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An Orthodox Jewish student says she was steered away from an Arab-studies course at Columbia University. The Education Department is investigating.

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Alma Mater and Low Memorial Library, at the center of the Columbia campus. (Bernard Oh/Flickr)

“You’ll feel very uncomfortable,” Barnard Prof. Rachel McDermott allegedly told an Orthodox Jewish student at the college when the undergraduate inquired about a course called Arabs and the Arab World, taught by a controversial Columbia professor, Joseph Massad. “Why don’t you look at ancient Jewish history?”

In her first interview since the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights launched an official inquiry into possible anti-Jewish discrimination late last month, the student gave Tablet Magazine a description of the incident that sparked the federal investigation. (The Office for Civil Rights confirmed in an email that it is “investigating a complaint alleging Columbia University discriminated against a student of Jewish ancestry/ethnicity on the basis of national origin.”)

“I went to her to speak about the major and talk to her about classes that I was looking at,” the student, who asked not to be named, said of a January, 2011 meeting in which she sought advice from McDermott, the longtime chair of the Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department at Barnard. “I mentioned a course taught by Joseph Massad.”

“Oh, he’s very anti-Israel,” McDermott responded, according to the student. “And I said, ‘That’s fine, I’ve heard anti-Israel things before, and I’m fine if it’s a culture clash.’ ”

But McDermott insisted Massad’s course would make the student “uncomfortable,” the student said in the interview. In the end, the student, then a sophomore, took the Jewish history class instead.

McDermott, who stepped down from her position as chair last month, declined to comment for this article. Columbia President Lee Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar, issued a statement to Tablet Magazine: “It is important to note that the individual complaint appears to relate to academic advising at Barnard College and in no way involves Professor Joseph Massad. Based on these facts, therefore, it is extremely unfair for Professor Massad to be cited in a matter in which he played no part whatsoever.”

But Massad’s notoriety was clearly enough of a problem that McDermott, an India specialist with a stellar reputation, felt the need to counsel a student away from his course. Indeed, the student “was apprehensive” to refer the investigation, she said in the interview, “because Prof. McDermott was just protecting me.”

The student, now a Middle East Studies major, knew about Massad’s reputation: In 2005, a short documentary called Columbia Unbecoming featured a number of Jewish students recalling instances of intimidation they faced because of their pro-Israel views. Many of their testimonies focused on Massad, then a tenure-track professor. In one particularly chilling account, a student who had served in the Israeli Army recalled Massad asking him at an off-campus lecture how many Palestinians he’d killed.

And so, the student said, she wasn’t much surprised by McDermott’s advice until last May. That month, she met Peter Haas, a professor of Jewish studies at Case Western University and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a network of pro-Israel academics and professors, and told him about what happened. Another member of the pro-Israel professors’ network, Judith Jacobson, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s School of Public Health, followed up by calling the student. Jacobson wanted to know if the student was interested in talking to Kenneth L. Marcus, who heads the group’s legal task force. The student agreed.

Marcus, the director of the Anti-Semitism Initiative at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, headed the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the agency currently investigating Columbia, in 2003 and 2004. According to Marcus, what happened at Barnard was an instance of “steering”—a term that typically refers to housing discrimination, when a real-estate agent tells a black family that it would feel “uncomfortable” in a particular neighborhood because of its predominantly white population. Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 to outlaw the practice.

What McDermott allegedly did, according to Marcus, who handled cases of alleged steering as the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in 2002 and 2003, was a form of steering and thus violated the Jewish student’s civil rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He said in an interview that he knew of “no other steering cases in an educational context,” but that if the student’s allegations are verified, “it would be extremely difficult for Barnard to say that any steering would not have any harmful effect.”

It remains to be seen whether the Office of Civil Rights agrees with its former director.

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Jules says:

I does very much seem in the land of dreams that two play the same game of recycling blame:

Barnard Alum '08 says:

Well-written piece, and I’m interested to see where the case goes. I have to say, though – in spite of McDermott’s “stellar reputation” (which I believe is indeed deserved) this is not the first instance where she behaved in this manner. She definitely steered me away from certain classes as a sophomore, to the point where I wound up becoming a History major concentrating in the Middle East, rather than an AMEC (Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures) major – I wasn’t sure I would have enough courses to take! Yes, the reputations that Massad and other professors have built over the years most likely contributed to McDermott’s actions, but she’s certainly complicit in the act.

I think this is ridiculous. If I were advising a Jewish student at Barnard or Columbia I would certainly warn them about Massad and suggest that they might not want to take his course. Students can be very naive and unaware of how much power a professor might have to humiliate them in a class. To turn around and claim that this is discrimination against the Jewish student is to miss the point and raise a false charge of Antisemitism. Now if she had taken the course and been subjected to abuse by Massad and then charged Antisemitism that would be another story.

