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Debate Over the Holocaust : Harbor College Cancels Discussion; It May Be Held Off Campus

March 21, 1985|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

Plans for a Holocaust debate, which aroused angry opposition from some Jewish leaders, were called off at Harbor College this week in the wake of a scuffle between a rightist student and leftist demonstrators on the Wilmington campus.

But faculty sponsors of the debate said the two debaters--a Roman Catholic priest from Chicago and David McCalden, a self-described "revisionist" who disputes the historical accuracy of the Holocaust--may meet informally in a downtown Los Angeles hotel on Friday.

David B. Wolf, Harbor's vice president for academic affairs, said concerns about attracting further demonstrations and possible violence led to the decision Monday to cancel the campus debate between McCalden and the Rev. Paul T. Powlikowski, a professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union.

The priest was described by Wolf as a nationally known scholar and writer on the Nazi persecution of Jews in the World War II era.

Change of Location

Wolf, the chief faculty organizer of the debate, said Wednesday that he has contacted McCalden and proposed that the meeting be moved from the campus to a private location. He said he plans to make audio tapes of the debate for classroom use at Harbor, thus achieving at least part of his original purpose--to expose students of history and political science, among others, to what he hopes will be an intellectual discussion of questions raised by the rightists.

Attendance at the debate will be restricted to a moderator, two observers for each side and perhaps a dozen Harbor College faculty members, Wolf said.

McCalden, founder of the Institute for Historical Review, said he accepted Wolf's second invitation, but final arrangements for the debate remained tentative on Wednesday, pending Powlikowski's arrival from Chicago and the rental of a hotel conference room. Wolf said he will be paying the debate costs out of his own pocket.

The Torrance headquarters of McCalden's institute--which once offered $50,000 to anyone who could prove that any Jews had been murdered by the Nazis, but reneged when the challenge was accepted--was destroyed in a firebombing last summer. McCalden has since set up "Truth Missions," using a Manhattan Beach mailing address.

Reluctant Approval

Harbor sources said the college administration gave only reluctant approval to Wolf's original plan to stage the debate for a student-only audience. The administration intended to withdraw its support, these sources said, if news of the debate revived the kind of controversies that were generated by rightist articles published last year in the student newspaper, Hawk.

The months-long series of articles, echoing rightist claims that the Holocaust "myth" is exaggerated to gain sympathy for "Zionist causes," provoked a storm of protest from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

Trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District, which operates the Wilmington campus, censured the Hawk for publishing the articles. Editors of the newspaper later fired 20-year-old Joe Fields, the student writer of the articles, for participating in a campus demonstration by McCalden and other rightists during a college-sponsored seminar on the Holocaust in February.

It was Fields who engaged in a shouting and shoving match with members of the International Committee Against Racism who were distributing flyers on the campus last Thursday. The flyers demanded an end to "Neo-Nazism at Harbor College."

Minor Cut

College officials said Fields received a minor cut on his face before campus police could break up the scuffle. No arrests were made.

Fields said he regretted the incident because, he said, it gave the administration an "excuse" to call off the Holocaust debate. "I could kick myself in the behind for that," he said. 'But I've got a hot head, and like a fool I went out there to see what was going on."

In February, after Fields was ousted as the Hawk's opinion editor, the controversy provoked by his articles soon died down. But sharp divisions remained among Jewish leaders on how to respond to rightist attacks on the traditional record of the Holocaust, according to sources in the Jewish community.

The rift has been perhaps most evident in positions taken by Wolf, the Harbor College administrator and a member of a prominent Los Angeles Jewish family (his father, Alfred Wolf, is chief rabbi of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple) and Harvey B. Schechter, the Anti-Defamation League's aggressive Western regional director.

Two at Odds

Schechter made no secret of his displeasure with the Harbor administration's handling of the Fields affair. Wolf, who took the brunt of outside criticism, has maintained that the problem could have been dealt with quietly, as an internal campus matter, if Schechter had not gone public with his demands for strong measures against Fields' use of the Hawk to circulate what Schechter termed "racist, anti-Semitic" views.

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