The Jewish press has been full of lurid tales of ‘faculty anti-Semitism‘ at the University of Maryland, where an assistant professor announced a lawsuit against her former department for cancelling her teaching contract. Melissa Landa taught courses in the education program at the school and had been mentored by one of the senior faculty.
According to her suit, she became involved in pro-Israeli academic activism through Academic Engagement Network, and its work against BDS, specifically the academic boycott. As an Oberlin alumnus, she organized a national protest against an African-American instructor at her alma mater who posted social media comments judged by some to be anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. The Oberlin faculty member was eventually fired in a move that was protested by free speech advocates. She said her academic mentor then asked her to stop hanging an Israeli flag in her office. He also allegedly told her he objected to her activism against the Oberlin professor.
In all of the twelve years I spent in academia as an undergraduate and graduate student, I never saw a single Jewish professor display an Israeli flag in their office. And that includes two academic years studying Judaica at the Hebrew University. As for the mentor’s expression of displeasure about the Oberlin campaign, many academics have problems with colleagues who suppress free speech and get peers fired.
After this, Landa says he and the rest of the department treated her as a pariah. Invitations to collaborate on academic projects stopped. Her phone calls remained unanswered. Her dismissal came a short time after that.
She filed a Title IX claim against the University for religious discrimination, arguing that her pro-Israel activity caused her firing. There is a problem with this reasoning: Israel isn’t a religion. Anti-Semitism certainly would be legitimate grounds in an anti-discrimination suit. But claiming you were fired for supporting Israel, even if it were true, is not grounds to claim religious prejudice. Further, Landa hasn’t brought forward any proof that those who fired her did so for the reasons she asserts. Though she provided e-mails which offered her reasons for her dismissal, none of them, nor any other documents or statements support the discrimination claim.
Her sole proof is that once she became overt in her pro-Israel activism, that’s when the cold shoulder began. If that’s her main or sole proof, she’s resting on a very thin reed.
The most interesting part of this story is a letter written by a number of Landa’s students protesting her release. They wrote that she “has provided a safe environment and approach to learning, in which students learned about the roots of racial bias.”
The rhetoric here could be lifted verbatim from any legal brief filed by Kenneth Marcus or press release from the pro-Israel academic group, Amcha. Their primary argument is that campuses must be made “safe” for Jews. By safe, they mean cleansed of criticism of Israel. And by Jews, they mean pro-Israel Jews. In essence, they argue that academia must bend over backwards to accommodate the amorphous fears of a minority of the campus Jewish student body.
This legal strategy, used in Title IX challenges against numerous universities have all failed, as will this one. The notion of ‘safety’ as well has been hijacked. Jews are not in danger on American campuses. They are not physically threatened. But this campaign attempts to turn safety into an intellectual category, arguing that Jews must feel safe from the harm of threatening speech by other students. It suggests that some ideas may be “unsafe” for Jews.
Further, the University of Maryland has a vibrant and active Jewish student community, which includes pro-Israel groups. The notion that the campus is infected with the anti-Israel virus is laughable on its face.
This is not what American university life is about, nor has it ever been about. No one promises an incoming freshman that they will remain safe in whatever intellectual cocoon they brought to campus from their homes or local communities. Campus life is about challenging ideas, experimenting, trying new identities. It is about expanding one’s intellectual horizons. Perhaps even a bit of danger in trying out ideas which might have been disparaged in their parents’ homes, churches or synagogues.
Nor is Jewish life about intellectual safety. The greatest Jewish philosophers and intellectuals since the Enlightenment, ranging from Spinoza to Trotsky to Einstein, were fearless exponents of radical ideas. Many of these ideas were threatening to their fellow-Jews. But these great thinkers didn’t cower. They didn’t compromise when they were told their ideas threatened the comfort or safety of the community. They remained true to their convictions. That’s the heritage of modern Jewish thought. It’s the heritage we should offer our children as they enter college life.
If you are a student who wants to protect him or herself from such exposure, there are many religious colleges available. I even attended one myself as an undergraduate. They will likely not pose a threat and enable you to continue life in the narrow confines of a parochial religious experience (though even in some of these students may find their assumptions challenged).
But if you go to a major American liberal arts college or university don’t expect intellectual safety. Expect debate, argument, even provocation. If you are a full, well-rounded human being, you will withstand it, perhaps even come out stronger for the challenge.
This article was published at Tikun Olam