by Steven Lubet
WHAT SHOULD BE done when a respected professor is discovered circulating vile antisemitic images on social media and endorsing profoundly anti-Jewish conspiracy theories? Should the administration impose sanctions? How should the broader academic community react? These questions have arisen in recent years on campuses across the country, most recently in the cases of Michael Chikindas at Rutgers University, and Hatem Bazian at the University of California, Berkeley.
Michael Chikindas is a tenured professor of food science at Rutgers University. His Facebook posts often feature well-worn antisemitic conspiracy theories and grotesque cartoons that would be thoroughly familiar to readers of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer. Chikindas’s anti-Jewish ravings, which were first reported by the website Israellycool, are nothing if not inventive. Along with the standard Holocaust denial, he claims not only that Israelis were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, but also that Jews, masquerading as Turks, were responsible for the Armenian genocide. Perhaps needless to say, Chikindas denies bearing any anti-Jewish prejudice — notwithstanding his use of classic hook-nosed caricatures — and insists that he is merely an anti-Zionist.
When questioned about Chikindas at a campus “town hall” meeting, Rutgers’ President Robert Barchi initially took a hands-off approach. He characterized Chikindas’s Facebook images as “a whole lot of things which most of us would find repugnant,” while adding “You may not like what the guy says, but you have to like the fact that he can say it.”
In the face of student protests, however, Barchi later issued a much stronger statement, condemning Chikindas’s posts as “bigoted, discriminatory, and antisemitic material” that “perpetuated toxic stereotypes.” Barchi announced that Chikindas would be barred in the future from teaching required courses and removed from his position as director of the Center for Digestive Health. “No Rutgers student will be required to take a course that he teaches,” Barchi explained, and “No Rutgers employee will be required to work in an administrative unit that he heads.” In addition, Barchi disclosed that Rutgers was exploring further proceedings against Chikindas, under the terms of the faculty union contract, which could potentially lead to a one-semester suspension “at less than full pay.”
Long-standing principles of academic freedom generally prohibit punishing faculty members for “extramural speech,” but they do not guarantee the right to hold a directorship or to teach any particular classes. Reassigning Chikindas may therefore have been technically permissible as an administrative measure — as necessary to protect students and staff from the risk of future discrimination — although it no doubt seemed punitive to him. A suspension of any length, however, would clearly constitutes punishment, which makes it problematic under Rutgers’ 1967 Statement of Academic Freedom:
Outside the fields of instruction, artistic expression, research, professional and clinical practice, and professional publication, faculty members, as private citizens, enjoy the same freedoms of speech and expression as any private citizen and shall be free from institutional discipline in the exercise of these rights. The conduct of the faculty member shall be in accordance with standards dictated by law.
In other words, a faculty member can be disciplined for bigoted speech within the course of his or her academic or related work, but not for purely “extramural” speech. Chikindas’s Facebook-posted antisemitism has nothing to do with his field of food science, so it would seem that “institutional discipline” — which would include suspension, but not administrative re-assignment — should be barred on academic freedom grounds.
DR. HATEM BAZIAN is a lecturer in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founder of Students for Justice in Palestine. Bazian and Chikindas are probably quite dissimilar politically, apart from their animosity toward Israel. In their social media depictions of Jews, however, they turn out to have more in common than either one is likely to admit.
A key difference, however, is that Bazian is a recognized leader in a national movement, with over 16,000 followers on Twitter. His foray into antisemitism is not merely cranky or idiosyncratic, but influential and strategic. Sadly, the images that Bazian recently retweeted are nearly as bad as Chikindas’s.
A Berkeley spokesman (but not the president or chancellor, as at Rutgers) has condemned Bazian’s posts as crossing the line from “criticism of Israel’s governmental policies” into “antisemitism,” while taking no further action. Bazian deleted the retweet and offered a feeble semi-apology, in which he devoted more energy to slamming Israel than to expressions of regret. According to Bazian, he “did not realize or read the full text in detail” until after he had retweeted the images, as though the use of the graphics was otherwise unobjectionable. And when the problem was first brought to his attention, he did not respond “as a matter of policy,” because he assumed that the complaints were Zionist attacks.
Bazian claims that his “problem is with Zionism,” not with “Judaism or Jews” (so long as they “express solidarity” with him politically). He added, absurdly, that “In the future, I will make sure to include that retweets don’t represent an agreement or support for the ideas that are shared.” President Trump recently retweeted three inflammatory anti-Muslim videos. I doubt that Bazian would accept the excuse that they were only retweets; I certainly don’t.
