Anti-Semitism at CUNY? At Brooklyn College? In the Department of Political Science?

Last spring, in response to claims and complaints of several pro-Israel groups, CUNY hired two attorneys, a former federal judge and former federal prosecutor, to investigate alleged anti-Semitism at CUNY.

After six months of investigation—and God knows how many billable hours (partners at the firm where the two investigators work charge up to $1,000 an hour)—the investigators have issued their report. Among their findings: what anti-Semitism there is at CUNY (and some of the incidents documented here are genuinely anti-Semitic) has nothing to do with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

Given that accusations against SJP were the main impetus for the complaint—the Zionist Organization of America, along with 35 New York elected officials, called for SJP to be suspended or banned from all CUNY campuses—the report should be viewed as an exoneration of SJP, a student organization that has been constantly and unfairly tagged with the stain of anti-Semitism by pro-Israel groups inside and outside CUNY.

The report also does an excellent job of explaining the difference between being offended and being threatened, and makes the quite reasonable point that giving and taking offense—and learning how to respond to both—is part of the educational process. It also urges people not to conflate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

The report also devotes some discussion to my department at Brooklyn College. I confess that I have mixed feelings about what it says in that regard.

On the one hand, it confirms what I already knew: most of our faculty don’t talk about the issue of Israel/Palestine in the classroom (because it’s usually not relevant to the subject at hand), and those faculty who do talk about it, foster an inclusive environment where a variety of views can be aired. Students feel welcome in the classroom, and free to discuss issues from multiple perspectives.

On the other hand, the assumption embedded in the report—that were a professor to pursue, hard, an argument in class about Israel, that that would somehow be out of bounds—seems wrong to me.

Tomorrow, in class, I’m going to pursue, hard, an argument about Locke and labor. That doesn’t mean the students can’t disagree with me. Not by a long shot: strong arguments often elicit, are designed to elicit, strong responses. But I’m not going to pretend to represent all views on Locke or to act as if they are equally correct.

While I know Israel/Palestine is a far more controversial topic these days than is Locke on labor—there was a time in the academy (at least in political science) when, believe it or not, that wasn’t the case—I still don’t know why I as a professor should approach the topic of Israel any differently.

My job is not to avoid giving offense or to give succor; it’s not to ventriloquize all positions across the spectrum. My job is to teach students how to think, how to recognize an argument for what it is, how to make an argument, how to take it apart, how to think critically. I can’t do that job by pretending that weak arguments are strong or strong arguments are weak. (Notice that nothing in what I’ve said presumes that the cause of Israel is right or wrong.)

There’s also a discussion in the report of how I have handled student complaints regarding this issue. Though the report praises me, as chair, I want to make clear (because the report does not) what it is praising me for: When some students complained to me about the anti-Israel bias of the department, I made clear to them that if they had specific complaints (as opposed to vague premonitions of unwelcome or discomfort) about a professor penalizing students for their views or unreasonably prohibiting students from airing their views (that “unreasonably” is deliberate; all professors have to monitor and control class discussion, and that will mean that some views don’t get aired sometimes, for perfectly legitimate pedagogical reasons), or if there were any promulgation or indulgence of anti-Semitism (as opposed to anti-Zionism) in the classroom, that they should come to me.

In any event, the report should set to rest any notion that political science at Brooklyn College is anything less than a first-rate academic department that takes scholarship, teaching, and discussion of difficult issues seriously.

Here’s what the investigators had to say about my department:

Among the matters that we investigated was an allegation that Jewish students did not feel comfortable taking Political Science courses because of the Department’s anti-Israel bias. We did not find substantial support for the allegation. For the most part, the interviewees said that the Department’s professors facilitated dialogue on the Israel-Palestine issue but did not impose their own views. The issue was not gratuitously raised in the classroom….

Political Science faculty members are clearly sensitive to the issue. The current chair of the Department told us that Hillel students had brought this concern to his attention. The students did not raise particularized complaints, but expressed their general discomfort. He urged them to report any future incident directly to him. The meeting occurred in 2014, and he has not heard similar concerns since then. A pro-Israel professor told us that the head of the Department takes the issue seriously and that he would be “shocked” if there were inappropriate comments in class.

