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The New McCarthyism: Congress Grills Columbia Univ. President Amid Crackdown on Pro-Palestine Speech

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In nearly four hours of grueling congressional testimony before the Republican-led Committee on Education and the Workforce, the president of Columbia University, Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, said she had taken serious action against accusations of antisemitism on campus in recent months amid Israel’s assault on Gaza, including dismissing or removing five faculty members from the classroom, suspending 15 students and suspending two student groups — Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. Shafik’s visit to Capitol Hill is the latest in a series of hearings on alleged antisemitism at elite U.S. private schools. In December, similar hearings led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. Our guests Nara Milanich and Rebecca Jordan-Young, both professors at Barnard College and Columbia University, respond to the televised hearings. “What happened at those hearings yesterday should be of grave concern to everybody,” warns Jordan-Young. “What we got was a live performance [of President Shafik] throwing the entire university system under the bus.” Adds Milanich, “Antisemitism here is being used as a wedge. It’s being used as a Trojan horse for a very different political agenda.”

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StoryMay 22, 2024“The New McCarthyism”: Pro-Palestine Educators Face Censorship, Harassment & Firings Across U.S.
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The president of Columbia University was grilled at a congressional hearing Wednesday about allegations of antisemitism on campus. In nearly four hours of grueling testimony before the Republican-led Committee on Education and the Workforce, Minouche Shafik said she had taken serious action against the accusations, including dismissing or removing five faculty members from the classroom in recent months for comments related to Israel’s assault on Gaza, as well as suspending 15 students and two student groups — Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. Shafik’s visit to Capitol Hill came after a December hearing that led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

AMY GOODMAN: In the run-up to the congressional hearing, a group of Jewish faculty at Columbia and Barnard penned an open letter addressed to President Shafik expressing their concerns about, quote, “the false narratives that frame these proceedings to entrap witnesses” and labeling the hearings a, quote, “new McCarthyism.”

During yesterday’s testimony, Lisa McClain, the Republican congressmember from Michigan, questioned Shafik over a number of pro-Palestinian slogans, including “from the river to the sea.”

REP. LISA McCLAIN: My question to you: Are mobs shouting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” or “Long live the [intifada]” — are those antisemitic comments?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: When I hear those terms, I find them very upsetting. And I have heard —

REP. LISA McCLAIN: That’s a great answer to a question I didn’t ask. So let me repeat the question. When mobs or people are shouting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free,” or “Long live the [intifada],” are those antisemitic statements? Yes or no? It’s not how you feel. It’s —

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: I hear them as such. Some people don’t. We have sent a clear message —

REP. LISA McCLAIN: So, is that yes? So, is that yes?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: We have sent a clear message to our community.

REP. LISA McCLAIN: I’m not asking about the message.

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Yeah.

REP. LISA McCLAIN: Is that fall under definition of antisemitic behavior? Yes or no? Why is it so tough?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Because it’s a — it’s a difficult issue because —

REP. LISA McCLAIN: I realize it’s a difficult issue.

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: — some people hear it as antisemitic, other people do not.

REP. LISA McCLAIN: But here’s the problem, is when people can’t answer a simple question, and they have a definition, but then they can’t — “Well, I’m not really sure if that qualifies.”

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: So, we’ve done —

REP. LISA McCLAIN: I’m asking a simple question. Maybe I should ask your task force. Does that qualify as antisemitic behavior, those statements? Yes or no?

DAVID SCHIZER: Yes.

REP. LISA McCLAIN: Yes. OK.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Later in the hearing, Republican Georgia Congressmember Rick Allen brought up the Bible in his questioning of Shafik. He cited the Old and New Testament and asked Shafik if [she] wanted Columbia University to be cursed by God.

REP. RICK ALLEN: Are you familiar with Genesis 12:3?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Probably not as well as you are, Congressman.

REP. RICK ALLEN: Well, it’s pretty clear. It was the covenant that God made with Abraham. And that covenant was real clear: “If you bless Israel, I will bless you. If you curse Israel, I will curse you.” And then, in the New Testament, it was confirmed that all nations would be blessed through you. So, you do not know about that?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: I have heard that, now that you’ve explained it.

REP. RICK ALLEN: OK.

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Yes, I have heard that before.

