Academy Criticism Of A Foreign Associate Stirs Debate Over NAS Role And Policies

Controversy centers on whether and how the elite science body should deal with members whose behavior is questionable For the first time in its 129-year history, the National Academy of Sciences has sent a letter to one of its members hinting that he should resign. The unprecedented move has called into question the academy's role as an ostensibly apolitical body. The ensuing debate has focused on, among other issues, whether NAS should censure its members whose activities are offensive to a l

Barbara Spector
Sep 27, 1992

Controversy centers on whether and how the elite science body should deal with members whose behavior is questionable
For the first time in its 129-year history, the National Academy of Sciences has sent a letter to one of its members hinting that he should resign. The unprecedented move has called into question the academy's role as an ostensibly apolitical body. The ensuing debate has focused on, among other issues, whether NAS should censure its members whose activities are offensive to a large group of people, what evidence is necessary to prompt such censure, and whether it is proper for the NAS council, without first consulting the academy's grass roots, to confront members it believes have violated "what the National Academy stands for," in the words of the academy's foreign secretary, James B. Wyngaarden.

The letter, signed by NAS president Frank Press and by Wyngaarden, was delivered in July to Russian foreign associate member Igor R. Shafarevich. It asks Shafarevich, head of the algebra section of the V.A. Steklov Institute in Moscow, the mathematics institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, "to consider whether it is appropriate for you to maintain your membership" in light of alleged anti-Semitic activity on his part. According to Wyngaarden, the decision to send the letter was made unanimously by the NAS council. The letter was sparked in part by what Press and Wyngaarden refer to as "anti-Semitic writings" contained in Shafarevich's book Russophobia. The book, written in 1982, was issued in Russian by German publisher Russischer Nationaler Verein, Munich, 1989, and Russian publisher Sovietskii Pisatel, Moscow, 1991; it was circulated informally in Russia prior to publication.

Exacerbating the council's concern, according to Wyngaarden, who formerly was the director of the National Institutes of Health, was information the council has received from NAS members who have visited Russia that Shafarevich "used [his] position to interfere with the careers" of young Jewish mathematicians. The letter states that "we are informed that there are few, if any, Jewish members of the Steklov Institute in Moscow, even though many of the outstanding mathematicians of Russia are Jewish."

Wyngaarden emphasizes that the letter does not explicitly ask Shafarevich to resign. "We have no mechanism for doing that," he says. "We just asked him to consider his position in terms of what the National Academy stands for." While such principles are not stated in the charter of the academy, they constitute "the culture of the academy that's taken for granted [and that] one doesn't have to put in writing: free and open communication of scientists, the right to express oneself and the right to speak freely and not be penalized for it--unless one encroaches on someone s right," Wyngaarden says, referring to alleged discriminatory hiring practices at the Steklov. In an August reply to the Press-Wyngaarden letter, written in Russian and translated by an NAS staffer, Shafarevich states: "By suggesting that I personally resign my membership from the Academy, you are in this way asking me to agree with your accusations, which I find absurd and scandalous.... I feel that the question of my continued membership in the National Academy is the Academy's own problem." At press time, Shafarevich had not responded to questions from The Scientist.

Some academy members feel the unusual move was too hasty. "I feel that the academy acted precipitously in the action it took," says NAS member David Mumford, Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Harvard University. In a letter to Press, Mumford asserts that "I feel that such an unprecedented and political act should be taken only after careful consideration by an informed majority of the Academy." According to NAS staffers, one of the earliest written communications to the academy regarding Shafarevich's alleged anti-Semitic activity was a private letter to Press, written in February, from Lee Lorch, a professor, emeritus, of mathematics at York University in Toronto. Lorch is not a member of NAS but belongs to its Canadian counterpart, the Royal Society of Canada. "I wrote the letter to remind the academy that they had elected this man, and this is what he's doing," he says. The letter does not call for any specific action, but asks Press "what statements or actions the Academy has taken in respect to [Shaf-arevich's] behavior."

After reviewing Lorch's letter, plus a letter from 16 NAS members that discussed anti-Semitism at the Steklov without mentioning Shaf-arevich (see story on page 9), the NAS council requested a copy of an English translation of Russophobia from mathematician Lawrence A. Shepp of AT&T Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, N.J. Shepp, an NAS member, has translated the book and has been distributing it privately since 1989.

Russophobia, consisting largely of quotes from Russian, Jewish, and other sources, can be interpreted as blaming Jews for the many of the ills of Russian society throughout history. For example, according to the Shepp translation, it states: "The especially high concentration of Jewish names among the leaders and executives of actions at the most painful moments who ... enabled the rupture of our historical traditions, and destroyed our historical roots, hits one right in the eye."

