When New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss was an undergraduate at Columbia, she agitated against a number of faculty members who were either Arab or Muslim and/or were perceived to be critical of the state of Israel. She was motivated at the time, she said, “to expose the racism of these professors.”
I wrote about one of these cases back in 2008. In that instance, a group of “pro-Israel” neoconservatives housed in various right-wing organizations were seeking to prevent Barnard, an all-women’s college that’s part of Columbia University, from granting tenure to the anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, whose father is Palestinian. Her 2001 book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society examined the role of archaeology in validating the Zionist claim to Israel/Palestine. Not being trained as an anthropologist, I deferred to the judgments of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, which chose the work as one of the winners of its 2002 Albert Hourani Book Award, as well as the three separate tenure committees that approved her tenure recommendation. (It was eventually granted.) Weiss, on the other hand, took to Haaretz to attack Abu El-Haj’s scholarship as an anthropological manifestation of Edward Said’s thesis in Orientalism, which she apparently misunderstood to be arguing that “there is no such thing as truth or fact. Instead, there is only identity.” The 2007 op-ed identified Weiss only as a “Dorot fellow living in Jerusalem,” and not as a recent college graduate with no scholarly expertise who was best-known for attacking Muslim and Arab faculty members in the United States.
Moreover, the entire campaign against those whom Weiss and her comrades accused of “racism” turned out to be built on sand. Columbia took the attacks sufficiently seriously to appoint an investigative committee, which found “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.” As summarized by The New York Times, the committee did find, however, that the neoconservative groups were the cause of “a broader environment of incivility on campus, with pro-Israel students disrupting lectures on Middle Eastern studies and some faculty members feeling that they were being spied on.” The New York Civil Liberties Union gave the committee credit for “properly identif[ying] the threats to academic freedom posed by the ‘involvement of outside organizations in the surveillance of professors,’” but criticized it for failing “adequately to place the intrusion into the academy by outside organizations in a broader political context.”
The irony, therefore, is rich that Weiss has now become a leader in the crusade by the Times’ conservative pundits against students seeking to shut down speakers on campus with whom they disagree. Personally, I happen to share this concern, and I wish these (largely well-meaning) student idealists would stop taking the bait every time a conservative organization invites a controversial or even racist speaker. I agree that their hurt feelings are less important than the academy’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas. I, personally, wouldn’t invite Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, or Christina Hoff Sommers, a critic of feminism, to speak at my university, but I would defend their rights to be heard as well as challenged. Weiss’s hypocrisy on this count is stunning: In her attacks on contemporary student “social-justice warriors,” she complains of “an in-group wielding its power against a perceived heretic”—when that precisely describes her own behavior as an aspiring censor of professors’ speech.
Weiss and her conservative colleagues do their cause no favors by using their New York Times columns to repeatedly hyperventilate about the dangers posed to society by a bunch of confused (and sometimes obnoxious) college kids. Critics have counted 10 such scolding pieces in recent months by Weiss, Bret Stephens, and David Brooks. Brooks, for instance, recently complained that today’s students “combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail.” None of these authors take note of the fact that unprincipled provocateurs like David Horowitz and Milo Yiannopoulos purposely exploit this tendency in order to raise money and consciousness for their racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic campaigns.
Moreover, the incompetence of Weiss and Stephens—both refugees from the far-right Wall Street Journal editorial page—demonstrates just how far the mainstream media are willing to go to coddle conservatives. In Weiss’s case, the paper was forced to remove an entire paragraph from her column after she quoted from a fake Twitter account to make her point. (The Times was already reeling from a tweet by Weiss that hailed the American-born Olympic athlete Mirai Nagasu for being an “immigrant.”) Stephens, the pundit who once called anti-Semitism a “disease of the Arab mind,” recently wrote a paean to Benjamin Netanyahu explaining that he is, “for Israelis, a pretty good prime minister.” Stephens apparently does not know, or does not wish to acknowledge, that approximately one out of five Israelis is not Jewish—and that the vast majority are Palestinian Arab citizens. Only a lunatic would argue that Netanyahu has been a “pretty good prime minister” for these Israelis.
As a liberal, I applaud the Times’ commitment to diversity of ideological opinion. One can only sympathize with the difficulty it faces in finding conservative columnists these days who adhere to even minimal standards of truth, fairness, and evidence. But I wonder: If these people wrote about Jews the way they write about Arabs, would we even know their names, much less be faced with the task of debunking them, repeatedly, with arguments obvious to anyone who does not share their prejudices?