REP. RICK ALLEN: So, it’s now familiar. Do you consider that a serious issue? I mean, do you want Columbia University to be cursed by God, of the Bible?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Definitely not.

REP. RICK ALLEN: OK. Well, that’s good.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Much of the questioning on Wednesday focused on Columbia’s handling of faculty. New York Republican Congressmember Elise Stefanik led the charge. She grilled the president about her testimony on both the protests at Columbia and about professor Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics who chairs an academic review committee.

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: Dr. Shafik, you realize that at some of these events, the slurs and the chants have been “F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews” —

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Yeah.

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: — “F— Israel,” “No safe place, death to the Zionist state,” “Jews out.” You don’t think those are anti-Jewish?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Completely anti-Jewish, completely unacceptable.

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: So you change your testimony —

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Horrible.

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: — on that issue, as well? So, there have been anti-Jewish protests.

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: I didn’t get to finish my sentence. So, what I was going to say there were protests that were called that were — that had a —

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: That’s not what you were asked. You were asked: Were there any anti-Jewish protests? And you said no.

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: So, the protest was not labeled as an anti-Jewish protest. It was —

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: I’m not asking what it was labeled.

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: — labeled as an anti-Israeli government policy. But anti —

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: The question wasn’t what it was labeled.

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: But antisemitic incidents happened, or antisemitic things were said. So, I just wanted to finish —

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: It is an anti-Jewish protest. You agree with that? You change your testimony?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Congresswoman, anti-Jewish things were said at protests, yes.

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: Thank you for changing your testimony. Another instance when you changed your testimony is you stated that professor Massad was no longer chair, then you stated he’s under investigation. He is still chair on the website. So, has he been terminated as chair?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Congresswoman, I want to confirm the facts before getting back to you. I can confirm that he’s —

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: I know you confirmed that he was under investigation.

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Yes, I can confirm that. But I —

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: Did you confirm he was still the chair?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: I need — I need to confirm that with you. I want — I need to check.

REP. ELISE STEFANIK: Well, let me ask you this: Will you make the commitment to remove him as chair?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: I think that would be — I think I would, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement emailed to Democracy Now!, professor Joseph Massad said Republicans had, quote, “fabricated statements” about him and that it was, quote, “news to him” that he was under investigation. He said no one had spoken to him about his chairmanship of the committee in question.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Nara Milanich is a professor of history at Barnard College, part of Columbia University, who co-wrote an open letter to President Shafik titled “Jewish faculty reject the weaponization of antisemitism.” Professor Milanich is a member of the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP. And professor Rebecca Jordan-Young is also with us, professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, at Columbia. She’s a member of the Columbia chapter of the American Association of University Professors. She’s also a member of the Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young, let’s begin with you. Your response to these hearings yesterday?

REBECCA JORDAN-YOUNG: My response is — well, first, let me just thank you for the opportunity to talk with you. It’s so important.

My first response is that what happened at those hearings yesterday should be of grave concern to everybody, regardless of their feelings on Palestine, regardless of their politics. What happened yesterday was a demonstration of the growing and intensifying attack on liberal education writ large.

So, there was an opportunity yesterday for President Shafik to come forward to mount a robust defense of the university as a unique site for debate of difficult ideas, for the fact that slogans can’t be reduced to soundbites, that in fact that what happens at the university is deep discussion, deep thought, and that, in fact, instead, what we got was a live performance of her not just throwing protesters and specific professors under the bus — which we somewhat anticipated, as awful as that was — but, in fact, throwing the entire university system under the bus, throwing out established policies and procedures of the university, throwing out rules that have been established by the American Association of University Professors for decades as best practices, actually announcing unilateral decisions on faculty members on live television, which she doesn’t actually have the authority, and the university, to do. And I could say more, but really I was astonished. It went worse even than any of us had expected.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Professor Nara Milanich, if you could also respond, what most struck you about the hearing, and what Professor Young just said, that the debate, rather than it being a debate about difficult questions, it became extremely narrow, and professor — President, Columbia president, Shafik seemed to capitulate almost entirely, as Professor Young said, threw the entire university apparatus under the bus? If you could respond to that? What was your sense?

