Those Columbia deans deserved their removals. But what’s next?

(RNS) — It took three weeks for Columbia University to demote three deans for sending text messages to each other that “disturbingly touched on ancient antisemitic tropes,” as an announcement sent Monday (July 8) to the university community put it

The messages were a running commentary on a two-hour panel discussion on antisemitism that was held for the school’s alumni reunion May 31 and attended by the three deans. Someone sitting behind one of them took screenshots, which found their way to The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative journal, which published an expose June 12.

The administrators in question were Cristen Kromm, dean of undergraduate student life; Matthew Patashnick, associate dean for student and family support; and Susan Chang-Kim, vice dean and chief administrative officer. Also in on the discussion, but permitted to keep his position, was Josef Sorett, the dean of Columbia College. 

Among the panelists was Columbia junior Rebecca Massel, deputy news editor of the Daily Spectator, the student newspaper. She noted that the largest number of Jewish students felt that they “needed to have almost a litmus test, where it was like, ‘Ok, you’re Jewish but do you support Israel?’ And they needed to prove that they don’t. And they felt uncomfortable with that because they felt that their Judaism and their Zionism are intrinsically linked.”

If there was any sympathy for this report or anything else the panelists or the questioners from the audience said, it was hard to detect. When another panelist claimed that some Jewish students had been kicked out of college clubs, Patashnick denied being aware of such a thing but allowed that “many Jewish students didn’t feel welcome.”

Otherwise, it was just a load of snark, including Patashnick’s comment that one panelist “knew exactly what he was doing. Huge fundraising potential” — followed by a “Liked” from Kromm and Chang-Kim’s “Double Urgh.”

At the panel’s end, Patashnick writes, “Well, that’s a wrap.”

Chang-Kim: What???

Kromm: And we thought Yonah sounded the alarm …

Kromm: 🤢🤮

Chang-Kim: I’m going to throw up.

Kromm: Amazing what $$$$ can do.

Chang-Kim: Yup

The Yonah who “sounded the alarm” is Rabbi Yonah Hain, a rabbi with Columbia’s Office of Student Life and the school’s Hillel chapter, who two-and-a-half weeks after the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas wrote an op-ed piece in the campus newspaper, the Daily Spectator, with the title “Sounding the Alarm” that included the following:

Personally, my Zionism means that my heart breaks for the Israelis who are suffering as my stomach also turns for the Gazans who have been placed in harm’s way. I feel no joy in watching clips of suffering; I bang no drum when human life is lost. Human decency is not a sign of weakness, or of uncertainty in your beliefs, and the pain we feel watching these events unfold is real and awful. Sadly, for the Palestinian freedom movement on campus, denouncement of Hamas’ violence or acknowledgement of Jewish suffering has been deemed antithetical to the cause. This inability to see the humanity of Jews is textbook anti-Semitism.

Maybe Kromm’s vomit emojis were meant not as a comment on Hain’s alarm but on the panel discussion itself. Or maybe on both. Whatever. As for textbook antisemitism, those dollar signs qualify. 

Academic freedom arguably protects professors from being fired from their academic positions for expressing antisemitic or other prejudiced views. It does not protect anyone, including professors, in their administrative positions.

Stealing text messages and publishing them is not attractive. But these were messages exchanged as part of administrative employment. Enough said.

According to The New York Times, beginning this fall, Columbia students, faculty and staff “will undergo required anti-discrimination training that will include a focus on antisemitism.” That’s all well and good.

But every minority group that experiences discrimination brings its own history, values and convictions to the table. If the “focus on antisemitism” simply rings the changes on the history of antisemitism, it will not equip the Columbia community to understand and respond to the Jewish response, on campus and off, to the pro-Palestinian protests of the past year. 

What is required is at least some attention to:

  1. The land of Israel in Judaism. Like it or not, it is not incidental to Jewish religion, past and present. 
  2. The history of modern Zionism. For better or worse, this initially contested movement has become the dominant national ideology of the Jewish people. 
  3. An account of the establishment of the state of Israel — not excluding the subsequent dispossession of Jews living elsewhere in the Middle East.
  4. How the state of Israel became central to the communal identity of American Jews in the post-World War II era.
  5. The importance of the Holocaust as a living memory in the American Jewish community.

If Columbia or any other institution of higher learning wants to do more than pay lip service to combating the rise of antisemitism in its midst, it needs to reckon with these issues. It won’t be easy.

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