Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


New Charge Over Hostile Columbia Classroom

U.S. reportedly probing whether Jewish student was ‘steered’

Print Email

It’s possible Morningside Heights has found its annual autumn incident. A U.S. Department of Education committee is investigating whether a Columbia University department head “steered” a Jewish student away from taking a class on the Mideast taught by Professor Joseph Massad due to the perception that she would be “uncomfortable” because of the professor’s pro-Palestinian tilt, according to the Institute for Jewish & Community Research’s Kenneth L. Marcus, the complainant in the case. According to Marcus, Judith Jacobson, an epidemiology professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health who is also active in campus politics, informed him of the alleged incident. He also said that Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which he headed for a time during the Bush administration, informed him it had granted its request to launch a probe.

“The University has strong policies against discrimination and we treat allegations of discrimination of any kind very seriously,” Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger said through a press officer. “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.” Added Barnard Vice President for Communications Joanne Kwong: “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. As this is a pending investigation, it would be inappropriate and premature to comment any further at this time.” OCR has not replied to a request for comment.

Massad was one of a few members of Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies faculty who came under fire in 2005 in a film produced by the David Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group. The documentary, Columbia Unbecoming, featured several students alleging that Massad and others had cultivated classrooms hostile to pro-Israel voices. Maybe most memorably, Massad was accused of asking one student, who had identified himself as a former Israeli soldier, how many Palestinians he had killed. Massad disputes the story. (He has not replied to a request for comment.) A subsequent investigation by Columbia did not lead to any of the professors leaving, prompting critics to call it a whitewash.

Technically, “Barnard’s Middle East studies department chair” (Barnard is an all-women college at Columbia) is accused of encouraging the student, who was dressed as an Orthodox Jewish woman would be, not to take a particular class in January 2011, in violation of federal civil rights law. (In the spring 2011 semester, Massad’s class was a seminar on “Contemporary Culture in the Arab World”; this fall, he is teaching an open lecture on “Palestinian-Israeli Politics and Society.”) But Marcus’ actual beef is not with the act of steering by the individual department head. It’s with Columbia’s alleged failure to address the perception that Massad’s classes might make Jewish students unduly uncomfortable.

“The big question is whether Massad is violating students’ rights too,” Marcus wrote. “If there is a problem in Professor Massad’s classroom, as the Barnard chair may believe, then steering Jewish students away is not the solution. Nor is it the biggest problem. The biggest problem may be the failure of some universities to take anti-Semitism allegations seriously, especially when academic freedom is frivolously invoked.”

In an interview this morning, Marcus said that he looked forward to the investigation itself and for the potential for Columbia to negotiate a voluntary settlement. “We would want to see Columbia take firm actions to ensure not only that the steering problem is addressed, but more importantly that Jewish students are not facing a hostile environment in Middle East studies classes,” he told me. When asked if that meant he wanted Massad’s resignation, he demurred, slightly: “We would like for Columbia to look into what’s going on, especially in Professor Massad’s class, and reconsider whether the investigation they did a few years ago is really adequate,” he said. “If it turns out as a result of the investigation that there’s a hostile environment for Jewish students in any Columbia classes, then the instructors need to be dealt with.”

In addition to working at the OCR, as assistant secretary of education for civil rights, Marcus was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. That independent commission has a mandate to examine all charges of civil rights violations, although on its Website, the most prominently trumpeted specific issue is, “Ending Campus Anti-Semitism.” According to Marcus, he issued a guidance for the OCR to police campus anti-Semitism, which, he said, it not do since he left the office, in 2004, until last year, when, partly after the lobbying of several Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League, the Obama administration adopted an anti-bullying policy that reinstated that mandate.

Marcus has also served as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Indeed, the legal notion of “steering” primarily comes out of that jurisprudence; “It is similar,” Marcus wrote of what allegedly happened to the student, “to what happens when a realtor tells a young African American couple that they would not be ‘comfortable’ living in a particular white neighborhood.” He told me that applying steering in this context was “a somewhat novel theory, but,” he added, “it fits exactly.”

OCR Opens Investigation Against Columbia [IJCR]
Related: Columbia’s Own Middle East War [NY Mag]

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Curious how “encouraging the student…not to take a particular class” is “in violation of federal civil rights law.” If I was a Marxist, and a professor suggested I would not enjoy a class given by a protege of Milton Friedman, would that violate civil rights law? If I were an Evangelical Christian, and was told that Professr Hawkings’ views on evolution and religion might make me uncomfortable, would that come under investigation? It might be bad advise, but against the law? And immediately the perception that an Orthodox Jewish girl would be uncomfortable in a class leads to charges of anti-Semitism. Many of the Orthodox folk I know would be uncomfortable in any class that does not endorse their ethno-religious views on Israel, even if it were given by Rabbi David Hartman or Tsipi Livni. No doubt Massad pushes a pro-Palestinian narrative. Is that not his right, and the right of any academic? And no doubt someone who doesn’t share his views would bristle in his class. It sounds like the adviser may have been sparing the girl from being upset, but not from anti-Semitism. Before we investigate “anti-Semitism,” we need a discussion of the proper role of a campus adviser.

Bill Pearlman says:

Can’t blame Columbia for keeping Massad on. After all, they hung Julius Streicher Nuremberg and your have to go with what you have. I fully expect to see Norm “the fink” Finkelstein or Phil (Hitler should have finished the job ) Weiss up there soon.

asc, actually it’s not right for Massad to push a pro-Palestinian narrative even if it is his “right” to do so. He should be teaching students how to think for themselves not indoctrinating them with his ideology. The best professors are those who push their students but also give multiple sides of an issue fair time and accept and appreciate students who can come up with well-supported and well-argued opinions at odds with those of the prof. Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard of Massad, he favors indoctrination.

Clearly the young woman was told to stay away from his class because he doesn’t accept views that differ from his own and discriminates against Jews, or at least Jews who support Israel, which is most Jews.

Certainly SOMEONE’S being harassed here, but based on a lot of second and third hand information (to use the term loosely; ‘allegations’ might be more appropriate) it’s hard to tell who.

Actually, I am too old to remember what happens in a college classroom. Are professors really expected to present both sides of every argument, and step aside as disinterested referees? I would imagine that a criminal law class with Alan Dershowitz would be quite different from one with Eugene Volokh. They both approach the same set of facts and assumptions frorm different ideological places,and come out on different sides. The test is not whether they have biases, but whether they allow room for independent thinking and contrary opinions. Some of the charges against Massad have been about indoctrination, but too many of his pro-Israel critics more than suggest that any narrative but theirs is illegitimate in a college classroom.

simkhe says:

I’m not sure I get it – with all due respect. Was the student told she should not take the class or would not be welcome, or was a counselor asking her simply to think about whether she was willing to be challenged on some issues very near and dear to her heart (which, imho, all good classes should do for all students, come to think of it). What if, for example, a haredi student were thinking of signing up for a queer studies class and asked the same question. Would it be worthy of investigation — and of an inflammatory article like this one?


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

New Charge Over Hostile Columbia Classroom

U.S. reportedly probing whether Jewish student was ‘steered’

More on Tablet:

Why the Teenage Girls of Europe Are Joining ISIS

By Lee Smith — Because they want the same things that teenage boys want: a strong sense of meaning and purpose