Thursday, December 19, 2019

Jewish Studies academic writes about the Title VI Executive Order. Apparently, he never actually read it.

Michael Zank is a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion and director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University.

Which makes the op-ed he wrote for the BU newspaper attacking the Executive Order on Combating Antisemitism all the more perplexing.

The article's first sentence already shows that facts are not too important to Professor Zank, an avowed expert on Jewish studies:
Most of us think of Judaism as a religion, rather than a “race, color, or national origin.”
Really? Because Jews and non-Jews have traditionally thought of Jews as a people and a nation. Jewish prayers and the Jewish scripture itself never refers to Jews as a religion but usually as a people (Am Yisrael), sometimes a nation.  A third of Jews born after 1980 identify themselves as Jews but also as having no religion. While some clearly do think of Judaism as merely a religion, there is no support for the assertion that most of us do.

Zank then goes into his analysis of the EO itself:

The Executive Order on Anti-Semitism does not distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel. Omitting this sentence from the policy directive opens the door to civil rights proceedings being triggered by entirely legitimate Israel-critical protests on campus. 

The EO doesn't mention the words Israel or Zionism at all. Saying there there is an "omission" of any sentence saying that legitimate criticism of Israel is OK makes no sense when the topic is not directly addressed to begin with. 

The EO does refer to the IHRA definition, which says explicitly that legitimate criticism of Israel isn't antisemitic. So how did Zank  come to the conclusion that the EO opens to door to stopping legitimate anti-Israel speech? Nothing at all supports that conclusion.

Furthermore, the EO states explicitly that it does not affect existing free speech protections under the First Amendment. Zank claims it does.

It appears he didn't actually read the text of the EO and wrote this entire article based on news reports. This is hardly what one would expect from an academic.

He goes on:

But the executive order neither combats white supremacism nor offers law enforcement a useful tool to fight bigotry in its many forms. 
Title VI's main text - which Zank quotes - says it "prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin." Doesn't that mean it already combats white supremacism?

The IHRA definition of antisemitism referred to in the EO - which Zank quotes  - says "Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews." Doesn't that cover  white supremacism? Does Zank think that IHRA only applies to left-wing antisemitism and not all antisemitism?

And finally, what does Title VI have to do with law enforcement?

Title VI is not about speech, it is about discrimination. The EO does not change that. Zank's entire thesis that it chills free speech is not supported by a single proof in his article.

 And if Zank or other critics are afraid that it chills free speech, then they should be equally concerned that the existing Title VI does the same about free speech that can be considered racist or xenophobic. Yet for the past fifty years, no one has seemed concerned about the free speech implications of Title VI until now.

One must wonder why.

This entire article is  based on faulty premises and incorrect assumptions. It is astonishing that an academic can write something so indefensible.

I asked Zank on Twitter to comment on my questions, and I commented on the article itself as well. 24 hours later he has still not responded.

I suspect, because he can't.

My main test for intellectual honesty is when people can admit they are wrong. Academics should be held to a higher standard than even journalists. But this is not the way it usually works - academics can spout their own ideas with impunity because so few people hold them to account.

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