The racist board that banned the children’s art exhibit has fortunately found an exhibit space in Oakland.

And meanwhile Abraham Foxman embarks on more blind witch hunts to wonder at what mosques must not be built and where…

Sam Kerbel & Jordan Katz says:

As Columbia alums, we feel that this is embarrassing for the university’s Jewish students. Of all the things in which to get the Department of Education involved, this is simply not one of them. It’s unfortunate that this professor was “steering” the student in this way, but the comparison Marcus makes to housing discrimination is asinine. The student still had the option to take the course regardless of what her adviser said, and it’s unclear to us whether intimidation – as opposed to over-protection – was a factor here.

The involvement of the Department of Education will make this a huge story, and kudos to David and Tablet for giving a sober analysis of the situation. Unfortunately, this will cause undue attention to Columbia’s Jewish population, not to mention Professor Massad who is unfairly an indirect subject of this whole investigation. Regardless of what Massad has done in the past, Bollinger was right to defend him in this case.

barnard alum, '96 says:

this was a very upsetting read… Rachel McDermott is one of the most caring and supportive educators I’ve ever encountered in my life. She offered advice, and the student surely could have acted on her own free will to enroll in the class despite McDermott’s words of caution. I am a Jewish alumna of Barnard College; how this is anti-semitism/discrimination completely eludes me.

Paul Lawrence Rose says:

This is a disgraceful manufacture into a civil rights issue of a case where Prof. McDermott did precisely the right thing morally and professionally into warning the student off a course by Massad. Any responsible advisor would have exactly the same thing. Prof. McDermott did not censor the student or prohibit her from taking the course. It was sincere and responsible advice given for the student’s own welfare. The student was free to take the course had she so wished. The result of this idiotic and slanderous attack on Prof. McDermott will be to dissuade any faculty from criticizing such irresponsible and un-scholarly courses such as Massad’s.
Center for Research on Antisemitism, The Pennsylvania State University

Dubala says:

The title of this article is unfair to all. This is really about “steering.” I’m sorry that this apparently thoughtful student didn’t trust herself to take the course and delve into the fray and see what she could learn or offer.

Bari Weiss says:

@ Barnard Alum ’08 — I’d love to talk to you about your experience. or 212-920-3676

Paul Lawrence Rose says:

This is a disgraceful manufacture into a civil rights issue of a case where Prof. McDermott did precisely the right thing morally and professionally bywarning the student off a course by Massad. Any responsible advisor would have exactly the same thing. Prof. McDermott did not censor the student or prohibit her from taking the course. It was sincere and responsible advice given for the student’s own welfare. The student was free to take the course had she so wished. The result of this idiotic and slanderous attack on Prof. McDermott will be to dissuade any faculty from criticizing such irresponsible and un-scholarly courses such as Massad’s.
Center for Research on Antisemitism, The Pennsylvania State University

This is further exacerbated by the large sums of monies thrown at these departments by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. They distort academia in the US through significant donations and follow-up pressure. The Yale case earlier this year while not steering is an example of manipulating curricula and programs through donation programs.The University of Texas is another example. I thought this article was very well written.

Many of you are missing the point. McDermott may very well be, and is likely, a wonderful person and was acting in what she thought was the student’s best interest. The reason this is an issue is because of what it says about Massad. If advisers feel the need to steer Jewish students away from Massad for their own protection, then perhaps there needs to be a closer look at Massad. Lee may be right to defend Massad in this case because there are no allegations against him. But the essential logic of the chain connecting McDermott’s actions to Massad is still sound.

p.s. to whoever moderates this thing, maybe put a lid on Jules.

Lynne T says:

Dave: in a way, it’s just as well that Jules is allowed to leave comments as incoherent and pointless as the one he left at October 7, 2011, 10:26 AM. If I recall correctly, the show of children’s art from Gaza was cancelled largely because it included art by adults that was being passed off as that of children. As for the art that was produced by children, one cannot help but suspect that the subject matter, whatever it was, was heavily influenced by the agenda of the exhibit’s supporters. Jules, of course, would be clueless about the extent to which Hamas dictates what is taught to the children of Gaza to ensure a steady supply of “martyrs” rather than minds that are open to political resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

What was the Orthodox Jewish student being ‘protected’ against; ideas counter to her existing beliefs?
This is a perversion of what a university should be about.

