No, Bari Weiss is not “Just Asking Questions”

Ben Wheeler
11 min readSep 16, 2019

Bari Weiss, opinion columnist for the New York Times, has a new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, and has been making the political talk show rounds.

This has brought up an episode from her past: in the early 2000s, she led a campaign at Columbia University against a group of professors, accusing them of bias against Jewish students and claiming that they tried to silence Jewish students’ voices. Weiss’s group helped produce a documentary making those accusations, Columbia Unbecoming, and succeeded in getting the story enough attention to push the university to conduct an investigation.

I was one of the students who testified to the investigation committee about my experience as a Jew in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. And my point of view was drastically different from Weiss’s.

I took classes with Joseph Massad (as did Weiss; the Isreal-Palestine survey class) and Hamid Dabashi (Survey of Persian Literature), two of the main professors criticized by the documentary. I also took a class (Contemporary Islamic Civilization) with visiting professor Hosam Aboul-Ela. I never saw a single moment of silencing or shouting down, in any of those classes — by professors or by students.

I’ve watched Columbia Unbecoming, and I’ve read much of Weiss’s committee’s writing and public statements. They seem drastically out of step with what I’d witnessed.

As I recall, the doc claims that professor Joseph Massad systematically stifled dissenting speech by pro-Israel students in his class. As I told the committee, that is completely at odds with what I saw in my many hours in the same classroom as some of the students featured in the film. I found that class—at least, when I took it; I can’t speak of other semesters—to be full of civil debate, and plenty of extended exchanges between pro-Israel students and Massad.

Not only was there plenty of vocal disagreement with Massad, I’d say that the class was notable for just how much vocal disagreement there was. It was an exciting class to come to, and I learned lots from these debates. Massad was clearly strongly interested in confronting students’ assumptions, and seemed to expect and welcome their objections.

He was also — and I think this actually matters more than it might seem at first — very good at debating these students.

I want to make clear that I wasn’t a big fan of Massad’s teaching overall. The syllabus contained many voices supportive of Israel, but these almost entirely represented the right wing and left wing extremes of Israeli nationalistic thought. Massad clearly found their perspectives repugnant, and emphasized the brazenness with which so many Israeli Jewish voices celebrated the clearing of Palestinian people from what they saw as rightfully Jewish land. For the most part, these writers were either clearly exclusionary of Palestinians (or of Sephardic Jews), or they were anti-nationalist dissenters like Hannah Arendt. I would have liked to hear more voices that tried to articulate a balanced approach, such as Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres—even I would ultimately find the balance they called for hollow.

My politics are closer to Massad’s than Weiss’s, but I had my own disagreements with Massad’s position on things. So keep that in mind when I say that: 1) Massad welcomed dissenting views; 2) he eagerly, and fairly, debated every student I ever heard raise an argument in class; and 3) he was a very good debater. He knew his history well, and wouldn’t let unsupported claims go by unchallenged.

Now, according to the documentary, and the testimony of other students who spoke to the committee, he once told a student in an in-class debate that they didn’t have the right to speak. I can’t pretend I attended every single moment of every class session, so I cannot say with absolute certainty that nothing like that happened. But not only do I have no memory of anything like that happening, it just doesn’t fit at all with the classroom dynamic I came to know so well. A weak debater resorts to that sort of thing, and Massad was no weak debater. Challenge the student right back? Sure. Twist the student in knots with his own questions? Absolutely. Suggest they continue the debate in office hours, and invite everyone to come? Sounds plausible. But cede the debate to the student on transparently weak grounds? I don’t believe that for a minute.

What I will say is that for students who disagreed with Massad’s outlook, debating against him seemed unpleasant, because he was cogent and pointed. He had deep command of tons of facts and made a solid, powerful case. I often disagreed with his point, such as when he argued that Israel really does have a death penalty, because it practices extrajudicial assassination; in that case, I see the rhetorical gambit he’s making and respect it, but I think it’s a stretch. Overall, more often than not, having heard knowledgeable students challenge him, I came away more convinced of Massad’s position.

