Did Columbia University violate a student’s civil rights?
That’s something the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) would like to find out.
The Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR) says the OCR has just accepted its request to investigate whether a Jewish student’s civil rights were violated this year when a campus advisor suggested she not take a course with the controversial Middle East studies Professor Joseph Massad.
At issue: was the student unlawfully “steered” away from registering for the class?
Kenneth L. Marcus of the IJCR reports:
In January, the student got some troubling guidance from Barnard’s [women’s college of Columbia] Middle East studies department chair. The young woman told the chair that she was interested in taking a course on the Arab world with Prof. Massad, who is notorious for his animosity towards Zionism. Massad, whether fairly or not, has been repeatedly accused of anti-Semitism. The chair looked at the young woman, whose Orthodox background is apparent in her modest attire. Then, as the student tells the story, the chair told her that she would not be “comfortable” in Massad’s class and that she should instead consider a course on Ancient Israel.
Marcus compares the case to past well-known civil rights violations against African Americans, leading to a new kind of segregation:
OCR has just agreed to open an investigation, at our request, as to whether the chair violated the Jewish student’s civil rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As we told OCR, what the Barnard chair did to the student is called “steering.” It is similar to what happens when a realtor tells a young African American couple that they would not be “comfortable” living in a particular white neighborhood and that they should look at a black neighborhood instead. This is illegal, regardless of whether the realtor was well-intentioned, because it is discriminatory. This is precisely what seems to be happening at Columbia. As we explained to OCR, “Columbia violates Title VI when it discourages Jewish students from pursuing coursework which may be important not only to their pursuit of the MEALAC [Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures] major but more broadly to their attainment of a broad understanding of the Middle East.
Marcus – who served as staff director at the United States Commission on Civil Rights -- also points out all students are impacted when there is no diversity of opinion in the classroom:
This harms Jewish students by narrowing their range of study, but it also harms non-Jewish students by denying them the educational benefits which are said to flow from a multi-faceted student diversity.” Fortunately, OCR’s decision to investigate sends a strong signal that the federal government is looking seriously at such behavior.
He also points to the possibility of more serious violations hinted at by the Columbia advisor’s urging the Jewish student to stay away from Massad’s class:
The more pressing concern however, in both the Columbia example and the housing hypothetical, is whether the warning was correct. In other words, the big question is whether Massad is violating students’ rights too. This question was widely debated a few years ago in the wake of the documentary Columbia Unbecoming, which sparked an internal Columbia investigation as to whether his teaching was anti-Semitic. Although Massad was exonerated at the time by an ad hoc committee, some commentators looked upon the committee’s report as a whitewash. On the other hand, Massad’s defenders effectively reframed the issue as an attack on Massad’s academic freedom. Needless to say, however, academic freedom does not protect conduct towards any student which amounts to unlawful harassment.
The Blaze contacted the Barnard College media relations office by phone Tuesday morning. Its director, Sun Min, said they had received a number of inquiries about the story but didn't have as yet any details to provide to the media. "We're looking at the details right now," she said.
So who is Joseph Massad? According to one profile, this associate professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History was born in Jordan but considers himself a Palestinian. He was the subject of the 2004 documentary Columbia Unbecoming in which some of his students claimed:
that Massad and other Columbia professors had intimidated or been unfair to them for their pro-Israel views. This eventually sparked the appointment of an Ad Hoc Grievance Committee by the university to investigate the complaints.
According to the Israeli blog, Israel Matzav, Prof. Massad told a student:
"If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom."
On another occasion, Massad demanded that a student, a former Israeli soldier, tell him how many Palestinians he had killed.
Columbia appointed an “Ad Hoc Grievance Committee” which in 2005 “dismissed most of the allegations against Massad, writing in its report that it had "no basis for believing that Professor Massad systematically suppressed dissenting views in his classroom" and stated that they "found no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-semitic"” per Wikipedia, which explains the findings:
The committee found it credible that Massad was angered by a question in class from a student that he understood to be defending Israel's conduct toward Palestinians and that his response "exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism" but it also described an environment of incivility, with pro-Israel students disrupting lectures on Middle Eastern studies.
Critics called it “a whitewash” and suggested the committee was biased as it included members with anti-Israel views and with personal connections to Massad. They were further incensed when Massad was granted tenure at Columbia. Massad is also signatory #321 of endorsers of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Israel Matzav describes some of his academic work:
In one article, he proclaimed that Jews are infected by a mass psychosis that drives them to persecute Palestinians, put Israel's record on a par with Nazi mass murders and said Palestinians are the "real Jews" while Jews are the real anti-Semites.
This all comes on the heels of last month’s controversy involving plans for Columbia University students to dine with Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not to mention back in 2007 when the university hosted Ahmadinejad for a speech on campus.
Clearly, the burden of proof is now on Columbia University to show it’s not segregating out of campus the opinions of its Jewish and Israel-supporting students.