When great institutions lie
September 22, 2017
Over the past week, two major U.S. institutions have produced studies that discredit their names and reputations as credible organizations. Their actions are important in and of themselves. But they also point to a disturbing trend in the U.S. in which the credibility of important American institutions is being undermined from within by their members who pursue narrow partisan or ideological agendas in the name of their institutions.
The political implications of this larger trend were clearly in evidence in the 2016 presidential election. From a larger, long-term sociological perspective, if the current trend is not reversed the implications for American society will likely be long lasting and deeply destructive.
The first study was produced by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It dealt with the Obama administration’s policies regarding the war in Syria and specifically the acts of mass murder undertaken by the Assad regime. Authored by Cameron Hudson, a former Obama administration national security official who now serves as the director of the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, the report absolved the Obama administration of all responsibility of the bloodbath in Syria.
As reported by Tablet magazine, the paper argued that “a variety of factors, which were more or less fixed, made it very difficult from the beginning for the US government to take effective action to prevent atrocities in Syria.”
The paper’s claim was based on “computational modeling and game theory methods, as well as interviews with experts and policy-makers.” It argued that had then-president Barack Obama not ignored his own redline and actually responded with force to the regime’s 2013 chemical weapons attack at Ghouta, it wouldn’t have made a difference. In the last months of the Obama administration, Obama appointed several of his loyalists, including his deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, to positions on the board of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Rhodes was one of the architects of Obama’s Syria policy.
After sections of the report were released to Tablet and the report was posted on the museum’s website, its findings were angrily rejected by prominent Jewish communal leaders and human rights activists.
For instance, literary critic Leon Wieseltier told Tablet, “The first thing I have to say is: Shame on the Holocaust Museum.”
He added, “If I had the time I would gin up a parody version of this that will give us the computational- modeling algorithmic counterfactual analysis of [then-US assistant secretary of war] John J. McCloy’s decision not to bomb the Auschwitz ovens in 1944. I’m sure we could concoct the f***ing algorithm for that, too.”
Wieseltier was exactly right. A mathematical model is based on inputs and outputs. If you input specific data, you will get specific consequences. From an academic perspective, the study’s findings are worthless.
In the wake of the firestorm the report provoked, the museum pulled the study from its website and canceled its scheduled formal presentation on September 11.
But the damage that the Holocaust Memorial Museum did to its reputation by producing and publishing a transparently false, politically motivated report is not something that can be mitigated by pulling it from its website.
As some of the Jewish communal leaders who spoke to Tablet suggested, the Holocaust Memorial Museum diminished its moral authority as an institution by publishing a report clearly produced to rewrite recent history in a manner that absolved the Obama administration of all responsibility for the mass murder in Syria.
While distressing, the impact of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s action is limited to a historical falsehood. The goal of the second study published this week by an esteemed institution is to distort and indeed block discussion about a problem that is ongoing.
This week, Stanford University’s Research Group in Education and Jewish Studies published a report which purports to show that there is no significant anti-Semitism on US college campuses and that Jewish students do not feel threatened by anti-Semitism.
The Stanford’s conclusions fly in the face of a massive body of data, collected by researchers over the past decade, which all show the opposite to be the case. If the Stanford study is believed, it will discredit the work of hundreds of professional researchers and academics, journalists and Jewish and academic leaders throughout the US.
But that’s the thing of it. The Stanford study is utter nonsense.
As the researchers, led by Associate Professor of Education of Jewish Studies Ari Kelman, made clear in their report, their study is the product of interviews with a deliberately chosen, nonrepresentative group of 66 Jewish students from five California campuses who are not involved in Jewish life.
The researchers said that they deliberately chose only Jews who aren’t involved in Jewish life on campus, since they make up the majority of Jewish students on campuses. The researchers claimed that reports on campus anti-Semitism are generally distorted, because they generally highlight the views of the minority of students who deeply involved in Jewish life at their universities Their views, the researchers said, are different from the views of Jews who aren’t involved.
There is certainly a valid argument to be made for researching the views of uninvolved Jewish students about anti-Semitism on campus. But the researchers didn’t do that. They didn’t survey a random, and therefore statistically meaningful sample of uninvolved Jews.
They went to great length to ensure that the “uninvolved” Jewish students were their sort of “uninvolved” Jewish students. As they wrote, “We screened students with respect to their activities in order to determine whether or not they fit our general criteria so as to minimize those with vastly different definitions of ‘involvement’ than ours.”