Partway through the semester, I heard that a Jewish student in the class who held elective office — I won’t name the student, but I know her through friends — had invited one of the academic deans (either Kathryn Yatrakis or Kathleen McDermott, I don’t remember which) to observe the class.

When I heard that this student had complained that the class was somehow unprofessional, or improper, or suppressing of pro-Israel voices, I was flabbergasted. Massad’s class? Are you kidding? Pro-Israel voices spoke up in class for significant portions of nearly every session. Nothing about that attitude seemed comprehensible to me.

Let me give you some background. I’m Jewish. I was certainly critical of Israel at the time, and still am, but I also considered myself a Zionist, and still do. I was raised and taught by Zionists, and bar mitzvah’ed at a liberal, Zionist synagogue. I’d followed along as Massad and students debated questions of Israeli and Palestinian history without rooting for either side.

As far as I know, the dean never came to observe the class. But I think the “call in the dean” episode is illuminating.

Some of the testimony students and professors gave to the Columbia investigative committee are a matter of differing memories. But the “call in the dean” episode isn’t such a matter. I was in this classroom at the time that these accusations were being cooked up, and they were clearly nonsense, at the time.

It was a popular topic. Lots of students, including apolitical ones, talked about this, and how absurd it was. I talked to pro-Israel students who were fiercely opposed to Massad’s take on policy, but who thought it was ridiculous to bring in a dean. Maybe it was naive of me, but I couldn’t have predicted in a million years that students would try to make such a transparently ridiculous claim; there were class sessions where students who disagreed with Massad did what seemed like half the talking!

Massad’s actual crime, it was crystal clear to me at the time, wasn’t that he silenced anyone’s voice, but that, quite simply, he was a pain in the ass to argue against, on a topic that mattered so much to so many students. He would bring many arguments back to his supporting the right of Palestinian people to live and own land where their families had owned land for centuries, and he backed up his position with erudition and eloquence.

To understand why that seemingly innocuous combination was making those who disagreed with him try to appeal to a higher authority, you have to understand what I think is a core contradiction in liberal Judaism, between equal rights and Jewish nationalism.

“The right of Palestinian people to live and own land where their families had owned land for centuries” seems like a no-brainer — boring, even. Who would disagree with that?

Well, nearly everyone who considers themselves pro-Israel.

But you’ll never hear centrists — by which I mean polite, mainstream liberals and conservatives — say they oppose such a right, because it really seems pretty indefensible. From what I’ve seen, centrists who are committed to Israel never allowing most Palestinians to return to their native land, or own the homes their families literally build, avoid this type of framing like the plague. They find other, more attractive points to argue.

Professor Massad would ask questions like — and I’m paraphrasing from memory — “Why should the ethnicity of a person determine whether they have standing to sue the individuals, or government entities, who literally stole their land?”

If you’re Bari Weiss, or this student government person I knew who was trying to call in the dean, I just don’t think that’s an argument you’re going to be satisfied getting into with a debater as well-prepared as Massad, while you defend a position that sounds so clearly unjust. So what do you do?

You change the domain of the argument.

Now it’s about students’ academic freedom being squashed, in a string of recollections of mostly one-on-one discussions. For instance, Columbia Unbecoming includes one student’s claim that a professor said that her fair skin and light-colored eyes meant she isn’t ethnically Semitic.

I think this has been a bad faith argument from the start, and I think Bari Weiss and her allies have been more destructive to civil campus debate than the professors whose careers she targeted, or the campus activists and Twitterers she decries today.

I’ll admit, a tiny bit of my feelings here are tied up in resentment at how the world blesses, and pays, the many bland, incurious and casually destructive Bari Weisses and Bret Stephenses in ways it doesn’t bless or pay progressive writers.

I knew several budding conservative political commentators in my days at Columbia. I was a budding progressive commentator, and I wrote dozens of opinion pieces for the very self-serious school newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator. (We prided ourselves that New York City had five daily papers, including ours.)

One conservative who wrote for the paper, a friend of friends, was plucked to become William Buckley’s personal assistant. He traveled with Buckley and was connected to his world of powerful, and wealthy, people.

