inner Israel, “Sorting Out Jew-Haters“) printed in these pages in March.
Readers will recall that I reflected on the problem of sorting out the many diverse forms of hostility to Jews and Judaism. Specifically, I referred to three incidents I experienced while in New Zealand last summer which set me thinking not about what is, but what is not, appropriately labeled “anti-Semitism.” I never suggested New Zealand was a fascist, anti-Semitic country—that was the judgment of a professor at Waikato University, whom I quoted and whose outrageous opinion I rejected. The pinpricks I did notice struck me not as anti-Semitic but as gauche, provincial, and uncomprehending. To make that point, I set into context the observations I made during my winter in a cold country, a place far off the beaten track, where little happens that matters to anybody anywhere else—that is, life in nowhere special, where all of us live who are fortunate; in the heart of the human condition.
Since a reporter in Christchurch had taken an interest in my prior reflections on Canterbury University, I sent him an advance copy of the article. He wrote a story about it, and poor O.J. Simpson lost his place to me as the prime American news item in the New Zealand press. The Christchurch Press put the story on the Kiwi counterpart to the AP wire; it appeared all over the country. The Press even published an editorial of its own—a bit inane, but quite august in all.
But it did not end there—nor with more editorials elsewhere, follow-up stories, and columns and columns of mighty hot letters to the editor. Radio New Zealand called from Wellington for a live interview. When I returned their call, they interrupted their morning talk show to put me right on the air. They spent 30 minutes of expensive trans-Pacific phone time hectoring me on my observations, along the lines of, “Do you really think it’s cold on the South Island in July?”
“Yes, very cold.”
“Do you think you’ll be invited back?”
“Not to Canterbury University.”
“Would you go?”
“I’m busy next year and the year after, but try me in 1998.”
Finally, at the climax of perfect fame. New Zealand TV asked me to come back to Auckland to take up the argument on their Sixty Minutes. “We know what other people say about you, now we want you to have your say.” This is summer in New Zealand, so I would help on a slow news day.
When, thinking the controversy somewhat disproportionate, I said I saw no point in pursuing the matter, having done several newspaper and radio interviews by phone, they immediately faxed back; “We will pay all expenses for a week’s visit, to deal with you and your critics.” (Evidently in their first invitation they’d imagined that I would pay my own way!) Meanwhile, back at the University of South Florida, my mailbox and even my voice mail got crowded with letters, phone calls, and even cassette tapes from unhappy Kiwi, some of whom actually signed what they wrote.
A distinguished religious studies professor at the University of Waikato explained the furor to me: “I was intrigued by recent media exposure you have received here. Frankly, I think your own perspectives are right on target—the locals just don’t want to be told the harsh truth! New Zealand’s worst prejudice is the prejudice that there is no prejudice here! In fact, there is, as you detected so incisively.” My mailbox had already told me that. I sent my reporter-colleague, Colin Espiner, at the Press a sample of the letters, as well as a tape; he could then judge for himself. But I had not said the place was prejudiced, only provincial, as readers will remember.
In the storm, I had hoped to hear from Canterbury University some voices of reason and perhaps even contrary views, joined with solid evidence and compelling argument. After all, if you want to know about the attitudes of a whole society, you turn not to episodic incidents and hearsay, but to surveys of public opinion, on the one side, and the evidence of systematic analysis on the other. How, for instance, do Maori view New Zealand society—as open or racist? What about the locals of Indian or Chinese origin? (Letters from Indian and Chinese Kiwi confirmed my impression of a rather closed and uncomprehending society.)
What came back may not qualify for a place on Firing Line, for reasoned debate gave way to raw emotion, mainly to blind, personal fury. Here is David Novitz, Canterbury professor of philosophy, who is himself Jewish: “Professor Neusner’s extreme sensitivity to his Jewishness made it impossible for people to speak to him for very long. . . . Professor Neusner is an excellent scholar in his area of expertise, but that did not qualify him to comment on New Zealand society or the students at Canterbury.” “Extreme sensitivity”—that is to say, I’m “too Jewish.” I reckon he’s not.
