“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.