“It’s ugly,” said sociology professor Dr. Denise Dalaimo Nussbaum, describing the hostile environment in which she finds herself at Mount San Jacinto College in California, where she has been a faculty member for nearly 17 years.
Nussbaum, head of the college’s sociology department and a long-time champion of ethnic diversity and human rights, told The Algemeiner on Wednesday about the months-long ordeal she has had to endure since taking a stand against anti-Israel bias. She is now suing the governing board of MSJC for 9.5 million dollars, and her lawsuit includes a litany of charges, including, “assault, battery… intentional infliction of emotional distress,” and “failure to prevent discrimination and harassment.”
Though Jewish, Nussbaum said she was never particularly vocal about specifically Jewish issues or Israel. On the contrary, as the director of BEAR (Bias Education, Advocacy & Resources), which she founded 10 years ago, Nussbaum was best known at her college for being the address for women uncomfortable going through official channels to complain about discrimination.
This is not to say Nussbaum never expressed her opinion about Israel – for example, when taking part in votes on potential guest lecturers.
“I have objected to some of the speakers that Amnesty International wanted to invite, due to their promotion of a radical Palestinian narrative,” she said.
But this year, she was absent during a meeting of the school’s “diversity committee,” at which Shahla Razavi, an Iranian math professor, who serves as the college’s Amnesty International Club adviser and leads the pro-Palestinian movement on campus – requested $2,500 to invite Israeli “peace activist” Miko Peled to give a talk.
Aware of Peled’s virulently anti-Israel politics and antisemitic statements (“according to the State Department’s definition”), Nussbaum wrote to the diversity committee to express her concerns. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is incredibly important and deserves an open-minded, honest, factual and academic discussion,” she said in a letter. “If we are to bring this hot topic to campus, it must be in a balanced and scholarly manner.”
“I signed the letter: ‘Proud Zionist and Jew,’” Nussbaum said.
This prompted Razavi to launch a campaign to accuse Nussbaum of attempting to stifle free speech.
In her own email to the diversity committee, Razavi not only “utterly misrepresented my words, claiming I threatened to gather thousands of Jews to protest, but made Peled – someone who goes around saying Israel is an apartheid state – out to be a saint by comparing him to the likes of Nelson Mandela.”
“The most important issue here,” wrote Razavi, “is that if we can’t have the freedom and right to discuss controversial issues in academic institutions, where would we do? Academia is the natural habitat for diversity of opinions. Unfortunately, our faculty member opposing this event [i.e. Nussbaum] is using her power to intimidate not only myself, but the whole committee in what seems to me like academic bullying.”
Nussbaum was as incensed about what she considered Razavi’s “utterly false” portrayal of Peled as she was outraged at being called a bully. So she sent another letter to the diversity committee defending her position and setting the record straight about how she had originally represented it.
At this point, Nussbaum told The Algemeiner, she “didn’t think it was going to turn into a big deal; everyone knows me and what I stand for.”
However, for the next two months, from February to April – when a meeting of the faculty of all four campuses of MSJC was to be held – Nussbaum “could not go anywhere without being asked by teachers, and even some students, why I hate Razavi and Palestinians.”
During the week prior to the meeting, Nussbaum said, “I happened to be teaching my students about the civil rights movement [and protester William Lewis Moore’s 1963 sandwich board, with the words ‘Equal rights for all & Mississippi or Bust’ written on it] – and this gave me the idea to make one of my own.”
It was thus that Nussbaum arrived at the 100-strong faculty meeting wearing a board that said, “When did we abandon academic integrity for academic freedom?” It also featured two Martin Luther King quotes – “When people criticize Zionist(s), they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism,” and “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity” – and one by Mahatma Gandhi about the link between democracy and education.
All this elicited, said Nussbaum, “were stares and glares around the room.”
What followed, according to Nussbaum, was a physical assault from a male colleague – associate professor of history Gary Vargas — “who couldn’t care less about Palestinians, but has had it in for me for years for protecting the names of a number of female students who had complained he treated them in a misogynistic way.”
The attack occurred at the end of the meeting, when Nussbaum discovered Vargas had snatched the sandwich board that she had leaned against a wall after making her point by wearing it.
“I tried to wrest it from his grip, but he grabbed my arm tightly and wouldn’t let go, even though I was screaming for him to do so,” Nussbaum said. “Nor did anybody come to help me.”
The large bruise this left on Nussbaum’s arm (which she photographed and submitted with a complaint to the police) was nothing, she said, compared to the subsequent psychological trauma she suffered by being abandoned by the college, “treated like a pariah” and subjected to a smear campaign. This has included attempts to ruin her reputation — by calling her such things as “Islamophobe” and “puppet of AIPAC” — and her career.
Indeed, Nussbaum said, threats to undercut her tenure have been issued, and her teaching schedule cut.
“None of this would have happened if I had remained silent about Israel,” Nussbaum concluded. “That’s what organizations like Amnesty International do – intimidate true liberals who don’t toe their line, and make everybody else cower. This is a larger issue than my suit against a colleague who assaulted me and the college that has rallied around him. It is a dangerous phenomenon that could happen to anyone these days who speaks out on behalf of the truth.”