Jewish Professor Who Declined Honorary Polish Doctorate Because of Anti-Semitic Attacks is No Stranger to Discrimination
by Joshua Levitt
University of Leeds, U.K. Professor Emeritus Zygmunt Bauman, 87, author of Modernity and The Holocaust, turned down an honorary doctorate from the University of Lower Silesia, in Wroclaw, Poland, after the announcement of the special award ceremony sparked anti-Semitic attacks against him online, London’s Jewish Chronicle reported.
According to press reports cited by the Jewish Chronicle, the anti-Semitic comments included,”I cannot stand the Jewish Bolshevik,” “Death to the Zionist plague of mankind,” and “Down with Judeo-Communism.” In a letter declining the honorary doctorate, cited by the Jewish Chronicle, Professor Bauman expressed his desire to protect the university from an “unnecessary uproar.”
The hate speech directed against Bauman may have been particularly upsetting for the retired professor, a Polish war hero, who was forced to flee Poland because of an anti-Semitic campaign against him in 1968. The anti-Semitism in this case is also somewhat ironic, in that neither he nor his parents ever actually practiced Judaism, and some of his scholarly work is considered to be particularly anti-Zionist.
Born in PoznaÅ„, Poland, in 1925, Bauman fled with his family in 1939 to the Soviet Union after the Nazis invaded, according to an interview and book review published by The Guardian, in 2007. He enlisted in the Polish First Army, working as a political education instructor for Military Intelligence, then fought in the battles of Kolberg and Berlin, and, when the war concluded, was awarded the Military Cross of Valor.
For the next eight years, Bauman served as a political officer in the Internal Security Corps (KBW), a military unit formed to combat Ukrainian nationalist insurgents. In 1953, Bauman, who had by then risen to the rank of major in the KBW, was dishonorably discharged after his father approached the Israeli embassy in Warsaw to learn about emigrating to Israel, something which Bauman was very much against, standing in direct opposition to his father’s Zionism.
While serving in the KBW, Bauman began studying sociology at the Warsaw Academy of Social Sciences, then went on to study philosophy at the University of Warsaw. There, his teachers included StanisÅ‚aw Ossowski and Julian Hochfeld, who would later be named vice-director of UNESCO’s Department for Social Sciences, in Paris, in 1962, when Bauman would inherit his faculty chair. Bauman completed his master’s degree and in 1954 became a lecturer at the University of Warsaw, where he remained until 1968.
In 1968, after a vicious anti-Semitic campaign led by MieczysÅ‚aw Moczar, the Chief of the Polish Communist Secret Police, Bauman was compelled to renounce his membership in the governing Polish United Workers’ Party. The government campaign against Jews began in 1967 in parallel with the Soviet Union’s ending of diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six Day War, according to a 2005 report funded by the American Jewish Committee called “The Anti-Zionist Campaign in Poland of 1967-1968.” Factory workers across Poland were forced to publicly denounce Zionism and the subsequent purges within the communist party resulted in the expulsion from Poland of thousands of Poles of Jewish ancestry on whom the secret police functionaries then blamed for all of the crimes and horrors of the Stalinist period. Before the end of 1971, almost 13,000 Jews from Poland had moved abroad.
The campaign cost Bauman his chair at the University of Warsaw. He gave up his Polish citizenship to be allowed to leave the country, then emigrated to Israel, where he taught at Tel Aviv University, before accepting a chair in sociology at the University of Leeds, where he worked until his retirement. In his honor, in 2010, the University of Leeds created The Bauman Institute to further his work in sociology.
His work in the 1960s and 1970s was on the subject of class and social conflict. In the 1980s he moved into writing about the relationship between modernity and bureaucracy, rationality and social exclusion, which is where he first tried to codify the Jewish experience in Europe and how modernity paved the way for the Holocaust.
Following Freud, Bauman saw European modernity as a trade off, meaning society agreed to forego some freedoms to receive the benefits of increased individual security. Modernity, in what Bauman later came to term its ‘solid’ form, involved removing unknowns and uncertainty, controlling nature, creating hierarchical bureaucracy, establishing rules and regulations, control and categorization — all of which attempted to gradually remove personal insecurities, making the chaos of human life appear well-ordered and familiar. However, what Bauman then argued was that society’s focus on creating order from chaos would never have the desired results. In fact, by ordering so much, what he found was that there were always groups who couldn’t fit into the generic boxes.
In his book Modernity and Ambivalence, Bauman uses the allegorical figure of “the stranger,” drawing upon sociologist Georg Simmel and philosopher Jacques Derrida. In a consumer-oriented economy, the strange and the unfamiliar is always enticing; in new food, fashion or tourism, it is the allure of what is unfamiliar that attracts us. The negative side is that the stranger, because he cannot be controlled and ordered, becomes the object of fear; the potential mugger, the outsider who is constantly threatening the seemingly secure structures society maintains.
In Bauman’s most famous work, Modernity and the Holocaust, he draws upon Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno to argue that the Holocaust should be seen as deeply connected to modernity and its order-making efforts, rather than a one-off event. Division of labor into unrelated tasks, the assembly line approach, a focus on taxonomies, and a focus on following rules, however arbitrary, all contributed to the mentality that fed the Holocaust, he argued. What he sees as very dangerous today is that modern society still views the Holocaust — to use Bauman’s metaphor — like a picture hanging on a wall, rather than the outcome of the mechanization of war into tiny parts and the dehumanization of the stranger par excellence in Europe, the Jew. The Final Solution was an extreme example of a society excising the uncomfortable and indeterminate elements within. Along with philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Bauman sees the same processes of exclusion at the core of the Holocaust still unresolved in the modern world and playing a role in many of today’s conflicts.
In the 1990s, Bauman’s work began to focus on what he terms the problems of “liquid modernity” in societies built around consumerism. Society’s fears have become more amorphous, more liquid, and are harder to protect against, such as pedophilia or terrorism, but equally haunting and vilified as the stranger.