In his response to Press and Wyngaarden, Shafarevich denies that the book is anti-Semitic, saying that it "can be considered anti-Semitic in the same way that criticism of Russian communism can be considered anti-Russian." Shepp, who refers to his work as a "hostile translation" of Russophobia, also has circulated a translator's preface and notes to the book, in which he expresses his own opinions. One note, for example, refers to the Arab position on "the Palestine issue" as "intransigent, cruel, tyrannical, terroristic."

"I wanted to reveal my biases to the reader," Shepp says. "I thought it would be dishonest to hide them. As I was reading [the original], I was writing down my own reactions; I wasn't judging it as a scientist would. People could ignore [the notes] if they wanted to." Shepp adds that although some readers "thought maybe my translation wasn't objective enough," the conclusion that Russophobia is anti-Semitic has also been reached by those who read other unauthorized English translations (one was prepared by the Joint Publication Research Service, United States Department of Commerce), as well as those who read the original Russian text.

In his letter to Press, Mumford says that "... the only fair way to assess [Shafarevich's] intent would be an authorized translation." Shepp counters that waiting for such a translation "would tie our hands indefinitely." In writing the letter to Shafarevich, Shepp says, NAS "went further than I would have thought, but I support what they did." About 350 U.S. mathematicians--including some Soviet emigres--have signed an open letter to Shafarevich decrying "the numerous antisemitic sentiments" in Russophobia. The open letter was printed as an "Advertisement" in the March 1992 issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society (39[3]), but was actually published at no cost. "[Shafarevich is] using his stature as a mathematician to help promote his ideas," says AMS vice president Lenore Blum, one of the mathematicians who gathered signatures for the letter.

Former students of Shafarevich's say that, while Russophobia and his recent public statements about Jews offer evidence that today he holds anti-Semitic sentiments, in their experience he did nothing that would indicate any prejudice. In fact, they say, Shafarevich helped to advance the careers of Jews in the years when roadblocks were routinely placed in their way by prominent Soviet mathematicians, such as the late Ivan M. Vinogradov, head of the Steklov in Moscow from its establishment in 1934 until his death in 1983. According to the appendix to It Seems I Am a Jew (Grigori Freiman; translated and edited by Melvyn B. Nathanson; Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), written by a group of anonymous Soviet emigre mathematicians, Vinogradov was "proud of the fact that under his leadership the Institute has become `free of Jews.' "

In March, when the National Academy of Sciences met to discuss how best to aid the scientific community in the former Soviet Union (Scott Huler, The Scientist, March 30, 1992, page 1), 16 NAS members wrote a letter to academy president Frank Press expressing their "grave concerns" that aid would be used "to perpetuate discriminatory practices." The letter said: "In particular, we would like to recommend close scrutiny of any proposed help to the V.A. Steklov Institute of Mathematics. Despite its denials of anti-Semitic discrimination, the Institute has a long record of such practices.... We therefore urge that before the United States provides funds it should insist that the Institute show good faith in both word and deed.... Monitoring should be provided by our community of senior scientists...."

The letter was written on the stationery of the Bayside, N.Y.-based Committee of Concerned Scientists (CCS). After it was sent to the academy, five more NAS members added their names to the list of signers, according to CCS executive director Dorothy Hirsch. In his book It Seems I Am a Jew (translated and edited by Melvyn B. Nathanson, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 1980), Soviet mathematician Grigori Freiman calls the Steklov "dominated by a spirit of anti-Semitism and intolerance that is poisoning mathematical life.... It stinks like a corpse."

Mathematicians at the Steklov Institute had not responded to questions from The Scientist at press time. Melvin Lax, Distinguished Professor of Physics at the City College of New York and one of the five later signers of the letter, says it's important to determine which individuals the U.S. scientific community is aiding before funds are disbursed. "You don't want to end up just giving money to an institute," he says.

Says Isadore Singer, Institute Professor of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "If you're giving support to the Steklov in Moscow, you're giving support to the inner circle, which has demonstrated its strong anti-Semitic bias." Vitalii Goldanskii, director of the Institute of Chemical Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, agrees that measures should be taken to ensure that U.S. aid given to Russian scientists "corresponds to the real significance of scientists" and not be given merely "to those who are more sophisticated in getting it." At his institute, Goldanskii says, a system of peer review has been established to determine which scientists receive aid.

"Everyone would like to help, but they have a different sense of what to do," says David Mumford, Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Harvard University. With the changes that have taken place in the former Soviet Union, Mumford says, "there's no such thing as a track record, in a sense. There's no way you can be sure; you have to take a personal risk and make a guess when you give aid." Nathanson, a professor of mathematics at Lehman College, City University of New York, says that it's impossible to "micromanage the allocation process, and to give aid only to those whose views are politically correct.

