Quietly teaching electrical engineering now, but still a Holocaust denier
Students don’t have too many nice things to say about Arthur R. Butz. He is a professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University, and according to his students, he is boring, his handwriting is too small to make out on the board and he leaves all the real teaching to the teaching assistants. While their words about Butz are harsh, students tend to keep their silence when it comes to a darker part of his work, one that extends far outside the realm of electrical engineering. Butz is a prominent Holocaust denier, but many students walk into his classes without knowing it.
Butz graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1965. Over the next 10 years, Butz developed a name for himself in his field. In 1974 he received tenure from Northwestern as a professor of electrical engineering.
According to his faculty bio page on the Northwestern website, his areas of research include “digital signal processing” and “median and related filtering.” Student comments on Butz through an anonymous online professor review system operated by Northwestern were less than enthusiastic about his teaching style.
“Arthur Butz is lame. He is a good teacher, but his lab lectures do not generally contribute to the lab itself. Also, he doesnt [sic] seem to like the labs himself,” read one comment.
Another comment seemed to allude to Butz’s extra-curricular activities. The comment read, “This guy is a Nazi and his class sucks. You’ll only learn from the [Teaching Assistant].”
In 1976, Butz published a book on a topic far outside his area of academic expertise in electrical engineering: “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against The Presumed Extermination of European Jewry.” The book went on to become influential in the Holocaust denial movement.
In his book, Butz argues that the Holocaust was a creation of Washington to help America’s post-war interests and that this is the key to understanding the truth. “The conclusion is that Washington constructed a frame-up on the Jewish extermination charge,” Butz wrote. “Once this is recognized, the true nature of German Jewish policy will be seen.”
According to his book, many investigators of the Holocaust did not analyze the evidence critically enough, leading to their acceptance of the “myth.” “Surely any thoughtful person must be skeptical,” Butz wrote.
Butz also used the book to condemn the creation of the State of Israel. “The ‘justification’ that Zionists invariably give for driving the Arabs out of Palestine always involves the six million legend to a great extent,” Butz wrote. “Palestine was not invaded by six million dead Jews or, indeed, by any dead Jews and, in any case, it is not just or reasonable to make the Arabs pay for whatever the Germans are supposed to have done to Jews in Europe during the Second World War.”
Over the years, Butz has made some noise, provoking many angry reactions. In 1991, Butz wrote an op-ed for The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper, rejecting the Holocaust. In 2005, after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s assertion that the Holocaust was a myth, Butz issued a press release congratulating the Iranian head of state.
The Chicago Tribune quoted Butz as saying, “I congratulate him [Ahmadinejad] on becoming the first head of state to speak out clearly on these issues and regret only that it was not a Western head of state.”
Northwestern’s president at the time, Henry Bienen, responded with an email sent to all Northwestern students. He wrote, “While I hope everyone understands that Butz’s opinions are his own and in no way represent the views of the university or me personally, his reprehensible opinions on this issue are an embarrassment to Northwestern.”
60 members of Butz’s department at Northwestern signed a letter that read, according to a Daily Northwestern article, “Butz’s Holocaust denial is an affront to our humanity and our standards as scholars, and hence mandates our censure.”
The letter called for Butz to resign from the university, as it read, “We urge him to leave our Department and our University and stop trading on our reputation for academic excellence.”
Since then Butz has maintained his silence. He told New Voices via email that he is “not giving interviews.”
Students interviewed by New Voices were unanimous in saying that the he does not include his views in class. Several students said it was their understanding that Butz agreed never to discuss the issue following his comments about Ahmadinejad. However, some still find Butz’s extracurricular work hard to deal with.
“It makes me uncomfortable to know that he believes this,” said Sam Toizer, a Jewish sophomore from San Francisco. Toizer is in Butz’s Introduction to Electrical Engineering class, a required course for electrical engineering majors. “When I found out, I found it really hard to pay attention to what he was saying.”
Toizer said he discovered that Butz was a vocal Holocaust denier after he was already in the class, and decided to approach the professor about the topic. Toizer knocked on his office door and asked if he would be willing to discuss his views. Butz said that he would not discuss it and immediately shut the door.
Soon after, Toizer told his parents about Butz, and he said that they were “appalled,” but, that they did not want him to approach Butz about it until the quarter ended.
Other students in the class occasionally discuss Butz’s activities, but feel that Butz is really “just an old guy teaching the lab,” as Matt Jaffe put it.
“Not many people are angry about it,” the sophomore said. “We just kind of make fun of him.”
Jaffe, like Toizer, was not aware that Butz was a Holocaust denier before signing up for the class. He found out from a member of his fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, a national historically Jewish fraternity.
While Professor Butz has remained quiet lately, reactions to him in the past were strong.
Rabbi Michael Balinsky, the Hillel director at Northwestern from 1981-2000, said that when students came to him unsure about whether they should take Butz’s class, he discouraged them.
Many campus groups tried to engage Butz in public debate or discussion, which Balinsky opposed.
“To give him a platform is to give him everything he wants,” said Balinsky, now the executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. “We thought it would be a terrible mistake.”
There have been many efforts to counteract Butz, such as a student petition in 2006 demanding Butz remain silent about his views after he congratulated Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust.
Perhaps the most dramatic result of opposing Butz’s views was Sheldon Epstein’s departure from Northwestern. Epstein served as an adjunct instructor for a course in Butz’s department. Even after Jerome B. Cohen, the dean of the engineering school, told him not to, Epstein included Holocaust studies in the curriculum of his electrical engineering course. Epstein’s contract was subsequently not renewed. According to a Daily Northwestern article from the time, Epstein believed his contract was not renewed because he using his class to oppose Butz.
Still today, Butz teaches a required introductory course, leaving electrical engineering students with few options.
Balinsky said that Northwestern “should get someone else” to teach the class.
Toizer said that Northwestern’s position is a difficult one, seeing as the current administration must deal with a professor who received his tenure so long ago.
“I don’t think there’s really anything Northwestern can do, except, like, ask him to leave,” Toizer said.
One solution Toizer believed could be effective would be to tell students of Butz’s activities in advance. He says he wishes he knew before he signed up for the class, and is frustrated whenever he must listen to Butz in class.
Toizer, talking about what comes to mind when he thinks of Butz, said, “How can someone so educated be so ignorant about something?”
Gabi P. Remz is a freshman at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He spent the past year studying and doing national service in Israel. He is a New Voices Magazine national correspondent.