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The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened an investigation into a complaint filed by Kenneth L. Marcus, the director of the Initiative on Anti-Semitism at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. Mr. Marcus alleges that last January, a Jewish student from Barnard, an all-women college at Columbia University, was “steered” away from attending an Arab politics and intellectual history class taught by controversial CU professor Joseph Massad. Marcus contends that such steering, which is usually related to the real estate practice of guiding people away from certain neighborhoods based on racial considerations, also applies to college courses and student ethnicity.
“I’m delighted that OCR has opened an investigation,” Marcus said. “And I think it sends a signal that they’re taking the case very seriously.” Marcus himself headed the OCR between 2003 and 2004, and he contends that the chair of Barnard’s Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department told the student, whose Orthodox background was apparent due to her modest attire, that she might not be “comfortable” in Massad’s class. Mr. Massad, who has been highly critical of Israel, has been accused of anti-Semitism on a number of occasions. The chair suggested the student might want to consider a course on Ancient Israel instead.
Mr. Marcus is pressing the OCR to decide whether or not the chair violated the student’s rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Marcus believes that what the chair did is called “steering,” which he likened to a real estate agent telling an African American couple they would not be “comfortable” living in a white neighborhood and that they should look for a house in a black neighborhood instead. As Marcus notes, whether such a suggestion is well-intentioned or not, it still amounts to discrimination. “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,” he explained. “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.”
Yet Marcus is equally concerned about something else as well. He wonders if the warning was “correct,” meaning that it is possible Prof. Massad may be violating the civil rights of Columbia students as well, by teaching a class where anti-Semitism is countenanced under the rubric of “academic freedom.” Massad was one of a few members of Columbia University’s Middle Eastern Studies faculty heavily criticized in a 2005 film produced by the David Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group. The documentary, Columbia Unbecoming, is a 40-minute film of testimony by fourteen students and university graduates about facing intimidation for expressing pro-Israel sentiments in class. Massad was accused by one student, an Israeli and a former soldier, of demanding to know how many Palestinians he had killed.
Massad, who denied the allegation, subsequently fired back in a piece for Al-Ahram, an English language newspaper serving the Arab community. He accused the movie of being “the latest salvo in a campaign of intimidation of Jewish and non-Jewish professors who criticise Israel.” A university investigation prompted by the film led to no firings or resignations. Critics characterized that investigation as a “whitewash.”
Marcus remains undeterred by the results. “The big question is whether Massad is violating students’ rights too,” he 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.”
He continued. “What OCR most needs to investigate is whether Columbia is willfully failing to address a discriminatory environment about which it is now clearly on notice. It is not acceptable to allow bias to persist and then simply to steer Jews away into courses which are thought to be more ‘appropriate’ for them.”
Professor Rachel McDermott was the longtime chair of Barnard’s Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures department until September, when she was succeeded by D. Max Moerman. Since the incident allegedly took place last January, it would be reasonable to suspect that Ms. McDermott was involved. But DOE spokesperson Jim Bradshaw said he was prohibited by law from identifying people involved in civil rights cases, and Ms. McDermott did not respond to a request for comments by the Columbia Spectator, the university’s student newspaper.
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