This is the third post part of in a four-part series on faculty anti-Semitism. Part One was about the blatantly anti-Semitic Facebook posts of Michael Chikindas of Rutgers, and Part Two was about the bigoted images retweeted by UC Berkeley's Hatem Bazian. This post discusses some of the defenses that have been raised on behalf of Chikindas and Bazian.
The most extensive defense of Chikindas was written on the AAUP's Academe Blog by John K. Wilson, who says that "Chikindas is an anti-Semite, and an idiot," while arguing against the measures taken against Chikindas because "Perpetuating 'toxic stereotypes' is not a violation of any campus rules, nor is upsetting people." Thus, says Wilson, a professor could not be sanctioned for asserting that "gay men have a propensity to molest children," or "that Muslims are a terrorist threat," or "that blacks are less intelligent than whites on average." Wilson is an academic freedom absolutist, but he makes some key mistakes.
First, though perhaps most understandable, it is trivializing for Wilson to call Chikindas "an idiot." The problem with Chikindas is not stupidity or poor judgment, it is bigotry. The reference to anti-Semitism as idiocy has the effect of minimizing the seriousness of Chikindas's Facebook posts -- which would be familiar to any reader of The Daily Stormer -- and the historic harms that have been committed in the name of similar anti-Jewish tropes. A synagogue was firebombed in Sweden last weekend by people who share Chikindas's beliefs. They were racists, not idiots. The dismissal of bigots as fools has a certain knee-jerk attractiveness, especially among those who have not been subjected to their vitriol, but the ultimate effect of that response is to deemphasize the actual danger of racism, which is based on hatred rather than ignorance.
More significantly, Wilson failed to recognize the scope of academic freedom. Chikindas has been subjected to two consequences, and the possibility of a third. He has been prohibited from teaching required courses and removed from an administrative directorship -- neither of which implicate academic freedom -- and he is facing the prospect of suspension at reduced pay.
The question here is whether Rutgers students and staff should be compelled to study or work under someone who has grotesquely ridiculed their ethnicity and religion. Rutgers has decided as an administrative matter that no one should have to be placed, against their will, under Chikindas's authority. This is not punishment of Chikindas, but rather a protective measure for students and staff.
Wilson rejects the idea that students might have a legitimate objection to mandatory studying under a bigot. If Chikendas is "qualified to teach classes, then that should include required courses. The fact that some students feel uncomfortable about a professor’s views is not a good reason to ban [him] from teaching required courses." This conclusion can only be reached by someone who dismisses anti-Semitism as nothing more an "uncomfortable view," which of course is another form of trivialization. (Wilson's citation of Levin v. Harleston is inapposite, as that case involved the creation of "shadow classes" for a professor, and not the reassignment of required courses.")
As I explained in Part One, Wilson is on solid ground when he objects to the ongoing investigation of Chikindas that may result in suspension from the university, but that does not mean the the university's hands must be completely tied. Wilson says, "If we allow personal opinions to be the basis of penalties, almost any controversial professor could be punished." The slippery slope argument, as it often does, proves too much. Rutgers has thus far taken only measured steps in the face of breathtaking bigotry. Wilson thinks that the university can only act following proof of discrimination in the classroom; I think Rutgers students and staff deserve better. Again, with the recognition that a suspension would in fact implicate academic freedom. (I also agree with Wilson that sending Chikindas to a "cultural sensitivity training program" would be pointless and overbearing.)
This brings us to Hatem Bazian, who has received nothing more at UC Berkeley than a mild rebuke for circulating racist memes about Jews. To Bazian's defenders, however, this is apparently the work of "powerful allies of the Trump administration and the UC Board of Trustees [who] seek to intimidate, bully and silence any and all advocacy for justice in/for Palestine by pressure, strong arming and bribing public universities."
According to Prof. Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University, Bazian's behavior was nothing more than "a mistake he made and for which he took responsibility and has publicly apologized." In a letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, Abdulhadi asserted that Bazian had merely "inadvertently retweeted an offensive meme." Abdulhadi said nothing about the nature or content of Bazian's retweet, as she evidently could not bring herself to acknowledge that it included vile and unmistakable anti-Semitic imagery. Instead, Abdulhadi insists that "Hatem is being attacked because the Zionist establishment would like to silence all of us and use bullying, smear campaign and outright incitement to violence to take us out once and for all." To Abdulhadi, it seems that complaints about anti-Semitism have no intrinsic legitimacy and can be readily discounted as coming from the "Zionist establishment."
Some of the overheated complaints against Bazian have no doubt called for his firing, which, as I explained in Part Two, would be a disproportionate infringement of academic freedom. But neither should his foray into ugly anti-Semitism be brushed off as an innocent error. It was a slip-up, alright, but not an inadvertent one. Sadly enough, it is obvious that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have become inextricably intertwined, to the point that BDS advocates like Abdulhadi cannot even respond to anti-Jewish memes without invoking conspiracy theories.
Neither Michael Chinkindas nor Hatem Bazian is an idiot. They are well-educated and highly intelligent, and Bazian, as Abdulhadi describes him, is also "an astute political strategist and thinker." Their defenders, one out of naivete and the other out of zealotry, have sadly failed to appreciate the seriousness of anti-Semitism, which is far more than, as Wilson called it, a "personal opinion."