Intellectual Freedom Redefined
Susan Shapiro described the environment at NYU in The Wall Street Journal:
Jewish students were assaulted at an Israeli Independence Day celebration last year in Washington Square Park, where two anti-Israel student agitators were arrested after desecrating Israeli flags. The NYU Jewish Center received threats; swastikas were found in a residence hall. The student government passed an anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) resolution. NYU activists confronted a pregnant Chelsea Clinton and insanely blamed her for the massacre at a New Zealand mosque because she criticized Rep. Ilhan Omar’s antisemitic slurs. Most shocking, last week the university gave a President’s Service Award to Students for Justice in Palestine [SJP] for its “positive impact on the community.”
Shapiro did the one thing that gets the attention of administrators — attracted bad press for the university.
President Andrew Hamilton responded by labeling Shapiro’s allegations “falsehoods and half-truths.” He asserted that “NYU has long been known as a welcoming campus for Jewish students” and boasted that the university “publicly repudiated calls for boycotts of Israel, dismissed calls to close our Israel site, criticized and rejected efforts to ostracize pro-Israel groups and stood with other universities and elected officials to denounce antisemitism.”
The stunning decision to award SJP — a promoter of antisemitism that is responsible for creating a climate of intolerance toward Jews — the university’s highest honor for a student organization prompted the lame excuse that Hamilton had no say in the decision. Hamilton said that if it was his choice, “SJP would not have received the award — not because of its politics or NYU’s opposition to its pro-boycott, divestment and sanctions positions, but because SJP’s behavior has been divisive.” He doesn’t have a problem with the antisemitic attitudes, behavior, and agenda of SJP or its impact on Jewish students, only that it makes his life difficult by causing tumult.
After his letter defending NYU appeared in the Journal, the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis (SCA) voted to boycott NYU’s own satellite campus in Tel Aviv.
NYU professors boycotting NYU. That was a BDS first.
Hamilton responded, “NYU rejects academic boycotts of Israel, rejects calls to close its Tel Aviv campus, and denounces efforts to ostracize or exclude those in the University community based on their location in Israel, their Israeli origin, or their political feelings for Israel.”
The department’s behavior is a gross act of academic malpractice and a violation of academic freedom. Shouldn’t a department that promotes an antisemitic policy that undermines the university’s raison d’être be disbanded and its faculty fired or disciplined?
That won’t happen. In fact, NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) condemned the administration for rebuking the department, saying they “strongly support the right of individual departments and schools to determine their own affairs.” They left out, “no matter how bigoted.”
More than 140 alumni and faculty members of NYU’s School of Medicine called on Hamilton to combat a “climate of antisemitism at NYU that creates a hostile environment for Jewish students, prevents honest discourse and limits academic freedom on our campus.”
Nothing was done, and the atmosphere worsened.
On May 20, Steven Thrasher — a newly minted PhD from the SCA department — gave a commencement speech saying he was “so proud” of NYU’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee labor union, and SCA for supporting BDS “against the apartheid state government in Israel.”
After another media firestorm erupted, Hamilton was prompted to say he found it “quite objectionable” and apologized “that the audience had to experience these inappropriate remarks.” The speaker’s “one-sided and tendentious” words, he acknowledged, “indefensibly made some in the audience feel unwelcome and excluded.”
The NYU AAUP demanded that Hamilton apologize and “assure members of the community that campus speech of all kinds is fully protected at NYU and should never be subject to denunciation by those with the power to retaliate and penalize.” The AAUP statement said, “any official rebuke of speech on campus is a grave threat to fundamental tenets of academic freedom.”
The AAUP hammered their point home by adding: “We also believe it is time to retire the punitive tone exhibited by recent statements from the administration regarding campus speech about Middle Eastern affairs. It is widely known and documented that faculty and students who speak out about Palestinian rights routinely receive hate mail and threats (and sometimes, as in the case of SJP-NYU, these are death threats), and they are often targeted by coordinated efforts to destroy their employment status and careers. They have been selected out by this administration for harsh disapproval, and branded as ‘divisive’ or ‘deplorable.’ Instead, they should be defended.”
Note there is no mention of defending supporters of Israel or critics of the Palestinians and radical Islam.
Subsequently, Aussie Dave’s Israellycool blog revealed Thrasher’s antisemitic tweets. Comparing Israelis to Nazis, slavers, and US police departments, Thrasher said, “Israel is testing the limits of what it can get away with in controlling humans in Gaza.” He was also angered when “a musical from Israel wins a Tony & no one mentions the genocide of Israel-occupied Palestine.” Yet another tweet accused Israel of testing “weapons of war on colonial subjects.”
Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, Hamilton was “shocked” when he learned of the “vile and anti-Semitic tweets.”
So what is to become of Steven Thrasher?
He has been hired to teach about social justice at Northwestern. After Thrasher’s NYU speech, Northwestern’s president and provost said, “While Dr. Thrasher will not be the first Northwestern faculty member who supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, Northwestern as an institution unequivocally rejects BDS. To the contrary, we value our many relationships with a variety of universities and research centers in Israel.”
After being apprised of Thrasher’s tweets, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said only that Thrasher would assume his position on June 1.
No one says Thrasher isn’t entitled to antisemitic opinions; however, a university is not obligated to hire someone with such views, especially to teach courses on social justice. They might as well hire someone from the Flat Earth Society to teach geography.
Sadly, as the Northwestern statement indicated, Thrasher will not be an anomaly. This is the same university that has long employed Arthur Butz, even after 60 of his colleagues from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science described his Holocaust denial as “an affront to our humanity and our standards as scholars.” They called on Butz to “leave our Department and our University and stop trading on our reputation for academic excellence.”
What was then President Henry Bienen’s reaction?
“We cannot take action based on the content of what Butz says regarding the Holocaust — however odious it may be — without undermining the vital principle of intellectual freedom that all academic institutions serve to protect,” he said.
Only in the Orwellian world of academia could a university president regard Holocaust denial as “intellectual.”
So now Thrasher will trade on Northwestern’s reputation, safe in the knowledge that academic freedom protects liars, propagandists, antisemites, and anyone whose statements and writings, no matter how lacking in scholarly merit, do not violate the norms of political correctness.
Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.