After the New York Times last April hired Bari Weiss to write for and edit its op-ed page, I wrote a long article detailing her history of pro-Israel activism and, especially, her involvement in numerous campaigns to vilify and ruin the careers of several Arab and Muslim professors due to their criticisms of Israel. I chose to profile Weiss’s history because (a) the simultaneous hiring of Bret Stephens generated so much controversy that Weiss’s hiring was ignored, even though it was clear her hiring would be more influential since she would be not just writing but also commissioning articles for that highly influential op-ed page; (b) the NYT was justifying these hires on the grounds of “diversity,” even though hiring hardcore, pro-Israel activists for that page (which has no Muslim columnists) was the literal opposite of diversity; and, most of all, (c) Weiss was masquerading as an opponent of viewpoint intolerance on college campuses even though her entire career had been built on trying to suppress, stigmatize, and punish academic criticisms of Israel.
Since that article, Weiss has predictably written multiple banal columns for the Times denouncing what she perceives as growing left-wing intolerance for dissent in general, but particularly on college campuses. I’ve watched as Weiss has become celebrated in right-wing circles as some sort of paragon of free expression and academic freedom, and mourned by centrists as the tragic victim of online PC mob silencing campaigns (imagine being a columnist and editor at the New York Times — with full access to the most influential media platform in the world — and seeing yourself as the victim of silencing and censorship), even though her entire career is grounded in precisely the viewpoint suppression, vilification, and censorship campaigns she now depicts herself as loathing.
All of this finally came to a head last night after Weiss published yet another column complaining that she and her ideological comrades are unfairly criticized by left-wing authoritarians who try to silence them by associating them with “fascism.” Weiss’s column was so replete with humiliating factual errors, shoddy argumentation, and glaring holes in reasoning that she ended up trending on Twitter, and her editors had to delete an entire paragraph from her column and then add an editor’s note explaining that she had cited evidence that was an obvious hoax.
In the course of the controversy, Weiss, in a tweet-essay that began here, finally addressed her own history of trying to ruin the careers of Arab and Muslim scholars for the crime of criticizing Israel. Unfortunately, she did so by falsely denying what she actually did, making demonstrably untrue claims about the controversies in which she was involved, and, worst of all, outright ignoring the most egregious example of her viewpoint-suppression campaigns:
I want to address a baseless accusation being peddled by @ggreenwald and others on this platform. When I was an undergraduate student at Columbia, I advocated for the rights of students to express their viewpoints in the classroom.
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) March 8, 2018
The campus controversies in which Weiss was involved for years are well-reported, and I wrote about and documented the facts at length in the profile I wrote of her. I’m not going to recount all of that here — those interested in the long version can read that article — but instead will just note several facts that others raised last night making clear how false Weiss’s attempt is to whitewash her long history of trying to suppress criticisms of Israel from college campuses:
(1) Anyone remotely familiar with the wars over the Middle East Studies Department at Columbia University, in which Weiss played a starring role, knows that her claim here — that the campaign was just a benign attempt to protect students’ rights — is utterly false. The campaign was designed to ruin the careers of Arab professors by equating their criticisms of Israel with racism, anti-Semitism, and bullying, and its central demand was that those professors (some of whom lacked tenure) be disciplined for their transgressions. Here is Megan Greenwell, now the editor-in-chief of Deadspin, who was the editor-in-chief of Columbia’s student newspaper during this controversy, responding last night to Weiss:
bari, i have no desire to be involved here, but your synopsis of the events of 2004/2005 is unfair. you weren't simply "advocating for students' rights," you were calling professors racist. i know because i wrote or edited most of the stories about it. https://t.co/77s7xmvsoG https://t.co/WRs5sfyh8l
— Megan Greenwell (@megreenwell) March 8, 2018
The article Greenwell references quotes Weiss as accusing multiple Arab professors critical of Israel of being racists: “We put the mentions of the publications in the film to expose the racism of these professors,” Weiss said. This is the person now using the New York Times op-ed page to complain that academics and commentators with unpopular views are the targets of unfair character assassination.