NARA MILANICH: So, my sense, one of the things that I learned is that congressional hearings are kind of like social media, which is to say they are wonderful places for political performance, for political theater, for soundbites, for “gotcha” moments, for interrupting one another. They are really terrible spaces to have deep debates about serious and contentious issues. And academic freedom is one of those issues. What goes on on campus and what is happening on campus right now is one of those issues. Where my freedom to speak ends and your right to be free of harassment begins, those are really difficult questions. And a congressional hearing, Twitter are not the places to be litigating these issues.

The place to be talking about these issues is on college campuses, in classrooms, in university quads, in dorm room hallways, right? Universities are precisely the place where we should be having these deep and difficult conversations. And instead, we have seen, time and again, that university administrators are ceding this conversation to people who have very different motives — right? — and who are engaging on these issues for very, very different reasons.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And if you could talk, Professor Young, about the establishment of this congressional committee, to begin with, and what we saw happening in December, which led to the resignation of two of the presidents of the top universities in the U.S.?

REBECCA JORDAN-YOUNG: Well, I think it’s been clear from the very beginning that this task force, that this committee, was actually never about antisemitism. This was about a broad attack on liberal education. And, you know, we have many people on this committee who have never before expressed any concern about antisemitism.

And what we saw was that antisemitism, or a particular interpretation of that, a very precise, very politically aligned interpretation of that, has been procedurally split off from discussion about all other forms of harassment, discrimination, violence, etc. — and this is really contrary to what we do in the university; certainly it’s contrary to what we do in my field — where, broadly, this has been created and used as an opportunity to attack all forms of liberatory, critical scholarship. It’s been a place where critical race studies have gotten attacked. It’s attacking DEI. And throughout, unfortunately, the university presidents who have been questioned, and yesterday President Shafik among them, and the rest of the members of the Columbia leadership, played along with this willingness to split these groups apart. But it’s absolutely against what we do both in scholarship and justice activism. We try to help students understand the intertwined nature of systems and power and oppression and discrimination.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, if you could say, in the past, how has Columbia University — in other instances of harassment for other reasons, how has Columbia University dealt with those complaints of harassment, persecution, etc., by students or by faculty?

REBECCA JORDAN-YOUNG: Well, there are disciplinary procedures in place, and have been for a very long time. And they involve members from all sectors of the university that both develop the policies and who are involved in adjudication of particular complaints.

What we’ve seen happening in the run-up to this particular hearing is it looked like the university was doubling down, or tripling down, on just how much surveillance and policing they could demonstrate ahead of time to say, “Look, we are a surveillance campus. We’re a law-and-order campus. There won’t be protests on the university campus.” Columbia has historically been a center of protest and free speech, which is essential for our role as preparing students to be active members of a democracy. And instead, what’s happening now is an arrogation of the right to decide all of those procedures just at the level of the administration, to actually treat protest itself as dangerous and as violent, which is really, really bone-chilling to me.

The other thing that they’ve done is actually outsource a lot of the investigations and the hearings, especially that our students have been subjected to, to law firms and private investigation firms that are not in any way aligned with understanding the mission and the history of the university as a site for deep and principled disagreements.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Democratic Congressmember Ilhan Omar, one of only two Muslim congressmembers, questioning Columbia President Shafik.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Have you seen anti-Muslim protests on campus?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: I have seen — we have had pro-Israeli demonstrations on campus.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: No, no, no.

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: But not —

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Just a protest that was against Muslims?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Not — no, I have not seen —

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Have you seen one against Arabs?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: No, I have not.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Have you seen one against Palestinians?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: No, I have not.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Have you seen against — one against Jewish people? Have you seen a protest —

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: No.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: — saying, “We are against Jewish people”?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: No, I have — I have seen — no.

REP. ILHAN OMAR: OK. Thank you for that clarification. There has been a rise in targeting and harassment against antiwar protesters, because it’s been pro-war and antiwar protesters, is what seems like, correct?

MINOUCHE SHAFIK: Correct. There has been —

REP. ILHAN OMAR: OK. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Congressmember Ilhan Omar, one of two congresswomen — Muslim congresswomen in the House. In January — Congressmember Omar also in this hearing brought up the attack on pro-Palestinian students in January, who say they were sprayed with a foul-smelling chemical. Eight students were reportedly hospitalized, complaining of burning eyes, headaches and nausea and other symptoms. Organizers allege the attack was carried out by two Columbia students who were former members of the Israeli military, using a chemical weapon known as “skunk” that the Israeli military and security forces regularly deploy against Palestinians. Professor Young, if you can comment on that incident, of what happened and what happened to these students?

