“It’s possible Morningside Heights has found its annual autumn incident,” writes Marc Tracy in Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish news. According to his article published earlier today, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) will investigate a complaint that the chair of  Barnard’s Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures “steered” a Jewish Barnard student away from taking one of Columbia MESAAS Professor Joseph Massad‘s classes because his pro-Palestinian leanings may have made the student feel “uncomfortable.” Tablet notes that Professor Massad has been criticized before, most notably in the 2004 film Columbia Unbecoming, for “cultivating classrooms hostile to pro-Israel voices.” A subsequent internal investigation at Columbia cleared Professor Massad of all allegations, and, after an initial rejection, he was granted tenure in 2007.

Kenneth Marcus, President of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR) and former head of the OCR during the Bush administration, brought the complaint to the Department of Ed. He has also served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), a committee that advises OCR and investigated Columbia for antisemitism in 2006 (go to page 58). It looks like investigating accusations of anti-semitism on college campuses is a top priority for USCCR; they even maintain a special website to report anti-semitism.

Although Marcus brought the incident to the attention of the feds, he didn’t discover it on his own. According to Tablet, Judith Jacobson, a professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and co-founder of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a group of American academics committed to fighting anti-semitism and anti-Israel bias on college campuses, informed Marcus of the alleged “steering.” Professor Jacobson strongly opposed awarding tenure to Massad and later to Barnard Anthropology Professor Nadia Abu el-Haj, whose work on Israeli anthropology some scholars viewed as too critical of Israel.

Columbia claims Massad isn’t involved in the steering story. A spokesman for the University told Tablet, “It is important to note that the individual complaint appears to relate to academic advising at Barnard College and in no way involves Professor Joseph Massad.” But that’s not how Marcus sees it. His complaint may concern a department head’s “steering,” but the root of his problem is with, as Tablet puts it, “Columbia’s alleged failure to address the perception that Massad’s classes might make Jewish students unduly uncomfortable.” In an IJRC press release, Marcus writes, “if there is a problem in Prof. Massad’s classroom, as the Barnard chair may believe then steering Jewish students away is not the solution…the big question is whether Massad is violating students’ rights too.”

Marcus told Tablet he eagerly anticipates the Department of Ed’s investigation, and in the event that they find Columbia classes are hostile environments for Jewish students, professors involved “need to be dealt with.” Columbia has a historically flourishing Jewish community. According to a survey by Reform Jewish Magazine, Barnard currently ranks third in the country for highest percentage of Jewish students with 43.5%, and Columbia comes in close behind  at 25%. Given the tireless commitment that OCR and USCCR have shown to thoroughly investigating accusations of anti-semitism on college campuses, it seems Columbia will have to take these accusations very seriously.

Responses from Administrators and Student Groups

Jordana Kaminetsky, President of Hillel, and Daniel Bonner, President of Yavneh/Orthodox Community:

“In light of recent events, we want to make it clear as a Jewish community that we feel supported in the Columbia and Barnard academic community. There are certainly professors who see things differently than we do in the context of Israel and the quest for balance in the classroom continues. But it is the season of Jewish holidays–a season of missed classes–and as Jewish students on campus, we want to reiterate that our community has had overwhelmingly positive experiences with our professors and advisers who go to great lengths to accommodate our needs. Their attitude of respect and open-mindedness in this context is indicative of our larger Columbia experience, and we are very grateful for it.”

Joanne Kwong, Barnard’s Vice-President for Communications:

“We do not tolerate discrimination by any member of the College community, so we are carefully exploring and reviewing the claims made about this alleged incident. As this is a pending investigation, it would be inappropriate and premature to comment any further at this time.”