(2) That the campaign against these Arab professors was about suppressing criticisms of Israel and intimidating and punishing professors who voiced such criticisms was barely hidden. The New York Civil Liberties Union — historically reluctant to involve itself in disputes involving Israel — strongly condemned the campaign against these Arab professors at Columbia that Weiss helped to lead.
The group “called on Columbia University President Lee Bollinger to resist attacks from within and outside the university that jeopardize academic freedom at Columbia,” and it explicitly made clear that the whole point of the campaign “is whether professors teaching controversial subject matter that offends some students should be disciplined or face recrimination for expressing unpopular views in their classrooms.” (Anthony Weiner, at the time a member of Congress running for mayor of New York, was just one of many politicians who demanded that Professor Joseph Massad be fired for what he called “his displays of anti-Semitism.”) In denouncing the censorship campaign Weiss helped to lead, the NYCLU made clear that the excuse she offered last night is totally false:
It is clear that this controversy would not have acquired the attention it received if it were simply about the rudeness of professors or their intolerance of other points of view. This David Project film would not have provoked controversy had it not arisen out of the divisive political controversy involving Israel and Palestine. The attack on Professor Massad and other in the MEALAC Department is really about their scholarship and political expression.
As Professor Juan Cole wrote at the time: “The lesson for academics, and American society as a whole: McCarthyism is unacceptable except when criticism of Israel is involved.” Indeed, as Ali Abunimah noted last night, just two years ago Weiss wrote a long article accusing Massad of being an anti-Semite and lamenting that he “won tenure in 2009 despite the sustained and strong opposition of student whistleblowers, concerned alumni, and others.”
That’s what makes this whole spectacle so amazing: The New York Times is allowing one of its columnists to masquerade as a stalwart defender of campus free speech and academic pluralism while utterly ignoring, and allowing her to falsely deny, her own long history in trying to stigmatize and punish professors who criticized Israel, to the point where the NYCLU stepped in and denounced her campaign as a dangerous threat to academic freedom.
(3) The campaign against these Arab professors at Columbia generated a massive controversy that ultimately involved some of the school’s largest donors. As a result, an extensive investigation was conducted that ultimately exonerated the accused Arab scholars of anti-Semitism and other offenses. Though the investigative committee found one instance in which it said a professor had become excessively angry at a student’s defense of Israel, it concluded that it found “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.” The report, ironically, did find a campaign of intimidation — aimed at the Arab professors, not from them; it “describe[d] a broader environment of incivility on campus, with pro-Israel students disrupting lectures on Middle Eastern studies and some faculty members feeling that they were being spied on” — the very behavior Weiss now denounces when it comes from her ideological opponents.
As Cole noted, the report found that the kind of systematic harassment Weiss now pretends to find so objectionable was actually directed at these Arab professors by her own ideological comrades:
Although it was little noted in the press, the report did indeed acknowledge that Massad in particular and the department in general had been the target of an ongoing campaign of intimidation. It noted that for several years, after pieces appeared in the tabloid press blasting the department as anti-Israel, many non-students, clearly hostile and with ideological agendas, had been attending classes in the department, interrupting lectures with hostile asides and inhibiting classroom debate.