REBECCA JORDAN-YOUNG: Yes, absolutely. First, I’ll just say that in the 1980s, when I was an undergraduate, I was an organizer against — I was an anti-apartheid organizer. And I was involved in a lot of demonstrations on my campus. My colleagues, students all around the country were faced with a lot of condescending policies and a lot of pressures from administrations and crackdowns. Never, ever have I seen something like what happened on the Columbia campus.

Never, first of all, have I seen a situation where the administration sets up students to say that protests themselves are problematic — you can’t be against a war, you can’t be against indiscriminate bombing of civilians. I mean, what’s getting lost in this is the situation in Gaza.

And at the same time, what we saw is that the university did not respond to that attack on our students. Students were never contacted. The students who were actually attacked with that chemical weapon were not supported until after the fact. After intense pressure from faculty, the administration said that they would offer them some resources. But they also said that students who were subject to this skunk attack would not be exempt from the sanctions imposed on them for protesting.

And I also think it’s important to say that these policies against protest are not long-standing policies. They’re new policies, that have been created on the fly, sometimes after the fact of particular demonstrations. And the inquiry hearings that are being held are getting more and more draconian, so that there’s a dragnet, basically, of sweeping up all kinds of students that they target, often because of wearing hijab, often because of being near other students, being friends with students who are protesting. So, it’s sweep everybody up, ask questions later. And again, it’s so chilling to me.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Milanich, in your open letter, in the open letter that you wrote prior to this hearing to Columbia President Shafik, you said it’s absurd to claim that antisemitism is rampant on Columbia’s campus. So, why do you think that so many people are convinced that this is the case? And as Professor Young said, nothing like what’s happened at Columbia has happened in the past with protests. How do you understand why this has happened?

NARA MILANICH: Yeah. So, I think this is a really important question. And I had the opportunity to author this letter, open letter to President Shafik, in advance of her testimony with almost two dozen of my colleagues who identify as Jewish. And it’s important to know here that Columbia has a large Jewish population, of Jewish faculty and Jewish students, but there is no such thing as a Jewish opinion — right? — on campus. This is a really heterogeneous group, a diverse group, people with very different experiences, different identities and different politics, different ideas, different relationships, or even nonrelationships, with Israel, right? And we had the sort of impression, the sense, that people were speaking for us, right? People were assuming that we needed to be protected, that we felt vulnerable, people assuming that we all shared a particular political point of view. And we wrote this letter to President Shafik to clarify that, to explain sort of the diversity of different political opinions on campus and to question this idea of a single, hegemonic Jewish position or voice or experience.

And the letter goes on to implore President Shafik not to capitulate to this kind of politics of weaponizing antisemitism. One of the remarkable things that we have seen in recent months, since the fall, are the ways that right-wing politicians have suddenly discovered — they’ve had a come-to-Jesus moment and have discovered Jews and have discovered the scourge of antisemitism. And, of course, many of these folks are people who flirt with white nationalism — right? — in their everyday life, which is to say with actual antisemites, right? So, we wanted to make the case, and that my colleague has made, as well, that antisemitism here is being used as a wedge. It’s being used as a Trojan horse for a very different political agenda. And that is a broader and deeper kind of desire or effort to insert politics into the university.

So, we can see how right-wing politicians, even yesterday, on display in the congressional hearings, have a bigger agenda, a bigger ax to grind. They are interested in undermining academic freedom, in attacking wokeism. This is not about antisemitism so much as attacking areas of inquiry and teaching, whether it’s about voting rights or vaccine safety or climate change — right? — arenas of inquiry that are uncomfortable or inconvenient or controversial for certain groups. And so, this is essentially what we’re seeing, antisemitism being weaponized in a broad attack on the university. And I think that’s really worrisome. And we’re all sort of looking to November to think about what happens then. I mean, if this is what is going on now, what happens if Trump is reelected, and then we get these inclinations coming not just from Congress, but also from higher up?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us. Nara Milanich is a professor of history at Barnard-Columbia. She co-wrote the open letter to President Minouche Shafik titled “Jewish faculty reject the weaponization of antisemitism.” We also want to thank professor Rebecca Jordan-Young in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College-Columbia, member of the Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine.

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