If you follow at all the ideological war that’s erupted around the New York Times editorial page, then you know Bari Weiss. It’s too much to call Bari conservative. A better description might be heterodox. On some issues, particularly social issues and immigration, she’s a woman of the Left. On others — regarding, for example, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, she’s on the right. She’s a also stalwart in the defense of civil liberties and has written powerfully against the excesses of the #MeToo movement, the embrace of the terrorist Assata Shakur by the leaders of the Women’s March, and has most recently decried the shout-downs and intolerance of the “woke” campus Left.
The backlash has been furious. Like most public figures, she’s subject to more than her fair share of online attacks, but in her case it’s been particularly vicious and silly. Recently, she had to endure a multi-day torrent of abuse because she had the audacity to tweet “Immigrants: They get the job done” after the American daughter of Japanese immigrants won an Olympic medal. That was “othering,” the online mobs claimed, and internally at the New York Times, at least one colleague hysterically compared her tweet to Japanese internment. Yes, to Japanese internment.
While it’s never pleasant to face the social-justice mob, serious people paid no mind to attacks on Bari’s tweet, but now there’s a new charge, that she’s committed the last remaining sin in American public life. The charge is hypocrisy, and elements of the online Left, led by Glenn Greenwald, have tried her and found her guilty.
They’re wrong. The claims are absurd. I know. I was there.
I’ll get to my involvement in a moment, but the substance of the charge against Bari is that during her college days at Columbia, she was guilty of the exact kind of campus bullying that she now decries. Her critics claim that she tried to silence and intimidate pro-Palestinian professors at Columbia, that she was a threat to academic freedom. Greenwald claims that she has a “history of trying to ruin the careers of Arab and Muslim scholars for the crime of criticizing Israel.”
He then details her involvement in a controversy I know very, very well. In 2004, an organization called the David Project published Columbia Unbecoming, a short documentary. In the film, 14 current and former Columbia students recounted alleged incidents of anti-Semitism and intimidation in what was then the university’s department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures.
The students detailed alleged improper incidents, such as one professor’s screaming at a student for denying what he called Israeli “atrocities” and demanding that the student leave the class — or another incident where a professor refused to answer a question from a former Israeli soldier until the student revealed “how many Palestinians he had killed.” The students described classes canceled to protest Israeli military actions. They quoted from “scholarship” that, to put it charitably, blurred the line between so-called anti-Zionism and outright anti-Semitism. For example, this passage from former department chair Hamid Dabashi is truly stunning:
Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people [Israeli Jews]. . . . The way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture.
In countless debates and arguments on campus and off, Bari and her colleagues lodged three central complaints — that professors attempted to silence dissent in their classrooms, that their scholarship was often shoddy absurdly biased, and that the department itself lacked sufficient viewpoint diversity to provide a proper education on a vital subject.
Columbia Unbecoming detonated like a small bomb on campus, and the ideological carnage soon spilled over into the city. New York magazine covered the debate extensively, as did The Nation, the Village Voice, and, of course, the New York Times. Then, as now, Bari found herself the subject of furious counterattacks. Then, as now, the claim was that Bari was the true threat to academic freedom, that her criticisms were part of an effort to silence and intimidate minority professors.
The backlash culminated in a letter from the New York Civil Liberties Union defending the professors. They wrote: “Faculty members must retain broad latitude to think as they will and to write as they think and to suffer no recriminations, from outside the academy, for the content of their scholarship” (emphasis added). The NYCLU also articulated a vision of academic freedom that sharply limited the right of students to disagree with professors in the context of highly charged classroom debate.
That’s where I got involved. At the time, I was president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a scrupulously nonpartisan organization dedicated to the defense of civil liberties on campus. In fact, as the Columbia Unbecoming controversy broke, we were fresh from defending professor Sami al-Arian from claims that speech like “death to Israel” and “rolling to Jerusalem” created a “disruption” sufficient to be cause for his termination. We strongly opposed the heckler’s veto then. FIRE strongly opposes it now.
