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Student forces anti-Israel article off syllabus at Rutgers, but another remains

Emily Binstein
Emily Binstein

This is a story about pro-Israel campus activism.

But be warned: It doesn’t have a satisfactory ending.

Emily Binstein of Metuchen was a freshman at Rutgers last fall. She had graduated from the Golda Och Academy (West Orange’s Solomon Schechter day school). She had been to Israel with the school twice.

She is majoring in business, and thought she might minor in women’s studies. So she signed up for “Knowledge and Power: Issues in Women’s Leadership.” It is a popular course — in part because it is the “mission course” of Douglass Residential College, making it a requirement for the 2,500 women enrolled in the college-within-a-college.

All was well until October, when Ms. Binstein was shocked by an article in her required reading for the course.

In “Queering Islamophobia: Homonationalism of the Muslim Ban,” first published online in Bitch magazine, where author Aqdas Aftab was the 2017 global feminism writing fellow, and whose preferred pronoun is “they,” wrote about “the strategy of moving left on LGBTQ issues but remaining fiercely right-wing on immigration and racial issues.” The article continues, “Israel has strategically washed itself clean of apartheid by promoting the country as a gay haven, even though it continues to colonize trans and queer Palestinians.”

So Ms. Binstein wrote to both the professor overseeing the entire course and to the professor in charge of her section to complain. “This portion is out of place and does not provide context behind the extremely complicated issues in the Middle East, invalidly calling Israel an apartheid state and moving along,” she wrote. “For students who might not know a great deal about the conflict, it is this type of misguided language and false agenda that spreads hate. Is it possible for us to discuss this on Monday in class? I would be happy to lead the discussion.”

The answer was yes, she could discuss it.

Ms. Binstein spoke to her class. According to the notes she prepared — she made those notes, as well as her correspondence about the course, available to the Jewish Standard — she addressed the article’s accusation that Israel has “strategically” made itself a gay haven. “I find it odd to take the one country in the Middle East with gay rights and say that it’s only for a ‘strategy,’” she said, according to the notes. She also presented a video showing that Israel is not an apartheid state.

A week later, Ms. Binstein wrote to Dr. Jacqueline Litt, dean of Douglass College, and to Tasia Milton, the course’s coordinator. Yes, she had rebutted the libel against Israel in her section, “but I am unsettled knowing that other sections and future classes may take the lie perpetuated by this article as fact,” she wrote.

Ms. Milton responded with a phone conversation, during which she asked Ms. Binstein to recommend an article to replace Aftab’s piece on the syllabus. Ms. Milton then alerted Ms. Binstein to an article on the syllabus for next week’s syllabus. “The upcoming class ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ will be another opportunity to consider the dangers of one narrative about the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict,” Ms. Milton wrote in an email. “The article ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving’ on p. 787 also mentions the conflict without providing more context. I will replace one of the readings for that class with one of your sources, pending a review by the Office of Academic Programs.”

Dr. Abu–Lughod’s book grew out of her article in American Anthroplogy.

That second article was by Dr. Lila Abu-Lughod, the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia’s anthropology department. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others” appeared in American Anthropologist in 2002.

“I used to feel torn when I received the e-mail petitions circulating for the last few years in defense of Afghan women under the Taliban,” Dr. Abu-Lughod wrote, before continuing: “I had never received a petition from such women defending the right of Palestinian women to safety from Israeli bombing or daily harassment at checkpoints, asking the United States to reconsider its support for a government that had dispossessed them, closed them out from work and citizenship rights, refused them the most basic freedoms.”

As Ms. Binstein set out to find articles that were not unfair to Israel for the syllabus, Ms. Milton clarified her position on Dr. Abu-Lughod’s article. “Just to be clear, ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?’ is an important text in transnational feminist studies and human rights studies and will not be replaced,” she wrote. “We are happy to consider an additional reading for this unit or to replace another reading to make room for discussing this issue, that can offer a glimpse into the Israeli perspective on the conflict.”

Ms. Binstein countered with renewed criticism of Dr. Abu-Lughod’s article: “She does not cite her source for this information, she just mentions Israel denying freedoms and moves on. This article, like the ‘Queering Islamophobia’ article, spreads lies and perpetuates hate in an academic environment. Additionally, the forms of oppression that it speaks of would not be targeted against women in particular, which makes me question its place in a Women and Gender Studies course in the first place.”

