In the charged campus debate on Israel, many activists see a reed-thin line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
For Columbia University student Jonathan Karten, that line was erased altogether in November when he read about a speech by Professor Joseph Massad, who has written extensively on Arab nationalism. In the speech, given at the Palestine Center in Washington on Nov. 8, 2019, Massad asserted that “the armed resistance of the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades to Israeli invasions in Gaza” is among the only things standing in the way of “Israeli settler colonialism and racism.” The speech was first reported by The Algemeiner.
Karten counters that Izz al-Din is the military wing of Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has killed more than 650 innocent civilians, including Karten’s uncle.
Massad’s words, the complaint argues, amount to discrimination against Jews. And not just because for Karten, a Jewish Israeli, the speech was personal. The complaint alleges that “Jewish and Israeli students at Columbia are being viciously targeted under the guise of political advocacy. That is, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is used by faculty and student groups to legitimize discrimination against Jews and Israeli students because of the latter group’s race, religion and national identity.”
But for champions of a free and robust exchange of ideas, however odious, on campus, Massad’s speech helps illustrate one of the hallmarks of a college education: to be exposed to, and perhaps challenged by, ideas you disagree with and even detest.
The complaint, filed on Karten’s behalf by the Lawfare Project, is a high-profile one, coming on the heels of President Donald Trump’s executive order last month that protects Jews against discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The order embraces the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which suggests how certain criticism of Israel can be regarded as anti-Semitic.
Under the order, the Department of Education could withhold funding from schools that it finds in violation of Title VI.
In the complaint, Karten alleges “pervasive and ongoing” discrimination against Jewish students by other students and faculty at the school. It asks the U.S. Department of Education to investigate and consider pulling all federal funding from the university.
The university’s director of media relations, Caroline Adelman, said the school had “no comment at this time.”
In a redacted version of the complaint obtained by The Jewish Week, Karten said that in April 2019 a professor of Arabic literature, who is unnamed, approached him while he was having a conversation and yelled, “Don’t believe a word he is saying. He is Mossad [Israel’s intelligence agency].”
“The racist nature of this accusation cannot be overstated,” said the complaint.
Karten posted about Massad’s November speech on his personal Facebook page, saying that this “smut” from Massad was “being passed as an education.” Afterwards, articles in the Jewish media were written about the incident and a letter was sent by a pro-Israel group at Columbia, Students Supporting Israel, to Lee Bollinger, president of the university, asking that the university “distance and disassociate” itself from the comments.
“Neither Bollinger nor any other representative from the university responded,” the complaint said.
Massad did not respond to a phone call and two emails from The Jewish Week seeking comment.
Pro-Israel groups and websites have frequently sought scrutiny of Massad over his comments on Israel and Israelis. Karten quotes a number of these, including a May 2013 essay in which Massad alleges an “affinity between Nazis and Zionists” and a report from 2002 that Massad told an audience at Oxford University that the “Jewish state is a racist state that does not have the right to exist.” Karten also cites a student’s 2004 complaint, which Massad denied, that he ordered her to leave his classroom after she said that Israel provides civilians with advanced warnings before attacks.
The complaint also alleges that a group of Israeli and Jewish students has been the subject of “a targeted harassment and discrimination campaign” by the on-campus groups Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace. That includes the defacing of flyers promoting Jewish events, SJP students screaming “intifada” next to a Holocaust commemoration, and CUAD and SJP students disrupting a speech by Israel’s United Nations envoy.
Penalizing free speech?
Brooke Goldstein, executive director of the Lawfare Project, which funds legal actions challenging anti-Semitism, told The Jewish Week: “What happened to him [Karten] is appalling. He was called names and targeted by professors because of his ethnicity, religion and national identity, and he was the brave one willing to put his name to the complaint.”
Goldstein said it is up to the Department of Education to investigate Karten’s complaint, but that “given the grievous nature of the unlawful discrimination against Jewish students, they will act.”
That opinion is shared by Thane Rosenbaum, a law professor at Touro College and author of the forthcoming book, “Saving Free Speech… From Itself.” “If the Department of Education follows the direction of the executive order, there is no question Columbia will lose its federal funding,” said Rosenbaum. “If the definition is applied strictly, every single example [cited in the complaint] violates the working definition of anti-Semitism.”
“Ideas need to be open for discussion, and you don’t have free speech to shut down someone else’s speech. For too long, anti-Zionism has been disguised as a human rights issue rather than Jew hatred and anti-Semitism.”
“Ideas need to be open for discussion, and you don’t have free speech to shut down someone else’s speech,” he continued. “For too long, anti-Zionism has been disguised as a human rights issue rather than Jew hatred and anti-Semitism.”
But Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and lead drafter of the IHRA’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism, to which Rosenbaum refers, said the remedy for the kind of campus speech attributed to Massad is not a lawsuit, but more speech.
“I agree that the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades are a terrorist group and I disagree with what he [Massad] said, but it was said in a political speech and the remedy is what the student is doing — saying why he disagrees,” said Stern, author of the forthcoming book, “The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate.”
Regarding the SJP shouting and disrupting a Holocaust commemoration, Stern said that is a “violation of the basic premise of what a campus is supposed to be. Whether it is enough for a Title VI violation is a question.”
Stern wrote recently that the “working definition” was written to help European governments collect data on anti-Semitism, but “was never intended to be a campus hate speech code.”
Asked about Massad’s claim that Israel does not have a right to exist, which the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism said is anti-Semitic, Stern told The Jewish Week: “As much as I disagree with anti-Zionism, people ought to be able to articulate anti-Zionist points of view.… The complaint reflects a desire to have the university sanction or condemn speech that the complaint disagrees with.”
But for Susan Tuchman, director of the Center for Law and Justice at the Zionist Organization of America, the issue is “not one of shutting down free speech but making sure Jewish students are protected from harassment and intimidation.
“You have students who are being disparaged, cursed at, subject to name calling and marginalized because they are supportive of Israel,” Tuchman continued. “Jewish events are being disrupted and the university apparently isn’t saying anything about it. If any other groups were targeted in this fashion, we would all demand that [the university] address the problem. Why is it OK for the administration to tolerate the very same problems when Jews are the targets? It’s not OK.”