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.”