Raquel Solomon says:

The only thing Professor mcDermott is guilty of is being a protective human being

love how Columbia president tries to say how innocent Professor Massad is

if Columbia wasn’t so politically “Correct” and humanly “incorrect” Massad would not be allowed to bully student in the classroom

aren’t there federal statutes against bullying President Bollinger?

Professor McDermott is guilty of being a human being with integrity at a university where there is none!

wait isn’t ‘steering’ what an academic advisor is supposed to do? by giving us advice, they steer us into certain directions. isn’t that like their job?

Frayed Knot says:

I think Dave has it exactly right. The problem isn’t that McDermott “steered” the student away from Massad’s class. It’s why she felt the need to do so. It would be one thing if were because McDermott felt it was in the student’s academic best interest to do so, but it’s another thing if she did so because she felt the student would find herself in a hostile environment.

As usual, Massad is the problem, and as usual, nothing will happen to him.

Professor McDermott ought to be recognized for doing her job properly.

Incidentally, cracking open Massad’s Desiring Arabs to a random page, I find this gem:

“The Gay International, though its more illustrious organization, ILGA, launched a new and aggressive universalization campaign in 1994, coinciding with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. While ILGA achieved official NGO status at the United Nations in 1993, (which it later lost), its international activities continued unabated including “efforts to stop the mass execution of homosexuals in Iran,” an unsubstantiated propagandistic claim that was also bandied about by an official of the U.S. State Department.”

Those insidious gays! They’re conniving, like the Jews, wielding undeserved international influence where they shouldn’t be meddling!

Barry says:

Why should a Kufr be uncomfortable in any class taught at Columbia?

Massad has a right to worship Mohammed. Nobody disputes that. But as soon as he brings his satanic Sharia’h values into the classroom, Columbia University needs to tell him in no uncertain terms that Muslonazis values have no place in the American University.

I can’t refrain from more quotes from Massad’s book; it’s actually extraordinary that he has escaped the scrutiny of progressive activists.

Discussing the violent persecution of gay men in Egypt, he writes:

“The Gay International and its activities are largely responsible for the intensity of this repressive campaign.”

The phrase ‘Gay International’ sounds like something out of the Dearborn Independent, by way of Anita Bryant. He goes on to try to debunk all the claims of torture on the part of authorities tasked to police moral conduct by ascribing it in part to a Jewish plot headed up by Barney Frank.

Joseph Massad is an old-time, unreconstructed bigot, smuggling his views into an academy that would not otherwise tolerate them by glossing them over with a patina revolutionary leftism. That Columbia continues to host him is a disgrace.

I think this type of stuff happens all the time. I expressed interest in a “Women and the Law” course in law school taught by one of my first-year professors, and I got a vibe from her that men weren’t really welcome.

Jules says:

I really adore all the remarks from the “enlightened” racist’s corner up top about “Kufrs” and Saudi boogey men. Do continue, the outpouring of bile must be grandly intoxicating.

Hershl says:

Islamofascists like Massad will receive their just punishment at the fitting time.

Their apologists on the net can howl all they want.

The facts on the ground, however, cannot be denied.

Palestine = Jordan.

It will never be any other way.

Israel must continue to build upon our historical territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. Build on every available millimeter of land without exception.

The facts on the ground will trump the lies of the Palestinian/ Arab occupiers and those who would distort history.

The reason the Islamofascists are so upset is that they realize that with each passing day they are losing what little they have.

The Palestinians, as is their tendency, have managed to alienate most of the civilized world.

Our next administration here in the US will make very sure that they receive not one cent of American tax monies. We will no longer contribute to enemies of America like UNESCO.

I can hardly wait.

steve bronfman says:

It’s not really McDermott’s fault. She seems to be trying to protect the Jewish student. The fault lies with the University and with Massad.

If during the late 1930s Germany a Jewish student was turned away by one lecturer from a course taught by a Nazi because it would offend her I think we would understand. The reality is that American academia is infested with the worst kinds of Marxist, Islamist anti-Semitism. This is not an isolated case.

Based on what I’ve read here, Prof. McDermott seems to be a very caring and thoughtful advisor who was simply doing what she thought was best for this student. If she genuinely believed that an Orthodox Jewish student would feel uncomfortable with a certain professor, I don’t see what the problem was in simply warning her that she would be better off not taking it. It is irresponsible and unjust to label this as antisemitism.

Steve bronfman nailed it.

I do not think McDermott did anything wrong. Steering the student away from an abusive professor is an act of kindness.As the parent of college students I would hope that my children’s advisors would do the same for my boys.