"If we're going to try to aid the new Russia, and, particularly, if we want to try to help their scientists survive, inevitably some people will be supported whose views we don't like."


Soviet emigre Igor Dolgachev, a professor of mathematics at the University of Michigan who was a student of Shafarevich's, says that, in contrast to the actions of Vino-gradov, Shafarevich took on many Jewish students. "He never considered this as important, whether [a potential student] was Jewish or not," says Dolgachev, who is half Jewish on his mother's side. For professors who wanted to avoid Jewish students, Dolgachev says, "it was very easy to find an excuse"--for example, by claiming that time constraints precluded taking on another student.

To the best of his knowledge, says Dolgachev, who emigrated in 1977, Shafarevich "never hurt anybody personally. In fact, I think he helped some [Jewish] people," by promoting their papers for publication and affording them the opportunity to defend their theses, avenues that were generally closed to Jews in the years before perestroika.

Boris Moishezon, a Jewish former student of Shafarevich's who is now a professor of mathematics at Columbia University, has been quoted in the Russian-American newspaper Novoe Russkoe Slovo (Oct. 5, 1990; excerpted in the Mathematical Intelligencer, 14[1]:61-2, 1992) as saying: "... it is hard for me wholly to set aside my friendship [with Shafarevich]. It is the same with him: giving an interview, he recalls in the most positive way my name and those of his other Jewish students."

"I refuse to read this Russophobia because I don't want to spoil my impression of him," says Andrey Todorov, another former student of Shafarevich's who is now a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Todorov, who emigrated in 1989, is dismayed that NAS would take action against Shafarevich for deeds unrelated to the quality of his science. "I can't believe that the academy could be so political," he says.

In the 1970s Shafarevich spoke out openly in favor of increased human rights in the Soviet Union; his cause was actively advanced by prominent Western mathematicians. He wrote articles criticizing the Soviet system and, according to a New York Times report of Sept. 5, 1973 (T. Shabad, page A1), was the first scientist of Soviet Academy rank to publicly support Andrei Sakharov. Shafarevich's actions resulted in dismissal from his teaching position at Moscow University. He was also ousted from editorship of the journal Izvestiya Akademii Nauk SSR and from the Steklov's Scientific Council in the 1970s.

In a response to the March 1992 open letter, written in English and published in this month's issue of the Notices (39[7]:683, 1992), Shafarevich takes to task "the people who signed the letter and whom I knew 15 or 20 years ago as soviet [sic] mathematicians." In the Soviet Union, he says, "they witnessed the ... exile of Sakharov, persecution of religion, detention of sane persons in psychiatric hospitals for political reasons. We haven't [sic] heard their protests against it then. Do they really believe that my paper is more dangerous?"

Says his former student Todorov: "All of us hated the [Soviet] system, but we were afraid to say anything about these things. But he was giving interviews [on his political views] in the Western press, and on radio. All of us admired him."

In his response to Press and Wyngaarden, Shafarevich denies that he plays a fundamental role in hiring decisions at the Steklov: "You charge me with the responsibility for the staffing of the Mathematical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences [the Steklov], where I am the head of the Algebra Department--which is actually comical, since for many years I was barely tolerated in this Institute." Wyngaarden says that following Vinogradov's death, "you would think [Shafarevich] could, if he chose, use his substantial influence to change some of those [discriminatory] policies, but they have not been changed."

Shafarevich's response takes the academy to task for basing its judgment about the situation at the Steklov on hearsay. He writes: "Do you really feel that it is appropriate to discuss such anonymous accusations?" "You can't apply some American standards to a completely different way of life," says a Jewish Soviet emigre mathematician, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"I think the main point is Russophobia," the emigre says. "The other points are almost unprovable." Abram Kagan, a Russian emigre who formerly worked at the Leningrad branch of the Steklov, believes that Shafarevich's "administrative influence [at the Steklov] is not significant at all." But, says Kagan, now a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, College Park, "his views, his publications, his discussions form an atmosphere at the Steklov that is anti-Semitic." Kagan, who emigrated four years ago, says he is disappointed that "the initiative [to denounce Shaf-arevich's allegedly anti-Semitic publications] was taken by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, and not by the Russian Academy of Sciences." According to mathematicians in the U.S. with close ties to Russia, in recent years Shafarevich has been appearing on Russian television to express his support for extreme Russian nationalist, anti-Semitic organizations such as Pamyat. "He does it in such a vulgar way," says Dolgachev. "He--like no one -can imagine what [incendiary statements] can lead to--to physical danger." The situation "is very tragic for me," says Dolgachev.

Other NAS members have expressed offensive points of view without censure by the academy. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, NAS member and Nobel Prize-winning physicist William Shockley, inventor of the transistor, purported the idea, which he claimed was a conclusion drawn from research, that whites are smarter than blacks; he went on speaking tours promoting the notion. The difference between the Shockley and Shafarevich cases, says Wyngaarden, is that Shockley "never did anything but express his view. He didn't prevent [blacks] from publishing."