Armed with their painstakingly selected, nonrepresentative 66 Jewish students, Kelman and his team concluded that all the researchers who have conducted statistically relevant studies of Jewish students on US university campuses are wrong. There isn’t a problem with anti-Semitism on campus. All the Jewish students the researchers spoke with felt perfectly safe on their campuses as Jews.
This academically worthless finding, published under the Stanford University letterhead, would be bad enough. But the fact is that this finding is the least sinister aspect of the study.
The real purpose of the “study” was to use this deliberately selected group of students to shut down debate on the most prevalent and fastest growing form of anti-Semitism on campuses: anti-Zionism.
The survey found that their interlocutors “reject the conflation of Jewish and Israel.”
“They chafe at [the] assumption that they, as Jews, necessarily support Israeli policies. They object to the accusation that American Jews are responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, and they express similar discomforts with the expectation that all Jews should be Zionists.”
At the same time, they really don’t like Israel much at all. The survey’s Jewish students “struggle with Israel,” whose actions “generally often contradict their own political values.”
Here we begin to see the ideological purpose of the pseudo-academic Stanford study.
First things first. The uninvolved students who think that Israel’s actions “generally often contradict their own political values” told Kelman and his colleagues that they are offended by “the accusation that American Jews are responsible for the actions of the Israeli government.”
And this makes sense because that accusation is self-evidently a form of anti-Semitism. Like anti-semites who accuse Jews of killing Jesus, anti-Semites on campuses is ascribe responsibility for the alleged “crimes” of the Jewish state to American Jewish students in California.
So by “chafing” at the allegation, the students his researchers deliberately selected acknowledged that they are offended by anti-Semitism.
But then, helpfully, they agreed with the researchers that anti-Semitism isn’t anti-Semitism.
The study went on to explain that its student correspondents have been intimidated into silence by the “tone of campus political activism in general, and around Israel and Palestine specifically.”
That tone, they said, is “severe, divisive and alienating,” and the students wish to avoid paying “the social costs” of involvement.
So a study involving a deliberately selected, nonrepresentative sample of Jewish students who acknowledge that they don’t think much of Israel still found that the atmosphere of the debate about Israel is so wretched that Jews who might otherwise have wished to participate are too scared to speak their minds.
Somehow, the researchers managed to ignore this obvious finding. Instead of paying attention to the elephant in the room, Kelman and his team pretended the elephant was a dishwasher.
They concluded the problem isn’t the anti-Semites.
Kelman told Tablet that in addition to being “turned off” by people who blame them for Israel—that is, anti-Semites, “they’re similarly turned off by the assumptions of people in the Jewish community that all Jews will get behind the actions of the State of Israel.”
In other words, the anti-Semitism of the students who accuse them of responsibility for Israel’s policies because they are Jews is just as bad as the attempts by pro-Israel students to get them involved in defending Israel—a place Kelman’s deliberately unrepresentative sample doesn’t care for very much.
By conflating pro-Israel Jews and anti-Semitic Israel- bashers, the Stanford researchers give cover for continued anti-Semitism on campus.
As they explain things in the name of their unrepresentative Jewish students, attacking Jews as Jews is just part of a legitimate, if alienating, debate about Israel where Israel’s defenders are as bad as its opponents.
Students who call for Israel’s annihilation and demand that Jews not defend Israel’s right to exist, are not anti-Semites for wanting to kill more than 6 million Israeli Jews and attacking anyone who doesn’t share their genocidal view. They are just partisans in a legitimate debate.
BDS supporters who wish to wage economic and cultural war on Israel and Israeli Jews just because Israel exists aren’t anti-Semites. They are just advocates of a legitimate policy preference.
Anti-Israel activists who attack any American Jews who profess support for Zionism aren’t anti-Semites. They, like pro-Israel students, are just engaging in an unpleasant but entirely legitimate debate.
By publishing their findings under Stanford’s name, Kelman and his associates are using Stanford’s brand to give credence to their pseudo-academic research whose transparent and pernicious goal is to end public debate about anti-Semitism on college campuses while keeping Jewish students intimidated into silence.
Whereas the Holocaust Memorial Museum was rightly excoriated for its willingness to have its institution hijacked for narrow partisan ends that distort the historical record, media reports of the Stanford pseudo-study have been respectful. This is deeply troubling. So long as institutions pay no price for the exploitation of their name by agenda- driven members, they will not rein in their members. And over time, the American public’s faith in its national institutions will continue to diminish, to the detriment of the US as a whole.
This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.