No doubt, some of the concern about the Department stems, not from classroom issues, but from its co-sponsorship of the 2013 BDS forum and a 2014 event featuring Steven Salaita. Some Jewish students and alumni believe that the co-sponsorships evidenced antiZionism, and questioned whether a department should be lending its name to such potentially polarizing events. The Department takes the position that it will co-sponsor any student event that has an educational purpose and notes that it has co-sponsored at least one event that featured a pro-Israel speaker.


  1. Jane Rosenbaum September 12, 2016 at 8:43 pm | #

    I’m 61, and for as long as I can remember, it has really bothered me that Anti-Zionism is misconstrued as Anti- Semitism. It has always seemed like a dangerous and underhanded tactic to inflame.

  2. Daniel September 12, 2016 at 9:21 pm | #

    “When some students complained to me about the pro-Israel bias of the department,…” This should read “anti-Israel”, shouldn’t it? Or did the report get that wrong?

    • Corey Robin September 12, 2016 at 9:52 pm | #

      Yes, you’re right! I’ve fixed it. My apologies.

    • Stephen Zielinski September 13, 2016 at 9:16 am | #

      A pro-Israel panel would merely elicit complaints from a different fraction of the student body. I doubt the university would spend tens — hundreds? — of thousands of dollars investigating their charges.

  3. xenon2 September 12, 2016 at 9:24 pm | #

    I’ve teleported myself to all these events.
    But, I recall a panel outside the college,
    that makes me afraid for the future.

    Corey, you do a good job, in an imperfect

  4. SK Figler, Ph.D. September 12, 2016 at 9:57 pm | #

    More power to you. Professors, at the very least, must take principled stances…or else who will?

  5. Ramesh September 12, 2016 at 10:59 pm | #

    If possible I would be interested of any Corey’s lectures or class teaching videos on YouTube or similar sites. Thanks.

    • Corey Robin September 13, 2016 at 9:49 am | #

      Sorry, don’t have those! There are some videos on YouTube of me giving public lectures elsewhere, but CUNY doesn’t videotape its classes.

  6. Dean C. Rowan September 13, 2016 at 12:17 am | #

    A nit to pick: Why the parenthetical “as opposed to anti-Zionism”? I get the gist of the qualification. You’re talking about students taking offense to anti-Semitism, rather than to mere anti-Zionism, which isn’t (or shouldn’t be as) personally offensive. But should any instructor promulgate anti-Zionism? (I’m channeling Stanley Fish here.) Shouldn’t the instructor stick to describing and analyzing (offering pro and con) the historic manifestations of the ideology?

    • Corey Robin September 13, 2016 at 9:47 am | #

      I think I’ve answered your question in my post. But to make things more concrete, imagine this scenario: Solzhenitsyn, were he still alive, is invited to your university to teach a class on the Bolshevik Revolution. He pursues aggressively the notion that Stalin and Lenin are one and the same, that the tyranny that the Soviet Union became was writ large in the nature of Bolshevism, indeed communism as a whole, from the get go. This is an extraordinarily controversial argument. Would we say Solzhenitsyn is obligated to represent the criticisms? I think not. Among the many reasons: we’ve hired Solzhenitsyn not to ventriloquize the arguments of one faction of the Soviet studies profession but to give his account. That’s what he does best. If students don’t like his account, they can bring their alternative perspective to bear in class—those are the best classes—or not take his class or take another class. It would be a crime against education to have Solzhenitsyn constrained by these Fish-like nostrums.

      Also, how far do you want to take this idea. When we teach the Holocaust, pro and con? This is a classroom, not the McNeil-Lehrer Report.

      • Stephen Zielinski September 13, 2016 at 3:12 pm | #

        Yet, Solzhenitsyn, with his strong views about the Bolshevik Revolution and Marxism, must not grade the work of his students which would take issue with his criticisms of Bolshevism and Marxism. This is not an easy rule for professors to observe when they have strongly partisan positions. They are, however, always required to place the demands made on them as a teacher over those made on them as a partisan. Teachers are required to respect the opinions of their students and to foster the path their students walk on their way to ‘enlightenment.’ It is a conflict of vocations.

        So, a Solzhenitsyn may not be duty-bound to fairly represent the arguments of his direct and indirect critics, he is required to respect his students and their positions.

        Good luck to a Solzhenitsyn who has to read civil and well-argued papers written by socialists and atheists that attempt to show the reader to be a foolish defender of reaction!

