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An Orthodox Jewish student says she was steered away from an Arab-studies course at Columbia University. The Education Department is investigating.

David Fine
October 07, 2011
Alma Mater and Low Memorial Library, at the center of the Columbia campus.(Bernard Oh/Flickr)
Alma Mater and Low Memorial Library, at the center of the Columbia campus.(Bernard Oh/Flickr)

“You’ll feel very uncomfortable,” Barnard Prof. Rachel McDermott allegedly told an Orthodox Jewish student at the college when the undergraduate inquired about a course called Arabs and the Arab World, taught by a controversial Columbia professor, Joseph Massad. “Why don’t you look at ancient Jewish history?”

In her first interview since the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights launched an official inquiry into possible anti-Jewish discrimination late last month, the student gave Tablet Magazine a description of the incident that sparked the federal investigation. (The Office for Civil Rights confirmed in an email that it is “investigating a complaint alleging Columbia University discriminated against a student of Jewish ancestry/ethnicity on the basis of national origin.”)

“I went to her to speak about the major and talk to her about classes that I was looking at,” the student, who asked not to be named, said of a January, 2011 meeting in which she sought advice from McDermott, the longtime chair of the Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department at Barnard. “I mentioned a course taught by Joseph Massad.”

“Oh, he’s very anti-Israel,” McDermott responded, according to the student. “And I said, ‘That’s fine, I’ve heard anti-Israel things before, and I’m fine if it’s a culture clash.’ ”

But McDermott insisted Massad’s course would make the student “uncomfortable,” the student said in the interview. In the end, the student, then a sophomore, took the Jewish history class instead.

McDermott, who stepped down from her position as chair last month, declined to comment for this article. Columbia President Lee Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar, issued a statement to Tablet Magazine: “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. Based on these facts, therefore, it is extremely unfair for Professor Massad to be cited in a matter in which he played no part whatsoever.”

But Massad’s notoriety was clearly enough of a problem that McDermott, an India specialist with a stellar reputation, felt the need to counsel a student away from his course. Indeed, the student “was apprehensive” to refer the investigation, she said in the interview, “because Prof. McDermott was just protecting me.”

The student, now a Middle East Studies major, knew about Massad’s reputation: In 2005, a short documentary called Columbia Unbecoming featured a number of Jewish students recalling instances of intimidation they faced because of their pro-Israel views. Many of their testimonies focused on Massad, then a tenure-track professor. In one particularly chilling account, a student who had served in the Israeli Army recalled Massad asking him at an off-campus lecture how many Palestinians he’d killed.

And so, the student said, she wasn’t much surprised by McDermott’s advice until last May. That month, she met Peter Haas, a professor of Jewish studies at Case Western University and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a network of pro-Israel academics and professors, and told him about what happened. Another member of the pro-Israel professors’ network, Judith Jacobson, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s School of Public Health, followed up by calling the student. Jacobson wanted to know if the student was interested in talking to Kenneth L. Marcus, who heads the group’s legal task force. The student agreed.

Marcus, the director of the Anti-Semitism Initiative at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, headed the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the agency currently investigating Columbia, in 2003 and 2004. According to Marcus, what happened at Barnard was an instance of “steering”—a term that typically refers to housing discrimination, when a real-estate agent tells a black family that it would feel “uncomfortable” in a particular neighborhood because of its predominantly white population. Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 to outlaw the practice.

What McDermott allegedly did, according to Marcus, who handled cases of alleged steering as the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in 2002 and 2003, was a form of steering and thus violated the Jewish student’s civil rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He said in an interview that he knew of “no other steering cases in an educational context,” but that if the student’s allegations are verified, “it would be extremely difficult for Barnard to say that any steering would not have any harmful effect.”

It remains to be seen whether the Office of Civil Rights agrees with its former director.

David Fine is a senior at Columbia. He is editor emeritus of The Current.

David Fine is a senior at Columbia. He is editor emeritus of The Current.