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Ken Marcus

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Steering in the right direction

Awi Federgruen and Judith S. Jacobson, Columbia Spectator
October 6, 2011

As Spectator recently reported, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint accusing Columbia of discriminating against a Jewish student. The basis for the complaint is a report that a Barnard College professor discouraged a student from taking a course taught by Professor Joseph Massad on Palestinian and Israeli politics and society at Columbia. According to the student, the professor implied that the student, who dresses modestly, as many religious Jewish women do, would immediately be recognized as belonging to this minority. She would therefore not be "comfortable" in the class. As Spectator also reported, after speaking with the student involved, we shared our concerns with Kenneth Marcus, a civil rights lawyer, former head of the OCR, and fellow member of the Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He then followed up with the student and filed the complaint.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger correctly points out that this investigation does not focus on Professor Massad but on the issue of "steering." Few current students remember the brouhaha that occurred in 2004-2005, when the film Columbia Unbecoming presented numerous Jewish and Israeli students’ accounts of harassment by Massad and other faculty members. A grievance committee investigating those allegations exonerated the professors involved. (When this committee was appointed, we alerted the community that all five committee members had serious conflicts of interest, were themselves associated with initiatives of anti-Israel bias, or had repeatedly implied, by their statements, actions, or lack thereof, that the complaints that the committee was assigned to investigate were not to be taken seriously.)

Did the advising professor anticipate harassment of a student who is immediately recognizable as a Jew? Or did she assume that a religious Jewish female student is too tender a plant to tolerate exposure to an academically valid course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would call into question such a student’s presumed pro-Israel views? Indeed, such condescending attitudes are not unheard of on this campus. For example, in a New York magazine article on May 21, 2005, Professor Rashid Khalidi implied that Jewish students come to Columbia unprepared for their beliefs to be questioned. He explained that “kids from, I don’t know, Teaneck. Or Scarsdale. Or Levittown. Or Long Island City . . . have never been exposed to a dissonant idea, a different idea, as far as the Middle East is concerned. And so you have a situation where it’s going to be problematic.”

The point is the following: If a professor is or is thought to be engaging in ethnicity-based harassment in the classroom, steering students who might be targets of such harassment away from those courses deprives them of the opportunity for an educational experience that is available to all other students. It also protects the professor from exposure.

Students should not go to college if they are seeking only to be intellectually “comfortable.” Professors have a responsibility to challenge students’ beliefs if the challenge is evidence-based and not personally demeaning.

Moreover, criticism of Israel is not in itself anti-Semitic. 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, U.S., 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 or Israelis collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

To the extent that professors (or students, or other members of the campus community) cross that line, the campus environment becomes a hostile one for Jews. The truth is that, for the most part, the Columbia campus is a welcoming place for students of all backgrounds, providing a vast array of opportunities for them to encounter one another, to learn, and to grow. However, behavior that is unlawful and restricts educational opportunities must be addressed. My SPME colleagues and we are therefore pleased that the OCR is investigating the complaint at Columbia. At the same time, we call on the Columbia administration to do what many other organizations do when investigated by the government: appoint its own investigative committee consisting of respected experts not affiliated with the university to get to the bottom of the issues involved.

Awi Federgruen is the Charles E. Exley Professor of Management in the Graduate School of Business. Judith S. Jacobson is an associate professor of clinical epidemiology in the Mailman School of Public Health. They are the co-coordinators of the Columbia chapter for the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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