Ms. Milton responded with a defense of Dr. Abu-Lughod’s article. “Regarding the academic rigor of the article, ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?,’ there are very few credentials better than Lila Abu-Lughod’s,” she wrote. “She is a professor at Columbia University and has also taught at Princeton University and NYU. American Anthropologist is a respected academic journal in the field of anthropology. To appear in a journal of this caliber, the article would have to be recommended for publication by at least four experts on its topic from respected universities. The article eventually became a book published by Harvard University Press, bringing its central arguments to the attention and vetting of even more scholars. She is also the author or editor of eight books published by reputable and highly respected university presses.

“That the article discusses the uses of representation of Muslim women to justify U.S. intervention in the Middle East makes it an ideal fit for Issues in Women’s Leadership: Knowledge and Power, as the Women’s and Gender Studies department’s twelve key concepts include feminism, social justice and human rights, violence, conflict, and terrorism,” Ms. Milton wrote.

Ms. Binstein and Ms. Milton met. Ms. Milton agreed that the article “Queering Islamophobia” would be removed from the curriculum, since Bitch is not a peer-reviewed journal. Ms. Binstein pointed out that Dr. Abu-Lughod had not cited any sources for her sentence about Israel. Ms. Milton agreed to ask all the course instructors to discuss an Anti-Defamation League fact sheet from 2002 on the Second Intifada that Ms. Binstein had found, to provide context to Dr. Abu-Lughod’s article.

And so it was that in December, the hundreds of students taking the course read the ADL fact sheet on the Second Intifada. Students in Ms. Binstein’s section received her handout with a detailed unpacking and rebuttal of Dr. Abu-Lughod’s anti-Israel sentence.

But Ms. Binstein wasn’t content to rest on her laurels.

She wanted to change the course permanently.

As a result of Ms. Binstein’s work, “Queering Islamaphobia” was removed from the syllabus for the spring semester. An article from an Israeli perspective was added. But Dr. Abu-Lughod’s article remained.

Ms. Binstein continued the conversation with higher-ups.

In January, Associate Dean Ellen Lieberman told her that the faculty had asked Dr. Yehudit Barsky, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, for recommendations for the syllabus.

In February, however, Assistant Dean Elizabeth Gunn declared the conversation over.

“The syllabus is set for this semester, and I do not anticipate additional changes,” Dr. Gunn wrote to Ms. Binstein.

Ms. Binstein was not satisfied.

She contacted the chancellor’s office, which referred her to the school’s office of employment equity. “I believe that these issues fall within the rubric of academic freedom,” Lisa Grosskreutz, the office’s director, wrote.

Late last month, Ms. Binstein took the issue to the top. She wrote to Rutgers President Robert Barchi.

“Abu-Lughod is making a false and inflammatory statement about Israel, and DRC” — that’s Douglass Residential College — “has not condemned her claim, or at the very least offered a counter statement, making it look like DRC condones her opinion,” she wrote. “I know that we agree that this is not a place in which DRC and the larger Rutgers University community should want to find itself.”

On Monday, Ms. Binstein received a response from the president. He wrote, in part, “a requirement to read a text does not necessarily reflect the University’s or a professor’s promotion or endorsement of the ideas it contains.”

Ms. Binstein was not satisfied. “I am still waiting for a proper counter article to the Abu-Lughod piece,” she wrote back.

“It is relatively rare for a university to remove a certain reading from a syllabus due to its content, because of academic freedom,” Roz Rothstein said. Ms. Rothstein is co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, an Israel education organization to which Ms. Binstein had reached out. “When there are anti-Israel materials taught in the classroom, we usually encourage students to ask their professors to also teach a different perspective on the issue to ensure balance.”

Rena Nasar, StandWithUs’s tri-state director, said that “it was a shame here they didn’t give her what she was looking for, because she went about it in a very professional way.”

StandWithUs was able to give Ms. Binstein one of its Emerson fellowships, which trains 90 student leaders to speak out for Israel. There have been Emerson fellows at Rutgers before, but Ms. Binstein will be the first in several years. Next week she will fly out to California for four days of StandWithUs training.

Meanwhile, the contretemps has Ms. Binstein rethinking her studies.

“After this, I’m not so interested in continuing with women’s and gender studies,” she said.

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