The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has dismissed a complaint against Barnard College – which is a partner of Columbia University – that a student was “steered” away from taking a class by Professor Joseph Massad because the student is Jewish.
The decision strikes a blow at a key strategy being utilized by Zionist organizations to use US civil rights legislation to smear and harass faculty who teach about Palestine or are critical of Israeli policies, and to censor Palestine solidarity activism on campuses.
It also follows a few weeks after a judge in California threw out a lawsuit by students accusing University of California at Berkeley administrators of allowing an “anti-Semitic climate” to develop on campus, because the accusers had failed to support their claims.
The complaint to OCR alleged that Professor Rachel McDermott, Chair of the Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department at Barnard College, which is in New York City, had told an unnamed student not to take a class by Massad because she would be “uncomfortable” and to take another class instead.
The complaint was instigated by Kenneth L. Marcus, himself a former head of the OCR, who now leads a Zionist group called Institute for Jewish Community Research, and is a board member and legal adviser to the pro-Israel group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.
OCR finds no evidence to back complaint
An 11 January letter from OCR official Emily Frangos to Barnard College President Debora L. Spar reviewed the facts of the case and concluded:
Neither the complainant nor the Student provided, and OCR did not find, any evidence other than the Student’s assertions to contradict the Chair’s [Rachel McDermott] statements. Further, neither the complainant nor the Student provided, and OCR did not find, any other evidence to indicate that the Chair advised any other students of Jewish ancestry/ethnicity not to take a course with the Professor [Massad].
The letter also points out that the student was not even eligible to take Massad’s class – a senior seminar – because she was a first-year. The letter adds that based on “insufficient evidence to support the complainant’s allegation” the case is deemed closed and “OCR will take no further action with respect to this allegation.”
Due to his intellectual work, Massad has been a frequent target of smears by Zionist groups who tried unsuccessfully to sabotage his tenure process at Columbia University. The University had earlier emphasized publicly that the complaint against Barnard “in no way involves Professor Joseph Massad.”
A set up? Student herself instigated conversation about possibly being “uncomfortable”
Barnard College had defended itself vigorously against the allegation, including a multi-page submission to the OCR, which contains Professor McDermott’s account of her meeting with the student:
According to Professor McDermott, the Student dropped in one day during her open office hours in January 2011. No prior appointment had been made. This was the usual procedure for Professor McDermott, as she does not schedule her office hours in advance. Professor McDermott recalls that the Student initiated a conversation about her interest in taking a course taught by Professor Massad at Columbia but expressed concern that she would feel uncomfortable in the class. Professor McDermott does not recall the name of the specific class being discussed or whether the Student provided the name. Professor McDermott recalls listening to the Student express her concerns and acknowledging that it was possible she might feel uncomfortable at times in the class. However, Professor McDermott is certain that she did not discourage the student from taking the course with Professor Massad.
McDermott’s account raises the question whether the student – who has not been named – had been coached to seek an encounter that could then be spun as the basis of a complaint, or had been encouraged to make the complaint afterwards.
While we can only speculate in this instance, The Electronic Intifada found evidence of the involvement of a student in a similar effort by the pro-Israel group StandWithUs which has been colluding with Israeli officials to lodge a complaint with OCR against Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington to suppress Palestine solidarity activism by students there.
Part of a well-organized strategy by Zionist groups to silence campuses
It is crucial to understand that the complaint against Barnard College is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a carefully laid out strategy masterminded by Kenneth Marcus to use US civil rights laws to allege that speech critical of Israel violates the civil rights of Jewish students by making them feel uncomfortable, unsafe or harassed.
It is also important to note that this strategy has not been universally embraced even among Jewish community and Zionist groups in the United States – indeed it has been condemned as an effort to “censor” free speech.
Last October, The Forward reported:
Simmering divisions within the Jewish community are expected to come to a head this month over efforts to use federal civil rights laws to sanction some forms of alleged anti-Israel activity on campus. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, American Jewry’s primary umbrella group for addressing domestic issues, will vote at its upcoming board meeting on a resolution that, in its current draft, cautions Jewish groups to guard against suppressing free speech and to invoke civil rights laws only after exhausting other measures.
“Lawsuits and threats of legal action should not be used to censor anti-Israel events, statements, and speakers in order to ‘protect’ Jewish students,” the draft resolution warns, “but rather for cases which evidence a systematic climate of fear and intimidation coupled with a failure of the university administration to respond with reasonable corrective measures.”
It is doubtful such objections or the OCR decision in the Barnard case will discourage Marcus from further abuse of US civil rights laws for blatantly political, anti-Palestinian and anti-free-speech purposes. Reacting to the OCR ruling, Marcus told The Columbia Spectator, “This is just the initial determination, so it is subject to appeal.”