There is actually a stronger case for disciplining Bazian than there is against Chikindas, given that Bazian’s expression of bigotry is directly related to his academic appointment in the Department of Ethnic Studies. According to the AAUP Statement on Extramural Utterances, a faculty member may be disciplined if “the professor’s extramural utterances raise grave doubts concerning the professor’s fitness” for service in his or her position. Religious biases may be irrelevant to Chikindas’s teaching of food science, but they go right to the heart of teaching ethnic studies.
Although I am generally opposed to disciplining faculty for extramural speech, I am also in favor of calling people to account for bigotry, no matter how much they try to rationalize or justify it. No one who is actually opposed to antisemitism could circulate those images, as Bazian did, with or without reading the accompanying text. Only someone with an underlying antagonism toward Jewishness would use memes that deride the markers of Orthodox Judaism — kippah and payot — to make even the most heartfelt political point. It is easy to be repelled by Michael Chikindas, who has no constituency, but Hatem Bazian has behaved just as badly, with greater impact, and for a much bigger audience.
THE MOST EXTENSIVE defense of Chikindas was written on the AAUP’s Academe Blog by John K. Wilson, who says that “Chikindas is an antisemite, and an idiot,” while arguing against the measures taken against Chikindas because “Perpetuating ‘toxic stereotypes’ is not a violation of any campus rules, nor is upsetting people.” Thus, says Wilson, a professor could not be sanctioned for asserting that “gay men have a propensity to molest children,” or “that Muslims are a terrorist threat,” or “that blacks are less intelligent than whites on average.”
Like other absolutists, Wilson wants to obliterate the line between administrative reassignment and punishment, which is admittedly imprecise in any case. More troubling is his trivializing dismissal of Chikindas as “an idiot” and his reference to students’ concerns as merely “upsetting.”
The problem with Chikindas is not stupidity or poor judgment, it is bigotry. Although it is tempting to dismiss bigots as fools, the truth is that anti-Jewish imagery is constantly used to inspire attacks on synagogues, schools, community centers, museums, and kosher supermarkets. Some academics may not comprehend the power of internet caricatures to instigate violence, but it is well understood by the neo-Nazis whose “Style Guide” advises that “There should be a conscious agenda to dehumanize the enemy, to the point where people are ready to laugh at their deaths.”
Wilson rejects the idea that students might have a legitimate objection to mandatory studying under an anti-Jewish racist. If Chikendas is “qualified to teach classes, then that should include required courses. The fact that some students feel uncomfortable about a professor’s views is not a good reason to ban [him] from teaching required courses.” This conclusion can only be reached by someone who dismisses antisemitism as nothing more an “uncomfortable view,” which of course is another form of trivialization.
This brings us to Hatem Bazian, who has received nothing more at UC Berkeley than a mild rebuke for circulating racist memes about Jews. To Bazian’s defenders, however, this is apparently the work of what Professor Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University describes as “powerful allies of the Trump administration and the UC Board of Trustees [who] seek to intimidate, bully and silence any and all advocacy for justice in/for Palestine by pressure, strong arming and bribing public universities.”
According to Abdulhadi, Bazian’s behavior was nothing more than “a mistake he made and for which he took responsibility and has publicly apologized.” In a letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, Abdulhadi asserted that Bazian had merely “inadvertently retweeted an offensive meme.” Abdulhadi said nothing about the nature or content of Bazian’s retweet, as she evidently could not bring herself to acknowledge that it included vile and unmistakable antisemitic imagery. Instead, Abdulhadi insists that “Hatem is being attacked because the Zionist establishment would like to silence all of us and use bullying, smear campaign and outright incitement to violence to take us out once and for all.” To Abdulhadi, it seems that complaints about antisemitism have no intrinsic legitimacy and can be readily discounted as coming from the “Zionist establishment.”
Some of the overheated complaints against Bazian have no doubt called for his firing, which, in my opinion, would be a disproportionate infringement of academic freedom. But neither should his foray into ugly antisemitism be brushed off as an innocent error. It was a slip-up, all right, but not an inadvertent one. Sadly enough, it is obvious that anti-Zionism and antisemitism have become inextricably intertwined, to the point that BDS advocates like Abdulhadi cannot even respond to anti-Jewish memes without invoking conspiracy theories.
Neither Michael Chinkindas nor Hatem Bazian is an idiot. They are well-educated and highly intelligent, and Bazian, as Abdulhadi describes him, is also “an astute political strategist and thinker.” Their defenders, one out of naivete and the other out of zealotry, have sadly failed to appreciate the seriousness of antisemitism, which is far more than, as Wilson called it, a “personal opinion.”
