WASHINGTON — A U.S. Jewish group has urged France's leading university to refuse to grant a doctor's degree to Syria's defense minister because he wrote a book repeating the medieval "blood libel" that Jews engage in ritual murder of gentiles, a leader of the group said Thursday.
But the University of Paris (Sorbonne) indicated that it would award the degree to Gen. Mustafa Talas, the author, if his dissertation is "scientifically acceptable."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles, made public letters he exchanged with Jacques Soppelsa, president of the Sorbonne, after a French newspaper reported that Talas expects to receive a doctorate this fall on the basis of a thesis on Soviet military strategy.
"We wonder whether or not a person who has shown such intellectual dishonesty by peddling outrageous and dangerous lies . . . should be honored by any university with a doctorate degree--no matter what his field of study might be," Hier wrote.
Soppelsa replied that he did not know if Talas was a doctoral candidate, but he said if the Syrian does submit a thesis, it will be judged "on the content of the work."
In a telephone interview, Hier said that Talas appeared to be trying to use anti-Semitism to whip up public support in Syria for an eventual war against Israel.
The Talas book, "The Matzo of Zion," claims that Jews kill gentiles to obtain blood that is used in making matzo, the unleavened bread used in celebration of the Passover. The charge, which has no basis in fact, has been repeated in anti-Semitic tracts since the Middle Ages.
Hier has sought the help of Vice President George Bush, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Canadian External Affairs Minister Joe Clark in his campaign against the book. Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, met this week with Bush.
Hier said Bush described the book as "outrageous and repugnant." A spokesman for the vice president confirmed that the meeting took place, but said he did not know if the vice president plans to take any additional action.
U.S. relations with Syria have been frosty for years, but the United States has been restrained in its comments on the Damascus regime recently, in part because Washington hopes that Syria will help secure the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon.
The prospects of a U.S.-Syrian rapprochement make Israeli officials nervous because Syria is Israel's most bitter adversary. U.S. officials believed last spring that war could break out at any moment between Israel and Syria. Tensions have subsided somewhat since.