In an August letter prompted by media accounts of NAS's actions, York University's Lorch urges Press to relate his letter to Shafarevich to cases such as Shockley's: "... it is important for the Academy to declare ... that it is as ready to condemn those waging racist campaigns at home as it is those advocating anti-Semitism abroad." The letter also says that "I am ... suggesting that side issues, irrelevant in my opinion, can arise as a result of joining the Steklov situation to [Shafarevich's] systematic chauvinistic public campaign involving anti-Semitism."

Press and Wyngaarden's letter to Shafarevich represents a "tremendous innovation in terms of of academy action," says Felix Browder, University Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., and chairman of NAS's mathematics section. Shafarevich's response to Press and Wyngaarden criticizes the NAS officials for breaching confidentiality. "On your letter it stated: `personal and confidential,' " he writes, "and as a result I refused to make comments to the press. However, I later found out that simultaneously you informed the press of the content of the letter as well as your commentaries."

In April 1990--nearly two years before Lorch's first letter to the academy--NAS member Serge Lang, a professor of mathematics at Yale University, sent a six-page letter to Shafarevich, with copies to NAS and to the Russian journal Novy Mir for publication. The letter states: "... the issues raised by your book Russophobia deserve being addressed in light of the history of our relationship. I have supported you ... in the past." It goes on to relate Lang's activism on behalf of Shafarevich in the 1970s, when the Russian was removed from his teaching post. It also discusses an article by Shafarevich in Moscow News (June 12, 1988) in which he criticized Albert Einstein and other Westerners for not having protested sufficiently against Stalinism; Lang distributed the article widely and conducted his own investigation of Einstein's position on Stalinism, confirming the point made by Shafarevich.

Lang's letter then continues with a refutation of some fundamental points made in Russophobia, providing extensive documentation for the criticisms. While pointing out that "no doubt, some Jews like others have produced their own share of literary and religious works which I also find objectionable and absurd," the letter notes that "I ... strongly object to erecting a compilation of such expressions into a theory of `Small Nation' [a phrase used in Russophobia to refer to the Jews] with the effect you ascribe." Lang writes: "Instead of injecting some sense in political discourse, you contribute to the morass of sweeping generalizations, big-time theorizing, gratuitous interpretations, nationalistic feelings...and all the rest of what I think is garbage, polluting so much political discourse." He concludes that Russophobia "... gives material for others to use in antisemitic discredits you ... [and] it creates difficulties for your supporters over decades.... Hence it is necessary to have a public statement from you rejecting the views you expressed in [Russophobia]." Lang has not received a reply from Shafarevich or Novy Mir.

"The NAS gave no sign that it paid any attention to my letter," Lang says. "I now have several objections to the way top NAS officials have handled the Shafarevich matter. I am preparing a statement expressing and documenting my objections." At press time, Lang's statement was not ready for distribution.

Two French mathematicians, NAS foreign associates Jean-Pierre Serre and Henri Cartan, were the first to write to Press protesting the academy's move. In addition to their joint July communication, Serre wrote a separate letter suggesting that Press himself resign and send an apology to Shafarevich. Press's response to Cartan and Serre urges them to read Russophobia and says: "You...write that `only the scientific work counts' in deciding who should become a member of the Academy. Here I would remind you that being elected a member means joining a society that upholds certain principles." In a subsequent letter reacting to Press's response, Serre writes: "You are in effect telling him: `Here is a moral rule that we stand for. Do you agree with it? If not, we suggest you resign.' This is a very new type of letter.... It could be generalized. For instance you could write to suspected atheists: `In God we trust. Do you? If not, we suggest you resign.' ... to some biologists: `Experimental data should not be tampered with. Do you agree? If not ... resign.' "

Cartan's reply to Press, written in French, expresses some uncertainties: "It [Russophobia] is not an agreeable reading, and all this argument rests on very fragile bases and conveys a real disarray."

Says NAS member Nathan Jacobson, Henry Ford II Professor, emeritus, of mathematics at Yale: "I don't think that the action [the academy] took against [Shafarevich] was a way of fighting [Russian] anti-Semitism. They didn't take such strong action when it counted, when anti-Semitism was established by the [Soviet] government." Taking a strong stand against discrimination, says Jacobson, "was much more important in the days before Gorbachev than it is now."

Says Lorch: "A whole can of worms has been opened up by this."

Rutgers' Browder says he believes that the letter to Shafarevich was "a reasonable thing for the academy to do," but predicts that debate on the issue will continue. "I'm sure we'll hear a great deal about this in the months to come," he says.