Debate rages over non-Jewish head of Jewish studies

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NEW YORK (JTA) — A non-Jewish professor's charges that bigotry forced him to resign as director of the Queens College Jewish studies program have triggered a national firestorm about the proper qualifications for heading an ethnic studies program.

Queens College Russian and Yiddish literature Professor Thomas Bird, 58, who is Catholic, resigned last month amid a nationwide furor over his appointment.

The controversy erupted when a Queens College colleague, Samuel Heilman, chairman of the sociology department, said in a New York Jewish Week column that Bird was unqualified for the job.

Bird, a Yiddish scholar and longtime activist on behalf of Soviet Jews, has been with the Jewish studies program staff since it started nearly 25 years ago. It now serves about 500 students a semester.

Heilman said that because Bird was not Jewish, did not know Hebrew and had not published articles in mainstream Jewish studies, he was not qualified to direct the Jewish studies program, one of the largest in the nation.

In response, Bird charged that Heilman's criticism was gratuitous and a personal attack on his record. He charged Heilman with "an orchestrated campaign to render it impossible for me to carry out the director's duties."

Bird accused his detractors of "primitive religious bigotry" in causing him to resign just two weeks after his appointment was announced.

"It is impossible not to conclude that the attempt to trash my academic record and standing in the community through insinuation and omission is anything other than a fig leaf for objections to my being a gentile," Bird said.

He submitted a resignation letter to college president Allan Lee Sessoms, who had backed his appointment and had tried unsuccessfully to get Bird to reconsider, according to a college spokesman.

"Many Americans are all too familiar with the notorious practice of blackballing someone who is not our kind," said Sessoms, an African American scholar who was named president last year.

"There is nothing to be done now but to recognize discrimination for what it is, even with a reverse spin, even when it strikes so close to home."

Heilman's letter drew an avalanche of support for Bird by both Queens College colleagues and other scholars who reject the argument that a Jewish studies program must be headed by a Jew.

Statements from the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League stressed that one's religious affiliation should not play a role in consideration for such a position.

"It would be no gain for Jews should religion once again be made a criterion for an academic appointment,"said Norman Redlich, chairman of the American Jewish Congress' governing council.

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor for the New Republic, said the criterion should be whether one is a "competent scholar." He said he could not speak to Bird's competence, but he criticized Heilman for "behaving like a tribalist."

Michael Berenbaum, professor of theology at Georgetown University and research director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, criticized as irrelevant Heilman's assertion that Bird does not have a doctorate. He noted that Brown University's Judaic studies program was highly successful under the directorship of a non-Jewish chairman.

"I don't know if Tom Bird is competent or not," said Berenbaum, "but I do know that it is unfair to argue against him as chair because he is not Jewish and does not hold a Ph.D."

Heilman's colleagues, some of whom are among the top Jewish scholars in the city, also were critical of his stance on Bird.

"We can't go after someone strictly because they are not of the right religious origin," said Egon Mayer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate School of City University of New York.

One of Heilman's few defenders, Professor Joseph Sungolowsky, who was terminated as the director in May, took offense at Bird's charges of religious discrimination.

"I am horrified at the acquisition of bigotry that he levels at his colleagues," said Sungolowsky, who claims that he was dismissed without explanation.

Sungolowsky, an ordained rabbi with a doctorate in French literature, also chastised Bird for accepting the appointment without asking him why he was terminated. Bird, as a non-Jew, did not have the background and credentials "to respond to what Jewish studies at Queens College stands for,"he said.

"We have a lot of yeshiva kids, a specific program with a heavy Jewish population," Sungolowsky said. "You have to know how to speak to these children, you have to know how to speak to the community, a dense and substantial Jewish community."

Both Sungolowsky and Bird were asked to direct the program in 1994 when it became apparent that other scholars at the college did not want the job. The position includes administering the 22-course academic program and running the Jewish center, which sponsors community lectures.

Sessoms characterized the position as administrative and said he hopes to attract a major scholar in the field of Jewish studies to be "the academic and spiritual center" of the department.

Sessoms said he had consulted with Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel about the decision. Wiesel said he did not have a role in the appointment and would not get involved in recruiting anyone.

"It was a mistake that the president said I supported the appointment," he said. "I did not."