When the report was issued clearing these professors of virtually all the charges leveled against them and finding instead that they were the victims rather than the perpetrators of harassment campaigns, Weiss was furious and held press conferences and demonstrations to denounce it:
(4) Unfortunately for Weiss, her attempts now to revise her own history are rendered impossible by her own remarks about her activism, filmed years before she knew she would be at the center of this type of attention. As I noted in my original article, Weiss spoke on a panel at the 2012 Conference of the American Zionist Movement in which she explained (in a video on YouTube) that she “got involved in journalism through activism” — specifically, activism against Arab and Muslim professors at Columbia — and that she now devotes herself to the “connection between advocacy journalism and Zionism.” After Weiss gave her false rendition of events last night, Sacha Saeen used clips from this video to make clear that Weiss spent years doing exactly that which she now claims to find so objectionable on campuses:
Because here you are complaining about the very sort of issues which you now criticise student activists at college campuses today for. pic.twitter.com/WvHqCPGEkf
— Sacha Saeen (@_Saeen_) March 8, 2018
And while you rail against student activists at college campuses today, here you are explaining that you got involved in student activism because they weren't pro-Israel enough. pic.twitter.com/mF0y84NYcT
— Sacha Saeen (@_Saeen_) March 8, 2018
See the rest of that thread for other clips giving the lie to Weiss’s revisionism.
(5) Most egregious to me was the case that Weiss last night so notably decided to ignore: her involvement in the attempt to smear and ruin the academic career of a rising Palestinian-American professor, Nadia Abu El-Haj, for the crime of writing a book questioning the archeological claims of the Israeli government. I won’t go into all the details of this case — I wrote about it at length in that original article and it was also the subject of very lengthy reporting in the New Yorker and the New York Times — but the gist of it is crucial for understanding who Weiss really is and how false are her denials from last night.
In sum, Abu El-Haj was a rising academic star at the University of Chicago who was on a fast track toward tenure. Her 2002 book anthropologically examining Jewish claims to a biblical entitlement of Israel won numerous awards and praise from scholars across many disciplines. In 2006, she moved to New York and applied for a tenured position at Barnard; it was widely assumed, given her sterling reputation, that her acceptance would be automatic — until an Israeli settler in the West Bank started an online petition demanding that she be denied tenure due to her 2002 book about Israel.
That online petition led to an incredibly ugly attempt to smear her as an anti-Semite who used shoddy scholarship to question Israeli claims, and — needless to say — Weiss was a vocal supporter of this effort. Pretending that she was concerned about Abu El-Haj’s academic abilities rather than her views on Israel — as though Weiss were even remotely capable of assessing Abu El-Haj’s anthropological and archeological methods — Weiss wrote an article in Haaretz arguing that the fight over Abu El-Haj’s tenure “is not just another round between the Zionists and the anti-Zionists,” but instead, “is about the nature of truth, and the possibility of, well, facts themselves.”
For someone who purports to be such a devoted adherent to pluralism and free expression on college campuses, Weiss sure does have a tendency to find a large number of Arab and Muslim scholars who are critical of Israel who she believes deserve sanction, vilification, punishment, and denial of career advancement.
I’m someone who strongly believes in the right of people to change their views and to evolve. My first book, which began by describing my own political and intellectual journey, started with this quote from Abraham Lincoln: “I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.” And I find some of the concerns about prevailing viewpoint intolerance on college campuses to be valid, or at least reasonable.
If Weiss would acknowledge that she spent years engaged in the precise types of censorship and vilification campaigns that she has now come to regard as so menacing, I would find that admission admirable, not objectionable. But she’s doing the opposite: She’s denying that her activities were geared toward exactly the climate of intimidation and censorship against which she now crusades. Perhaps it’s possible that she’s just in a state of denial, incapable of admitting that she built her career based on exactly the types of activities that she now so vocally denounces.
But what seems far more likely is that, like so many people, Weiss finds censorship and vilification objectionable only when it’s directed at her, her friends, and the viewpoints she supports. In particular, it is this mentality that explains why left-wing attacks on racism, fascism, and other authoritarian views on campus receive so much attention from America’s pundit class, while the most pervasive form of campus censorship — directed at Israel critics and pro-Palestinian activists — is so often ignored. In Bari Weiss, the New York Times seems to have found the perfect embodiment of this free speech double standard. But none of that should justify allowing a New York Times columnist and editor to offer such blatantly inaccurate claims about ugly controversies in which they played a leading role.