The issue isn’t McDermott, the issue is Columbia that allows Massad to continue to be a tenured professor and use his position to promote his brand of antisemitism. The fact that Jewish students would feel compelled to not take courses or study a particular major becasue of the abusive and racist nature of the departments professors is a university wide issue. Not a singular issue of civil rights. But this is Columbia afterall that welcomed Ahmedinajad and turned away Nonie Darwash and allowed an Iraqi war veteran to be attacked with impunity.

Lou Adams says:

Columbia has many self initiated problems, until they clean up their elitist see no evil acceptance of racist, may they find themselves the subject of infinite lawsuits and expanding belligerence.
It’s a shame that innocents will be hurt because of their disdain for moral values.

Lou Adams says:

Can someone substantiate the rumor going around that when the wall street protesters yelled “kill the bankers” there were shouts back of “kill the college administrators and professors.”

Judith S. Jacobson, DrPH, MBA says:

Kudos to David Fine for his excellent reporting. However, I must correct one detail. Scholars for Peace in the Middle East ( is NOT pro-Israel.
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, [SPME), 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. We believe that ethnic, national, and religious hatreds, including anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, have no place in our institutions, disciplines and communities. We employ academic means to address these issues.

We welcome scholars from all disciplines, faiths, and nationalities who share our desire for peace and our commitment to academic freedom, intellectual integrity, and honest debate.

It should be understood that Israel’s existence as a state is as legitimate as that of, say, India and Pakistan, which became independent at roughly the same time and under somewhat similar circumstances. And a Jewish nation has as much of a right to exist as the 16 Christian nations (e.g., England, Greece, Armenia) and the 23 Islamic nations (e.g., Bangladesh, Egypt, Tadjikistan).

Abraham Wagner says:

Most all of us at Columbia try to give our students the best possible advice on courses, which is what McDermott did. It is unlikely that the issue of Massad and his being given tenure will ever be adequately addressed and it’s unfortunate that the University continues to stand behind this decision.

What is missing from the debate thus far is any reporting from Jewish students who have actually taken his classes, and any experiences they may have had as a result.

Professor Wagner, please contact me about your concerns/specific question, I may have an answer for you.

president at lionpac dot org (I don’t like posting ready made emails on public sites)

Geduldig says:

What a small teapot to have a tempest in! Choosing a course is nothing like looking for a house. There is a long history of quotas in universities but not of quotas for courses. Red-lining in admissions? Sure, but not in class selection. So there is no history of discrimination to worry about and no overt discrimination here. The student could have taken the course if she had wanted. Discrimination would have only come in had she received an unwarranted bad grade. Why waste government resources on this? You have made Massad a hero. Tactically stupid move.

Paul Brandon says:

If Massad is in fact behaving inappropriately (in any manner) towards students in his classes, McDermott should be initiating action against him on those grounds.
If she simply feels that a given topic might make a particular student feel uncomfortable, she is acting as a counselor, which is to my knowledge beyond her range of competence.

waxsteint says:

I studied at Columbia for my MS, politics and development in the mid 1980s. Middle East department well known as pro Arab, heavily biased against Jewish kids. Nothing as bad as Yale where I did my undergraduate work, though. The challenge is to be yourself, stand up for what you think and express yourself clearly and with passion if you have it. I don’t recall the option of bringing suit against the school as a way to proceed. Why doesn’t this student take a tough stand and take the course, speak up and be a regular American like the rest of us, her seniors, have done.

I blame everybody but me with copious lots of glib glee. I surely must be a self hater a sad sack stinker and a lousy rotten super traitor.

yehudah says:

peter haas is a garbage academic (see haym soloveitchik’s infamous takedown in the AJS review) and a general clown.
i was at columbia during the whole MEALAC controversy, and this young student’s reporting is severely lacking in context. the film was a shoddily produced and scantily researched mess presented by boston’s the david project, which is a heavily slanted and politically reactionary contingent of israel activism. for fine to cite the film without any kind of qualification is embarrassing for him as a student/amateur journalist.
re: this incident, it seems apparent that prof. mcdermott was simply trying to counsel the student. now, is it absurd and shameful that massad has created an environment in his classroom in which his colleagues feel the need to warn off certain students? yes. this is inexcusable, and prof. massad needs to perform a serious check up on his pedagogy, since he is being an irresponsible educator.
but all this story aims to do is stir up the islamophobic pot at columbia once again. there are much more effective ways to further dialogue at columbia and ensure safer classrooms. media circuses and tired old polemic are not the answers.

This is a crock. Poorly written nonsense.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

To have Jules inappropriate comments contact

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An Orthodox Jewish student says she was steered away from an Arab-studies course at Columbia University. The Education Department is investigating.

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