Before the era of modern telecommunications, messages had to be delivered by human envoys — and during hostilities, if a distressing communique sent from one warring party to another was viewed as unacceptable, then the receiver could fend off the bad news by blaming the emissaries, and even having them killed. Thus a norm evolved that messengers had to be inviolable — chivalrous commanding officers were expected to receive and send back diplomatic envoys unharmed.
In contemporary times, the phrase has come to mean unfairly blaming the media or whistleblowers for presenting unwanted news about a favored cause, individual or institution. It’s now viewed as a disgraceful tactic meant to undermine arguments via wholly irrelevant personal attacks on the messengers, in the misguided hope that damaging their reputations will by default also discredit their arguments.
A perfect example of how targeting the emissary of unwelcome news, as opposed to focusing on the critical issues at hand, isn’t a very effective method for handling problems — or for remaining well-informed — was recently provided by Rutgers University President Robert Barchi in a set of remarks delivered at a November 16 student government-sponsored town hall event.
In his remarks, Barchi effectively smeared The Algemeiner newspaper for “bringing forward” and “researching” the ongoing controversies surrounding three members of the Rutgers faculty (food science professor Michael Chikindas, women’s studies professor Jasbir Puar and adjunct professor of international law Mazen Adi), each of whom have repeatedly voiced and circulated grotesque anti-Jewish tropes and racist canards, including dressed-up modern versions of the medieval blood libel.
Barchi devoted portions of his talk to disparaging The Algemeiner, bizarrely referring to it as a “blog out of New York,” and a follow-on to a now defunct “Yiddish-language newspaper that folded 10 years ago” (in fact, the print edition has never gone out of business, and has been in circulation for over 40 years). By denigrating The Algemeiner, Barchi’s comments worked to minimize and to even excuse the unhinged expressions of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel animosity on the part of his faculty. Instead of directing students to focus on the problematic and deeply offensive views of Chikindas, Puar and Adi, he instead advised Rutgers students to take The Algemeiner’s coverage with a grain of salt.
It’s true that The Algemeiner’s extensive reporting has helped bring to public attention the appalling writings, rhetoric and social media postings on Israel and Jews by the notorious three professors. The paper’s Shiri Moshe, a reporter assigned to cover the campus scene, did in fact break the story of former Syrian spokesperson Adi, who accused Israeli officials of trafficking children’s organs. But this “cast of bigoted characters” has also received negative media coverage across the political spectrum, along with condemnations from highly reputable scholars, antisemitism watchdog groups and human rights organizations.
Contrary to Barchi’s claims, it’s simply not the case that The Algemeiner has been the main purveyor of news about the troubling state of affairs at Rutgers. For example, the reality is that Chikindas’ slew of horrible and undeniably antisemitic Facebook postings were initially exposed by the Israellycool blog. Then, the information was corroborated and covered by numerous other media outlets and news sites, including JTA, The Times of Israel, NPR, Fox News and Inside Higher Ed.
Picking on The Algemeiner, and insinuating that its news stories are somehow tainted because they “originated in a Jewish newspaper,” was obnoxious. But, as with many other instances in which figures in authority figures have tried to “shoot” the media, the reality here is that neither The Algemeiner, nor the many other newspapers and blogs (e.g. The Washington Free Beacon, The Tower Magazine, Mosaic Magazine, Israellycool, Elder of Ziyon, and Legal Insurrection) that track and monitor rising anti-Jewish bigotry and discrimination on US campuses, are President Barchi’s enemy — despite his best efforts to cast them in this role.
In fact, by providing timely information, they are allies for university leaders who must today respond swiftly to, and forcefully speak out against, antisemitism when it appears — by pointing out how very dangerous it is to a community that values reasoned inquiry. That’s where Barchi should have put the focus in his town hall remarks, instead of spending so much of his time there praising the teaching and research records of faculty who disseminate falsehoods and conspiracy theories.
Now that Barchi has unfairly derided The Algemeiner, he should do the right thing by apologizing to its editor-in-chief, Dovid Efune, and to its reputable journalists. But he also needs to let the campus community know that he regrets his unfortunate town hall comments. This is important, because after correctly defending the free speech rights and academic freedom of his faculty and reminding students and stakeholders that hate speech is constitutionally protected, he must now underscore that such offensive and vile antisemitic expression will not go unanswered by his administration.
Going forward, the campus community needs to be certain that the administration’s own exercise of free speech in response to antisemitic faculty statements will unequivocally and unabashedly denounce them for what they are, and that hate speech directed against Jews will stimulate the same kind and degree of concern from campus administrators as would bigotry targeting any other minority or group.
Based on his town hall remarks, people at Rutgers University can’t be faulted for wondering if President Barchi is ready and willing to take the appropriate actions necessary to combat anti-Jewish hate and bias on the campus. Saying that he’s sorry for his tactless assault on The Algemeiner may help to ease their minds.
Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She serves on the board of directors of The Israel Group and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), is a member of the Academic Engagement Network’s bureau of speakers, and is a featured author at the Legal Insurrection blog. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MiriamElman