BOTH BAZIAN and Chikindas circulated cartoon figures that mocked Jews and Judaism while repeating venerable anti-Jewish slanders. For centuries, similar images have served as both the motive and excuse for violence against Jews. As the author Neil Gaiman has pointed out, “all images, particularly images of people, go straight into our heads and create empathy, create disgust.” That is why they need to be taken seriously. If the defenders of Chikindas and Bazian do not recognize the historical power of antisemitic images, the neo-Nazis at Stormfront understand it all too well, as explained in their “Style Guide”: “Packing our message inside of cultural memes and humor can be viewed as a delivery method.”
Both Wilson and Abdulhadi miss the point. Anti-Jewish caricatures and internet memes have harmful consequences in the real world. Antisemitism is not an unpleasant artifact of the past, but rather a present danger, as we have seen in recent violent attacks on Jewish institutions around the world. Moreover, there is a clear relationship between the circulation of hateful images and the spread of dangerous antisemitism.
Bazian, as we know, is a founder of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and a well-known BDS advocate with over 16,000 followers on Twitter. Here are some tweets that have been posted by members of an autonomous SJP affiliate chapter (all punctuation and orthography original):
Hitler should have took you all.
I honestly wish I was born at the time of the second world war just to see the genius, Hitler, at work.
Where is hitler when u need one?’ I literally ask this every day.
the reason i kept some jews alive is so i can show you why i killed them in the first place. –Hitler
I suspect my french teacher of being a jew cause I saw her picking up a penny off the floor yesterday.
Zionists don’t count as human beings. I would say they’re cockroaches, but that’s offensive to the cockroaches.
I keep saying, we need to cleanse the world of creatures such as these dirty white Americans.
[Note: I have not linked to the sources for these anti-Jewish tweets, because they identify the individuals, most of whom are undergraduates, by their names, photographs, and twitter accounts. My intention is to use their tweets as exemplars, but not to encourage anyone to threaten or troll the students.]
Bazian and Abdulhadi will surely express abhorrence of the on-line Hitler-fest, but how many of the bigoted students are followers of Bazian’s twitter feed? How many of them felt encouraged or reinforced in their hatred by Bazian’s retweet of the charge of Jewish “organ smuggling”? Both of Bazian’s memes included derision of Jews as the “chosen” people (which in Biblical terms, of course, means chosen for a task and does not imply superiority), which is echoed in one of the more foul tweets of the young BDSers: “‘Gods chosen people’ lmfaoooo oh you mean god chose you to kindle hell fire with.. Tru.”
HOWEVER INNOCENT their intentions, Bazian, Abdulhadi, and others have played a role in producing a generation of activists, or activist hangers-on, who are at ease with the idea of genocide — who are, in the words of the Daily Stormer Style Guide, “ready to laugh at their [enemies’] deaths.”
Against that backdrop, Bazian’s retweet of blatantly anti-Jewish images, especially in the guise of humor,must be recognized as something far more pathological than an inadvertent mistake.
Chikindas does not have the same broad constituency as Bazian, but his Facebook posts included even more anti-Jewish caricatures, complete with hook-noses and greedy leering. His appeal seems more directed to the Alt-Right than to the campus left, although he also frames his bigotry in terms of anti-Zionism. More characteristically, Chikindas says that Jews control the Federal Reserve, Wall Street, Hollywood, the law courts, pornography, sex-trafficking, and something he calls “the cancer industry.” The Daily Stormer agrees (boldface original):
Prime Directive: Always Blame the Jews for Everything.
As such, all enemies must be combined into one enemy, which is the Jews. This is pretty much objectively true anyway, but we want to leave out any and all nuance.
So no blaming Enlightenment thought, pathological altruism, technology/urbanization, etc. – just blame Jews for everything.
Wilson’s post on the Academe Blog discounted such stuff as idiocy and “personal opinions,” but there is more at play here than quirkiness or eccentricity. The white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville marched past a synagogue shouting “Jews will not replace us.” The next day, Heather Heyer was murdered, and nineteen more people were injured, when one of the white nationalists drove a speeding car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators. The alleged driver, James Alex Fields, was a known Nazi sympathizer. What sort of caricatures and “personal opinions” do you think he encountered at the neo-Nazi websites he had frequented for years?
Chikindas and Bazian did not draw the antisemitic caricatures themselves. They found them on the internet and circulated them on social media, in a move that was directly out of the Daily Stormer playbook. That is just how antisemitism spreads, as seemingly respectable figures such as university professors endorse its memes. The results are sadly predictable, and not the work of idiots.
Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor and director of the Bartlit Center for Trial Advocacy at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. His books include Interrogating Ethnography (Oxford University Press), John Brown’s Spy (Yale University Press), and Fugitive Justice (Harvard University Press).