Alessio Lerro, an adjunct comparative literature professor, posted the comments in online discourse leading up to a Modern Language Association vote on a resolution to take action against Israel for denying academics entry to the West Bank.
Temple University is distancing itself from a professor who recently made inflammatory statements regarding the Holocaust and Jewish influence in academia. The remarks were made during an online discourse leading up to a Modern Language Association vote on a resolution to take action against Israel for denying academics entry to the West Bank.
The association’s full membership was voting on a resolution passed by the MLA’s delegate assembly in January calling on the U.S. State Department to “contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”
In order to make that resolution official, at least 10 percent of the 30,000 MLA members were required to participate in the six-week voting cycle that ended Sunday. The results have not been made public.
The debate in an online forum that was leaked before the vote included a number of anti-Israel slurs, as well as statements that could be described as anti-Semitic.
“This resolution rightly targets only Israel given the humongous influence that Jewish scholars have in the decision-making process of Academia in general,” wrote Alessio Lerro, an adjunct assistant professor of comparative literature at Temple.
Also this spring, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Lerro posted a Facebook comment questioning the number of Jews who died in the Shoah, sparking accusations of Holocaust denial.
“Six million? mh…. we all know (or should know) that the counting of Jews is a bit controversial,” Lerro said in the post, which has since been deleted. “This said, without the death toll of The USSR, we would all speak German now.”
In response to Lerro’s post, a Temple University spokesman initially told a Washington, D.C., media outlet that the school “promotes open discussion and expression among its diverse community of scholars. The exercise of academic freedom necessarily results in a vigorous exchange of ideas.”
Temple later released a statement distancing itself from Lerro: “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.”
Regarding Lerro’s claim about the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust, the school said that “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.”
Yaron Sideman, Consul General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region, condemned Lerro’s statement.
The motivations of “so-called ‘professors’ who deny the Holocaust” are “anything but academic,” he wrote Tuesday, having just returned to Philadelphia from the dedication of a Holocaust memorial in Ohio.
“On the contrary, they are anti-academic in that they seek to deliberately obstruct and distort objective, historic truths.”
Temple Hillel leaders have been in contact with the school’s administration regarding Lerro’s comments, according to Rabbi Howard Alpert, director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. He also emphasized that he was just an adjunct professor.
“I think it’s unfortunate if his quotes are indicative of a certain lack of intellectual depth and scholarship, if that’s what Temple students are subject to,” said Alpert.
“We all believe that Temple is a great university and deserves better faculty than this individual teacher,” he added.
In addition to Lerro, a number of MLA resolution proponents criticized “Zionist attack dogs” and “the Zionist lobby,” which “railroads its way through Congress, universities and civil society,” according to some of the debate published on Pastebin.com. The language was leaked on an internal MLA website.
Resolution opponents noted that countries with abysmal records on human rights and academic freedom were not singled out for condemnation like Israel.
JTA contributed to this report.