In the Columbia student’s vocabulary, few labels are more damning than the word “problematic.” The Western canon central to our school’s curriculum is problematic (an affirmation of whiteness and the patriarchy). As is our free-speech supporting, union-skeptic university president (ditto). And the endowment’s investment in fossil-fuel companies (ditto). Succinctly put,“problematic” — to the average student and, in my experience, to some instructors — is the antonym of“woke.” Never mind that this is a grammatically tenuous use of the word: At Columbia, this definition is gospel.
Our campus paper, the Columbia Spectator, reported this morning on an email the Office of University Life addressed to the Columbia community following the anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh. What makes this article worthy of attention? The university’s statement omitted the words“anti-Semitic” and “Jewish.”
Here’s the text of the message:
We are deeply saddened by the senseless violence at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday morning. Violence in our nation’s houses of worship is an affront to the freedoms our community holds dear. We stand strongly against these efforts to create fear and terror.
For some in our community, this is a particularly frightening time as we have seen a growing number of highly visible attacks directed at faith and identity – on worshippers and people of faith as they go through their daily lives, on groups gathered to celebrate an LGBT Latin night at Pulse Nightclub, on civil rights and anti-racist protesters in the streets of Charlottesville, and in so many other places, as occurred in last Wednesday’s shooting of two African-American shoppers in Kentucky. Please know that you are not alone, and that you are a part of this community founded on the fundamental dignity and worth of all.
The Columbia Spectator reports that following pushback from Columbia students and alumni, the Office of University Life issued a revision to this initial statement that characterized the attack as anti-Semitic and acknowledged that the attack specifically targeted the Jewish community.
It seems that this was a gaffe, but one that reinforces a particularly destructive approach to anti-Semitism central to student-activist life at Columbia. I’m not privy to the administration’s conversations about university-wide communications. However, I can offer some contextual observations about Columbia that might help explain this incident.
First, a caveat: We should not necessarily conflate the perspectives of students with those of administrators. The current administration (led by a First Amendment lawyer) is downright hostile to some of what identitarian students advocate. The debate over free speech on campus is a prime example. When student activists tried to de-platform controversial speakers last year, the University responded with an unequivocal defense of free expression.
During the same episode, by contrast, the Columbia Democrats retracted — more accurately, “condemned” — their own affirmation of free speech shortly after publishing it, presumably under pressure from activist groups on campus. This shows that while administrators enjoy at least some degree of insulation from student pressure, students themselves often do not.
Second, the dominant campus orthodoxy opposes certain forms of discrimination but says nary a word about anti-Semitism. As I noted in the Spectator this semester, the Jewish community on campus is intensely aware of this contradiction in the identitarians’ rhetoric. During a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) referendum at Barnard College — Columbia University’s notoriously activist women’s college — last semester, one Jewish student magazine noted that “the movement of left-leaning identity politics often excludes Jews despite their history of being marginalized.”
The scope of wokeness, identity politics, whatever you want to call it, clearly has its bounds — and the fight against anti-Semitism falls conspicuously beyond them. (While I wrote this on Wednesday, a petition circulated on Facebook to ask Barnard’s student government association to condemn anti-Semitism. The Barnard SGA declined to sign a statement to this effect endorsed by the other undergraduate student councils of the university.)
This incident should prompt Columbia students to ask what motivated the obtuse wording of the email. I believe it to be a mistake, a genuine mistake, not an anti-Semitic dog whistle. I do not believe, however, that the Office of University Life made this mistake in a vacuum; it used the broad-brush language that some of my classmates might prefer. It’s not unreasonable to argue that this “erasure of Jewish claims to a history of persecution,” to borrow a phrase from that BDS editorial, was influenced at least indirectly by student discourse.
Columbia students may reasonably ask whether university administrators are slowly bowing to student pressure in some areas, or whether they thought like this to begin with. Maybe it’s not problematic in the way my classmates understand the word, but it’s a problem.