Mizzou cancels planned course on Zionism

Francis Quadrangle and Jesse Hall at the University of Missouri campus in Columbia. Photo: Yassie via Wikimedia Commons.

By Maayan Jaffe, JNS.org

A University of Missouri fall 2015 honors tutorial that pro-Israel students felt would promote bigotry and misinformation on their college campus has been cancelled. “Perspectives on Zionism,” which was scheduled to be taught by self-proclaimed “post-Zionist” George Smith, was nixed due to no enrollment, according to a recent announcement by the university. 

Yet the catalyst behind the cancelled course — Smith, a tenured biology professor who pushed for a curriculum that the instructor himself said would have included works by anti-Zionist authors such as Ilan Pappé, who has accused Israel of ethnic cleansing — is very much active.

The pro-Israel community welcomed the news of the course’s cancellation.

“I can now walk away with the knowledge that there is no interest among students [at Mizzou] to take biased classes like Smith’s,” said Destiny G. Albritton, former president of MU’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI) campus chapter.

“We salute the MU administration for upholding academic standards and being a model other schools can emulate,” Roz Rothstein, CEO of the Israel education organization StandWithUs, said.

Chantelle Moghadam, co-founder and president of Students Supporting Israel at Mizzou, said, “We were very happy to hear that the administration finally made the right decision, and that unbiased education has triumphed over this professor’s political views.”

Smith has written dozens of columns and letters to the editor in the local and campus newspapers in Columbia, equating Israel’s 

Independence Day with a Palestinian version of Holocaust Remembrance Day. He uses phrases such as “Zionist mythology” and accuses Israel of “colonization of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Earlier this year, when 25-year-old Israel Defense Forces reservist Hen Mazzig spoke at Mizzou, Smith heckled him from the audience.

“[He said], ‘Why do you kill Palestinians? How many U.N. schools have you attacked?” Mazzig told the Chicago Tribune. “And at the end, he came to me and said, ‘How can you come here and defend Ashkenazi Jews—white Eastern European Jews—when you are an Arab Jew?’”

Mizzou alum Daniel Swindell said Smith brought flyers to a talk by the Sderot Media Center’s Noam Bedein that made a joke out of the thousands of rockets that have been launched at Israel. Area spiritual leader Rabbi Yossi Feintuch said Smith showed up to a speech by an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) representative at his synagogue and proceeded to harass the speaker, advocating that Iran should achieve nuclear independence. CUFI’s Albritton noted that Smith has attended organizational meetings and interrupted, using “intimidation tactics” to get his point across.

Smith has used his tenure—he has worked at Mizzou for 30 years—to bring in anti-Israel speakers with university funding. Recently, six university departments sponsored a talk by author Saree Makdisi, who has said it is more important to eliminate the Jewish State than to create a Palestinian one.

“He uses his reputation to get several departmental sponsors,” Albritton told JNS.org. “But when Students Supporting Israel or CUFI asks these same departments to co-sponsor events, we either don’t hear back or we hear, ‘we cannot help you.’ It’s not fair.”

But Smith disagrees. 

“I do go to pro-Zionist meetings, but I don’t disrupt. I am just vocal with my questions,” he said. “People have freedom of speech. Our university does not censor our political speech—or any other kind of speech.”

Sixteen local, national, and international organizations wrote a letter to Mizzou Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin urging him to cancel the class. Students feared that if Smith has few qualms about using intimidation in group meetings, he would be equally as uninhibited in the classroom. The university, however, did not share those same sentiments.

Nancy West is the director of the University of Missouri’s Honors College. Although she had some concerns about the class, she said it ended up being approved by a committee of faculty members, some of whom have been colleagues of Smith for years.

“Given his record at the university and the fact that he teaches biology, which often intercedes controversial positions, we found no record ever of him abusing his academic freedom,” West said. “Courses are offered at Mizzou all the time that are controversial. I understand the concerns, and we, as a committee, wanted to make sure that Dr. Smith would provide a forum that was safe for students, that if they disagreed with him, they could raise their objections and not be punished for it…Our impression when we talked with [Smith] was that he was going to be very open-minded, that he was hoping to learn from his students.”

Smith recalled that he was confronted by the committee as to whether being an activist disqualified him from teaching this course. 

“Can an activist teach a class? It runs against the fundamental principles of academic honesty for a teacher to use his position of power to push a particular point of view. What I claimed—and who knows if I really could have lived up to this—was that if a student comes into this course convinced and committed to Zionism then that student will leave a better Zionist,” he said.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the course will ever be offered again in the future. While West said it is not uncommon for tutorials to be cancelled due to low enrollments—and Smith’s was not the only one this year—an affidavit is being prepared by Jewish community activists, in conjunction with the university legal department, that would help ensure Smith will be turned down next time he tries to teach about Zionism. 

Jeanne Snodgrass, executive director for Hillel at the University of Missouri, is proud of the way students and Jewish campus leaders were able to take a stand against this class.

“What this really showed is that the Jewish community was able to come together on campus and present why this class was problematic for them,” said Snodgrass. “It also showed how little support there was for [the class]. No students wanted to take it.” 

Snodgrass says that there has been an increase of Jewish students enrolling at the University of Missouri in recent years. In addition to the newly formed Zeta Beta Tau fraternity on the campus, there are a few different Jewish organizations for students: Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi (SAEPi), Chabad, Students Supporting Israel (SSI) and the Jewish Student Organization, through which Hillel is run.

One more group, Mizzou Jewish Greeks, is in the process of being approved. This organization, Snodgrass says, will allow for Jewish students in Greek fraternities and sororities to connect and work together with each other. 

Additional reporting provided by Rebecca Ferman of the Jewish Light staff.