Minnesota News

Scholar says he still wants U Holocaust center job despite controversy

A large university sign
A sign for the University of Minnesota on the West Bank in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The University of Minnesota has put its search for a new director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies on hold after its job offer to a controversial Israeli historian drew strong objections from two professors and some members of the Twin Cities Jewish community.

Less than a week after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in southern Israel, Raz Segal of Stockton University in New Jersey published an essay in the magazine Jewish Currents in which he called Israel’s military response “a textbook case of genocide unfolding in front of our eyes.”

University of Minnesota professors Karen Painter and Bruno Chaouat resigned from the center’s board on Friday in protest of Segal’s selection, as first reported in TC Jewfolk.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Segal told MPR News that he stands by his October article and its key argument that Israel’s siege of Gaza constitutes the systematic destruction of Palestinians and their society in violation of international law. 

“They’re concerned about absolute loyalty to Israel, and they’re narrowing down Jewish identity to loyalty to a violent state,” Segal said.

Painter said in a phone interview with MPR News on Tuesday that Segal’s views are extreme.

“We need a moral core to the research,” Painter said. “Sometimes scholars are just trying to be original and provocative. This is not a job for a highly provocative, contentious scholar.”

She praised U Interim President Jeff Ettinger for pausing the hiring process.

“I’m so proud to be at an institution where they recognize a mistake and they correct it and say wait,” Painter said.

Chaouat writes in his resignation letter that Segal cannot fulfill the center’s mission.

“He has failed to recognize the genocidal intent of Hamas. He does not understand that a movement like Hamas is inherently fascist and represents precisely what CHGS stands against.” Chaouat also contends that Segal justified “Hamas’s atrocities five days after they occurred.”

Segal said that Chaouat’s statement is false and defamatory.

“I have said exactly the opposite,” Segal said. “I’ve described the Hamas-led attack on Israel as a case of mass murder, as war crimes, as crimes against humanity. I’ve been very clear on this for months and months on end.”

Segal said that he dedicated his career to studying genocide after hearing stories from his maternal and paternal grandparents about surviving the Holocaust. He has focused much of his scholarship on the mass deportation and murder of Jews in the Subcarpathian Rus’ region of Europe, both by Nazis and Hungarian authorities during and prior to World War II. 

In a statement, the U says that because of the director’s “community-facing and leadership role,” it's important to consider the views of those who opposed the hiring decision, and that Ettinger has paused the selection process “to allow an opportunity to determine next steps.”

Segal said that he received a job offer after meeting with the search committee and visiting campus, and that he still wants to come to Minnesota, though he has not signed a contract. 

“What the university should do now is before it descends more into this hole that it has dug itself into, it’s best to retract, to apologize, to offer me the job that I received in a completely legitimate process,” Segal said.

In its own statement, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas says that dozens of community members contacted the U to protest Segal’s appointment, including descendants of Holocaust survivors and a person who survived the Oct. 7 attack.

The JCRC says the next director must be “a unifying and not divisive figure.”

Segal said he has received many messages of support in response to the U’s announcement.