No, Bari Weiss is not “Just Asking Questions”

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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 even 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 sometimes out of step with what I’d witnessed, and sometimes out of step with how I’d interpret the events they described.

As I recall, the doc claims that professor Massad systematically stifled dissenting speech by pro-Israel students in his class. As I told the committee, that seems completely false to me. I found that class, at least when I took it, to be full of civil debate and plenty of extended dissent by pro-Israel students.
Not only was there plenty of vocal disagreement with Massad, I’d say that the class was primarily notable for just how much 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 debate.

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

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. For the most part, they were either clearly exclusionary of Palestinians (or of Sephardic Jews), or dissenters like Arendt. I would have liked to hear more voices that tried to articulate a balanced approach, such as Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

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. Not only do I have no memory of anything like that happening, it just doesn’t fit at all with the dynamic I knew very well. A weak debater resorts to that sort of thing, and Massad enjoyed debate. 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 pretty unpleasant, because he was very, very cogent. 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. And 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? 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. 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. 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 — put it that way, 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, find other points to argue.

Professor Massad would ask stuff 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. 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 in which profs supposedly said things like that a fair-skinned European student probably isn’t very 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 this is 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, and we were one.)

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, just because the 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 feteing, 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.

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.

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.

As a history major, I wrote a research paper about the propaganda battle during World War II between the US and Germany. One clever line by the Nazi propaganda machine was what we might today call “whataboutism” regarding the US’s own racism.

And they were right! It was indeed hypocritical of the US to demand that Jews, Roma and others have equal rights in Germany, while refusing to recognize the rights of black people, Latinos, and First Nations.

But hypocrisy isn’t — or rather, shouldn’t be — the end of the conversation. Pointing out hypocrisy is useful for interrogating why the inconsistency happens, or how the seemingly opposing views or actions are reconciled by their owners.

But nothing about it invalidates the original criticism.

So Bari Weiss is absolutely right to criticize Lebanese policy towards the Palestinian refugees who live there (as she did the other day on Bill Maher’s show), and to ask why critics of Israel talk so much less about Lebanese unfairness.

And we should answer, even when the short answer is obvious: because Lebanon is nowhere near as unfair as Israel is to the same people.

Certainly, it’s important that Palestinian refugee camp residents in Lebanon have very limited rights — they can’t perform some jobs, for example. If you listed the most common 50 jobs in the Middle East, they would be forbidden to perform a bunch of them. That’s deeply unfair.

And, for perspective, they can’t perform any of those jobs in basically every country in the world besides Lebanon. The US forbids them to perform any of the 50 jobs. Egypt forbids them to perform any of the 50 jobs. Israel forbids them to perform any of the 50 jobs.

Now let me ask: which of those countries is the one where these refugees are actually from? Which of those countries forbidding them to return to their homes, no matter what bureaucratic hoops they are willing to jump through? Which of those countries forbids them to exercise legal claim to their family’s property, if it is stolen?

These are deeply salient, relevant, important questions. The kind of questions a committed analyst of opinion and policy asks. The kind of questions that, I hope, illuminate, rather than obfuscate.

The kind of questions Bari Weiss studiously avoids.

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.

Independent programmer, chatterbox.

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