The president of Rutgers University in New Jersey defended the free speech rights of three faculty members who have recently come under intense criticism for their comments on Israel and Jews.
Speaking in a town hall sponsored by the Rutgers student government on Thursday, President Robert Barchi noted ongoing media attention focused on Michael Chikindas, a microbiology professor who published multiple antisemitic, homophobic and misogynistic social media posts; Jasbir Puar, a women’s studies professor whose latest book accuses Israel of injuring Palestinians “in order to control them”; and Mazen Adi, an adjunct professor of international law who accused Israeli officials of trafficking children’s organs while serving as a spokesperson for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Barchi began his address by illustrating the difference between free speech and harassment, noting that placing “a swastika on the side of a building on campus” would not be a violation of the First Amendment, even if it might breach university policies against vandalism.
His argument drew an objection from a woman in the crowd, who said to applause, “it is not free speech.”
“If you take that swastika and put it on the door of a dormitory, that’s not protected,” Barchi argued in return, “but if it is a general building on the university, by first amendment rights, it’s protected.”
He went on to address the ongoing controversies surrounding Chikindas, Puar, and Adi, noting that “the one thing that is common to all of these is that they were all brought forward by The Algemeiner.”
Barchi called The Algemeiner — a newspaper in circulation for over 40 years — “a blog out of New York, which is the follow-on to what was a Yiddish-language newspaper that folded 10 years ago. They are the ones that have researched each one of these stories that have been picked up elsewhere.”
The Algemeiner’s print edition — which features English and Yiddish-language articles — has never gone out of business. Moreover, while The Algemeiner was the first to interview Chikindas, his postings were initially exposed by the Israellycool blog.
Barchi acknowledged that Chikindas — who described Judaism as “the most racist religion in the world” — made “crude jokes about Israel, Judaism, women, homosexuality, a whole lot of things which most of us would find repugnant.”
“On the other hand, they are also things that are covered by his First Amendment right to free speech,” the president argued. “You may not like what the guy says, but you have to like the fact that he can say it.”
Barchi said that his administration confirmed “with the state’s attorney and with our legal scholars” that Chikindas’ postings are constitutionally protected, “so there’s nothing there that is actionable.”
He added that the university was investigating whether Chikindas’ postings “create an environment in his work that would compromise his ability to teach or do research.”
“That investigation is done independently, it will conclude shortly and we’ll decide what if anything we need to do from there,” Barchi explained. “But I can tell you that up until this point, his teaching record is actually very strong.”
Barchi also defended Puar’s academic freedom, calling her “a well-respected scholar.”
At a 2016 talk, Puar expressed support for “armed resistance in Palestine” and repeated allegations that the bodies of “young Palestinian men … were mined for organs for scientific research,” according to a transcript provided by the alumni group Fairness To Israel.
In a 2015 essay, she also wrote that “Palestinian trauma is overshadowed” because “Israel in particular and Jewish populations in general have thoroughly hijacked the discourse of trauma through exceptionalizing Holocaust victimization.”
Puar’s latest work — The Right to Maim — contends that the Israeli military rejects a shoot-to-kill policy not out of humanitarian concern, but a desire to keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
The book, Barchi said, “was reviewed independently by scholars around the country. It was then accepted for publication by the Duke University Press, which is a very prominent scholarly press, and published. It’s a piece of scholarly work.”
“Once again, you may not like it, but it’s protected by academic freedom, absolutely, 100 percent,” he emphasized.
Barchi adopted a similar outlook when speaking of Adi, who joined Rutgers shortly after serving as a legal adviser and diplomat at the Syrian mission to the United Nations in New York between 2007 and 2014.
“Issues have been raised about the fact that he did, in the past, work for the [Syrian] government as a diplomat,” Barchi noted, adding that Adi’s history was “well-known to us and well-known to the people who employed him.”
Barchi said that Adi “changed his directions,” and “has not said or done anything in his academic life here that would be actionable.” He did not acknowledge reports by a former student of Adi’s who told The Algemeiner — on condition of anonymity — that Adi defended Palestinian terrorism in class as a legitimate form of “resistance” to Israeli “occupation.”
“We are faced with the difficult challenge to thread the needle on free speech and academic freedom,” Barchi observed. “I just ask you to keep in mind when you hear things and those things get picked up by another newspaper, there is very often a back-story to it.”
“Trace it back to where it’s coming from and ask why is it coming from there and what’s going on,” he claimed, “and you may often get a little different perspective on those happenings.”
Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, who heads Rutgers’ Chabad House, told The Algemeiner earlier this month that while Rutgers was generally a friendly place for Jewish students and faculty, over the years administrators were “going to use the freedom of expression line to give license to absolute wrong.”
The Jewish campus group Rutgers Hillel similarly said last week that while they “certainly believe in free speech and academic freedom,” they were concerned that Chikindas, Puar and Adi each “gives voice to traditional racist, anti-Jewish tropes.”
The “hiring of such professors has brought national shame and embarrassment to our university, with negative media coverage across the spectrum, from NPR to Fox News,” Hillel added. “It contributes to a feeling among many that universities, as a whole, have lost their moral compass.”