Members of the Columbia community reached out to us with a simple question. Was the NYCLU correct? Did professors have a right to “suffer no recriminations” from outside the academy? Did students have a right to respectful dissent within the classroom?
On January 10, 2005, FIRE responded with a comprehensive letter to Columbia president Lee Bollinger that properly outlined the academic-freedom interests, including the students’ own academic freedom to dissent outside the classroom and to engage in respectful debate inside it. Moreover, we noted the obvious truth that it is not a threat to academic freedom to call for increased viewpoint diversity in faculty hiring and retention. In short, criticism isn’t censorship:
It is not the case that criticisms (even vehement criticisms) of scholarship or political expression threaten academic freedom or political speech in any way. In fact, such an “attack” constitutes the exercise of academic freedom and political speech and can serve as a warning to prospective students and potential donors. It is important to note that no person is compelled to attend Columbia, nor is any person compelled to donate money to Columbia. Information concerning the political climate of entire academic departments (and the manner of that expression) is certainly important to students and donors and may dictate whether they choose to attend or support Columbia.
Nor can students be silenced:
Additionally, the NYCLU’s position would unduly limit the ability of students to critique a professor’s ideas, beliefs and scholarship in class. According to the NYCLU, a student may offer such criticism “if permitted by the professor to do so.” While a professor is certainly free to limit the scope of classroom discussion to the topics discussed in that class — and, of course, to prevent actual disruption of the learning environment — it would violate every reasonable notion of student academic freedom to give professors the ability to open classroom discussion for all comments except those critical of the professor’s point of view. Just as students do not have the right to “expect their views will be unchallenged,” neither do professors have the right to indoctrinate their students without permitting a murmur of classroom dissent.
In fact, if you read Bari’s own writing at the time, you won’t find a call to terminate professors. Instead, you’ll find a critique of a department that she had good reason to believe had lost its way. That’s free speech. That’s an exercise of her own academic freedom. It’s not a shout-down. It’s not a threat. It’s a debate.
It’s important to revisit this more than decade-old dispute because it’s illustrative of how campus radicals often use academic freedom as a sword and shield.
It’s important to revisit this more than decade-old dispute because it’s illustrative of how campus radicals often use academic freedom as a sword and shield. They’ll declare that they have the academic freedom to engage not just in radical scholarship but also to try to create an ideologically uniform department (true), but then they turn around and decry aggressive critiques of their radicalism and ideological uniformity, labeling those critiques a threat to their freedom (completely false).
Free speech works in two directions. Professors who cancel classes in support of Palestinian terrorists should expect pushback. When students come forward with evidence that professors have mocked or attacked them because of their race or national origin, those professors should expect to have to defend themselves. They should not be fired for their viewpoints, but they can and should be criticized for their intolerance, their ignorance, and their bias.
In the column that triggered the latest firestorm, Bari decried the trend of accusing “demonstrably non-fascist people” of fascism. She’s condemning the modern trend of crying wolf when no racist wolves are present. But that does not mean that racism doesn’t exist or that intolerance is a myth. In fact, intolerance is alive and well on campus. It so often springs forth from identity politics, and it can and should be opposed.
In other words, Bari is doing exactly what she did in 2004 and 2005. She perceived intolerance and called it out. She decried an unwillingness to debate and a university that seemed closed off to dissenting ideas. It is not censorship to critique censorship. It’s not bullying to criticize bullying. And it’s most definitely not “racism” to raise credible concerns about anti-Semitism.
Days after I sent the FIRE letter, I went to campus to speak to a mainly Jewish gathering of concerned students, parents, and members of the community. My purpose was simple: to correct the claims that students like Bari were the real threat to discourse and to defend their proper role in campus debate. It was the first (and so far only) time that I had to walk through a metal detector to give my lecture. The professors’ defenders were, if anything, more vocal and more aggressive than Bari and her colleagues.
She was brave to take her stand those many years ago, and one thing I know after reading her work and watching the backlash — she remains brave today.