Another young conservative writer was Matt Continetti, who became a prominent conservative political critic. Continetti, my conservative friend, and other young conservative thinkers, all unseasoned but promising writers at the time, got quickly connected with a string of paying gigs.

For example, two of these young, male conservative students I knew were hired to write for a short-lived anti-feminist site called “She Thinks”. (It’s up on the Wayback Machine, and pretty cringe-inducing.) It was amazing, at the time, to realize that they were actually being paid.

Richard Scaife, Sheldon Adelson, etc.—plentiful money is there to court, and develop, young conservatives. Heck, when I criticized both professional conservative agitator David Horowitz and progressive professor Noam Chomsky in a column, Horowitz reached out and invited me to dine with him. Imagine if I’d actually agreed with him!

This is all to say that Weiss’s bad faith attack on professors — whose politics were the entirety of her real disagreement — was not just misleading and slimy, it was a great career move.

Meanwhile, being a progressive political commentator is a much less exciting thing to the world of people with money.

In college, I managed to get into talks with the editor of a nationwide campus Jewish publication called New Voices. They were searching for a new editor, and interviewed me and 19 other candidates.

Now, I’m not saying that young-me was such a great writer that I was a shoo-in for the job, but in college my opinion pieces were republished hundreds of times in other newspapers across the country, after other schools’ papers noticed them on a wire service and found them unusually good. So at least I think there’s good evidence that as far as professional readiness goes, I was eligible.

But I knew, of course, that my politics might be a blocker. I wrote a proposal explaining that while I’d criticized Israeli policy, I loved Israel, supported security for Jewish people and the right of Jewish people to live in Israel, and as editor, would emphatically embrace pro-Israel voices, as well as ones critical of Israeli policy.

In a long interview, the editor told me that he loved my writing and saw me as a great choice for the job, but knew that the funders simply wouldn’t accept someone with my politics. I would be, in their eyes, far too anti-Israel.

So at least one door on the type of road that leads to Matt Continetti’s think tanks, and Bari Weiss’s fêteing, was closed to me. Not because I wasn’t civil enough, or wasn’t good enough, any more than Massad wasn’t civil enough, or good enough.

To put that another way: I’m claiming that Bari Weiss tried to close the door for professors like Joseph Massad and (the astonishingly brilliant, perceptive and inspiring) Hamid Dabashi, not because they weren’t civil enough or cogent enough, but because they were civil and cogent.

Weiss doesn’t really dream of a world of fair arguments. She doesn’t really dream of civility on campus. She doesn’t want to say whether she believes someone’s ethnicity should determine whether they have any right to live in the farm their own family built, in their lifetime, or whether it is wrong for men with guns to force them away from it at gunpoint.

She wants to change the domain of the argument, so that the argument we’re having is a sideshow, and the relentless, money-fueled machinery of the main event can continue its heartless work unperturbed.

The New York Times should have a spectrum of opinion in its pages, and I think that conservative voices, and voices both critical and supportive of Israeli policy, are vital.

And luckily, the world has many eloquent writers who support Israeli policy and are honest about it. These writers explain that they want Palestinians mostly cleared from the land of Israel. They want property rights to be permanently forbidden to them. It doesn’t matter to them whether the Palestinians are law-abiding or revolutionary, whether they are Islamists or secularists. They want them gone, because of their ethnicity and nothing else, and they want armed soldiers to forever be ready to tell them, at gunpoint, that there are already enough people of their ethnicity in Israel, and that they must abandon their homeland or be shot.

These honest writers will happily explain that Israel is responsible for the plight of those refugees in Lebanon, and that Lebanon is far more fair to them than Israel. They’ll happily agree that critics of Israeli policy towards Palestinians are right that Jews would never abide such treatment.

But you won’t find these writers writing for the New York Times’s opinion page.

The reason why you won’t find them there — but will find Bari Weiss, twice a week, for decades to come— is that they are intellectually honest supporters of Israeli policy, and Weiss is an intellectually dishonest supporter of Israeli policy.

Weiss’s intellectual dishonesty is not a bug, to the Times or to her career. It is a feature.