Here is William Shepard, Canterbury lecturer in religious studies, who was in charge of my visit: “As the person who had the misfortune of having to host him in our department, I can assure readers that their most negative conclusions about the character of this man and the value of his opinions will probably not be wide of the mark.” Shepard is so gauche he can’t even deliver a cutting insult.
Here is a man named Henry Tedder, describing himself as “a visiting retired college lecturer from Traverse City, Michigan”: “Professor Neusner is nuts. No one reads the magazine his article was published in except the writers and their students who are forced to read them. He reminds me of a jackass braying in the wilderness to his own confusion.”
Here is Norman Simms of Waikato University, who was my guest for a year as visiting scholar when I taught at Brown University: “Neusner is prone to arrogance . . . he is known as a man who had never had an unpublished thought in his life.” How Simms knows what I haven’t published I can’t say. Simms was the professor who told me he thinks New Zealand is an anti-Semitic country with a fascist government, so perhaps when I said in these pages that this wasn’t so, he took offense. Why he stays there, I don’t know.
Here is Professor Norton Moise, a visiting professor at Otago University in physics, who had already written to Chronicles and demanded “equal time” to reply to me. As John Gibb reported in the Otago Daily Times, Moise “was unhappy that the American publication had apparently seen fit to publish Professor Neusner’s views without checking on the views of the many other American academics who had visited Christchurch and New Zealand. Professor Neusner’s views were based on a very limited time in this country, could damage New Zealand’s reputation abroad and potentially bring other visiting American academics into some disrepute in this country.”
Some may find the intellectual quality of the replies a bit disappointing, expecting more than arguments that appeal to “extreme sensitivity,” bad character, “arrogance,” and so on and so forth. But don’t wonder why it was mostly Jews (Shapiro, Novitz, Moise, and Simms) who volunteered to clobber the Jew—for self-hatred marks the hostile society. They prove my case.
And then there are the other outsiders, welcome only on the fringes of Kiwi society: the Americans, Shepard, Shapiro, Moise, Simms, who leaped to defend Kiwidom (Novitz is a South African refugee). But who can have predicted appeal to—of all things—good old American academic snobbery: “My university is better than yours, so shut up and sit down”? Leave it to our crowd to degrade already-despicable discourse. In some circles hereabouts, it’s not the power of your ideas that matters, nor what you have accomplished, but who pays your salary—an attitude as Yankee as apple pie, the Fourth of July, and racism.
It was an American teaching at Canterbury, a classicist named Harold Shapiro, who had earlier written to the Press and reassured people that University of South Florida students spend all their time on their surf boards (I reckon he’s never seen Tampa Bay, where they build the causeways all of six inches above the water surface, to avoid the enormous waves, or perhaps he’s confused the Gulf of Mexico with Big Sur). Here is the indignant Norton Moise, visiting- Jewish-American-physicist, delivering his knock-out punch, again in Mr. Gibb’s report: “It was ironic that both Canterbury and Otago Universities enjoyed higher international standing than the University of South Florida in Tampa. . . . Canterbury and Otago students were also of a higher overall academic standard than students at the South Florida institution.” I asked my colleagues what international standing we at USE enjoy, but they didn’t bother to reply—several were overseas, lecturing at foreign universities.
To assess my response to Norton’s snobby dismissal of little old USE, with its 36,000 students out on surf boards, the older readers of this magazine may be reminded of President Roosevelt’s indignant objection that the Republicans had sunk to criticizing “my little dog Fala.” Those guys really hit you where it hurts.
Oh well, now that the Novitzes and the Shepards and the Moises and the Shapiros and the Simmses have vented their spleen, perhaps it is time for a reasoned discussion about issues—if any survive for discussion. Still, if you want to become famous in New Zealand, you can do worse than print an article in these pages. If you’re really lucky, you, too, can get to turn down invitations to appear on Sixty Minutes in Auckland. Next case.