More False Smears and Attacks on Academic Freedom at Columbia

“Anti-Jewish Bias Claim at Columbia,” declares the headline at the National Review’s Phi Beta Cons blog. The only problem is that it’s utterly false.

In January, Barnard Professor Rachel McDermott is alleged to have advised a student not to take Columbia professor Joseph Massad’s course on the Arab world because “he’s very anti-Israel,” and “You’ll feel very uncomfortable.”

The immediate reaction to this accusation should be obvious: There is nothing inherently anti-Jewish about being critical of Israel. End of story. End of investigation.

If McDermott said what is alleged, it is troubling. Telling students not to take courses that challenge their views because it will make them “uncomfortable” is lousy advising. It’s insulting, most of all, to the student who seemed perfectly willing to deal with criticism of Israel. But bad advising isn’t discrimination, and it doesn’t warrant a federal investigation.

The student in this obviously didn’t think so either, until she happened to mention this anecdote to the president of the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a right-wing pro-Israel group, who promptly seized it as a weapon in a propaganda war against academic freedom.

Of course, McDermott is not the target here. Massad and Columbia are.

Kenneth Marcus of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research (the group’s legal task force) called for Columbia to negotiate a voluntary settlement, and investigate Massad again and again until they get rid of him. If Columbia does any negotiating with Marcus, they’re undermining academic freedom on campus.

The right-wingers who wanted Massad fired because he’s a leftist critic of Israel were angry that Columbia resisted the intense pressure and defended academic freedom (although, as I note in my book Patriotic Correctness, Columbia did impose one of the worst speech codes against faculty in the entire country).

Unfortunately, both Barnard College and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights are actually investigating the case. Barnard Vice President for Communications Joanne Kwong stated: “We do not tolerate discrimination by any member of the College community, so we are carefully exploring and reviewing the claims made about this alleged incident.” The real response to a frivolous charge of discrimination should be an immediate defense of academic freedom, not a statement that seems to lend credence to this nonsense.

There needs to be a better mechanism for colleges and the Department of Education to quickly dismiss meritless cases like this that plainly do not violate the law and are brought solely with the aim of repressing academic freedom. The irony in all of this is that if advising students to stay away from Massad’s class is a form of discrimination, then any conservatives at Columbia who falsely denounce Massad as an anti-Semite are breaking federal law by “steering” students away from his class.

I certainly hope that this case will ultimately be dismissed. But the damage will be done. Groups like Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and the National Review can tout this outrageous lie that anti-Semitism at Columbia University was so bad that the government was forced to investigate—but the “liberal” Obama administration decided to protect the president’s alma mater by dropping the case.

The government has no business investigating universities over the views of professors about Israel and the failings of misguided academic advisers who try to protect students from encountering views they disagree with. We should have a free debate about any topic on campus without fearing government intervention. Sadly, there are some people who think academic freedom needs to be abandoned when Israel is discussed.

3 thoughts on “More False Smears and Attacks on Academic Freedom at Columbia

  1. Thanks for mentioning Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). However, SPME is neither right-wing nor pro-Israel. It is a grass-roots community of scholars who have united to promote honest, fact-based, and civil discourse, especially in regard to Middle East issues, on campuses worldwide.

    Of course criticism of Israel is not in itself anti-Semitic; that is a straw issue. As I have said elsewhere, “like other countries, Israel is not perfect, and many of its most passionate critics are Jews and Israelis. Calling attention to Israel’s imperfections, like calling attention to French, US, or Saudi imperfections, is perfectly valid. However, criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitic (and therefore indicative of ethnic hatred) if it involves: claiming that the Jewish state of Israel is inherently racist (a Jewish state is no more inherently racist than are the several Christian states or the many Islamic states); holding Israel to a standard of behavior not applied to any other democratic nation; directing at Israel accusations associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., blood libel); comparing contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; or holding individual Jews/Israelis collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

    The problem with steering in course selection is that only students who take a course know what the professor is teaching. If the professor teaching the course is making students “uncomfortable” because of their ethnicity or nationality, steering such students away conceals the discrimination. If the professor merely has a melodramatic teaching style, steering away students on the basis of their ethnicity deprives them of an educational experience that is available to other students.

    • I think it’s ludicrous to claim that SPME is not “pro-Israel,” but there’s nothing wrong with being pro-Israel. However, there is something wrong in trying to get the government involved in an effort to intimidate critics of Israel. I am particularly worried that the standard of discrimination is defined here as anything that makes students “uncomfortable” because of their ethnicity. Legally prohibited discrimination cannot be subjective, and certainly must exceed merely making someone “uncomfortable.” Legally prohibited discrimination also must not include comparing a country’s government to Nazis nor calling a country racist.

      Because the whole purpose of advising (unlike real estate) is to steer students to the best classes for them, it is troubling to seek government intervention against well-intentioned advisers who show poor judgment. It is even more troubling when this whole campaign is a thinly disguised effort to seek the investigation and punishment of a professor based on entirely unfounded rumors.

      • Thanks again for letting those who are explicitly pro-Israel off the hook. But just to clarify, most academics associated with SPME believe that Israel has a right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Such individuals are often accused of being pro-Israel (as if there were something wrong with it). However, their belief is not pro-Israel, any more than the belief that Italy has a right to exist as the (officially Christian) nation-state of the Italian people is pro-Italy, or that Pakistan has a right to exist as the (officially Muslim) nation-state of the Pakistani people is pro-Pakistan. Nor, despite the hype, is the belief that Israel has a right to exist anti-Palestinian.

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