        • Dean C. Rowan September 14, 2016 at 12:20 am | #

          The Solzhenitsyn example is good, but wouldn’t you agree that it’s an exception that proves a rule? Or, at least, adjusts one? You speak on the one hand of personalities invited to the campus, on the other of faculty. Solzhenitsyn would be an instance of the former, your department of the latter. Fish–who really doesn’t dispense nostrums; please, be more fair–is focusing on the latter. (He has a schtick, one might argue. He is predictably contrarian. But so what? His thinking proceeds logically and empirically. As such, it’s subject to charges against his logic or his evidence. What more do you want?)

          Faculty should not regard their mission as political advocacy. That’s pretty simple, and fairly easy to abide by. Your hypothetical — “When we teach the Holocaust, pro and con?” — is absurd. Let’s argue, instead, “I, Dean Rowan, should be emperor of the universe, pro and con.” I mean, there’s some question, isn’t there? Maybe I should be emperor, who’s to know? Furthermore, those who teach the Holocaust should be in the business of teaching facts and inferences. Why should it be their obligation to teach pro or con at all?

          My comment really was just a nitpick. I don’t see why promulgating anti-Zionism (as opposed to anti-Semitism) is obviously okay as a pedagogical matter. Opposing anti-Semitism, on the other hand, is obviously okay as a moral matter. Faculty who oppose anti-Semitism not as a matter of pedagogy, but as a matter of simple human decency, are not, per se, violating some stricture against mingling politics and pedagogy.

      • Eli September 14, 2016 at 8:42 am | #

        >If students don’t like his account, they can bring their alternative perspective to bear in class—those are the best classes—or not take his class or take another class.

        I think the problem here is that students take a class because they’re ignorant, not educated. Yes, society typically inserts no small portion of its moral judgements into classes where those are relevant (we don’t teach pros-and-cons of the Holocaust), but that usually requires a society-wide moral consensus (to my own great chagrin, we continue to teach pros-and-cons of austerity economics).

        Being Jewish myself, I think that anti-Zionism ought to be considered at least as morally controversial (at least, if laid out as fact-based material rather than as an extended moral judgement) as austerity — probably more so, since austerity is a complete universal failure.

        (Yes, I know austerity is *actually* designed to vacuum wealth from the public sphere and the working class into the bourgeoisie, but that’s not what they *tell* people.)

      • J. Otto Pohl September 14, 2016 at 11:14 am | #

        I like this example and I think it fits into the argument nicely. Solzhenitsyn did not think the USSR was a legitimate state. Anti-Zionists don’t think Israel is a legitimate state. I am teaching History of the Middle East this semester and have a week on Palestine. In line with the Soviet-Israeli comparison this is one of the pieces I am having my students read.

  7. Punkie September 13, 2016 at 12:38 am | #

    Dear Prof Robin why do too many writers use parenthesis too much thereby weakening their prose, their own main tool being used? Good grief it only means you should have explained it properly and more completely in the above paragraph.

    • Corey Robin September 13, 2016 at 9:48 am | #

      You’re right. I’ll work on that.

  8. David Applebaum September 13, 2016 at 10:19 am | #

    My CUNY Brooklyn classmates included graduates from the camps (concentration and displaced persons). It was the early 1960’s. There were charges of anti’Semitis as some religious students claimed the right to wash their hands in the water fountains in the Boylan Hall cafeteria. My recall is that the remedy was to keep the bathroom and cafeteria doors open to accommodate a ritual of the orthodox. Clearly, a different set of facts informing a debate on protection of speech and religipn.

  9. David EGan September 13, 2016 at 3:22 pm | #

    Bravo, Professor Robin, for your intellectual honesty, courage and genuine concern for all students.
    You are a credit to your department, your college and your fellow man.

  10. Sam Lerner September 13, 2016 at 3:30 pm | #

    You’ve probably seen the op-ed in yesterday’s NYT “Anti-Semitism and the British Left.” How would you compare developments there with your experience at Brooklyn College?

  11. Robin Messing September 13, 2016 at 7:55 pm | #

    So the question remains–were these accusations of anti-Semitism and intimidation made in bad faith in order to suppress SJP and crush the BDS movement? And if these accusations were made in bad faith, is there any way for CUNY to recover the money spent on its investigation? If there is a way (and I’m not saying there is), then this would have the beneficial side effect of discouraging future bad faith accusations.

  12. Ramesh September 13, 2016 at 11:53 pm | #

    “My job is to teach students how to think, how to recognize an argument for what it is, how to make an argument, how to take it apart, how to think critically.”

    My hope is Corey will write a text book on this in the future.

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