There was plenty of outrage when journalist Steven Thrasher used his graduation speech last week to praise the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and call Israel an “apartheid state,” but he’s still got a job waiting for him at Northwestern.
Mr. Thrasher, who received his Ph.D. in American Studies at the May 20 ceremony at New York University, said in his remarks that he was “so proud” of those who backed the anti-Israel campaign.
“I am so proud, so proud of NYU’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and of Jewish Voice for Peace, and of GSOC [Graduate Student Organizing Committee], and of the NYU student government, and of my colleagues in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis for supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the apartheid state government in Israel,” Mr. Thrasher said in his speech. “Because this is what we are called to do.”
NYU President Andrew Hamilton and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Dean Phillip Harper both condemned his remarks, which Mr. Harper said were omitted from the speech submitted beforehand, as well as a series of anti-Israel tweets unearthed days later by the Israelly Cool blog.
“We were shocked when we were made aware of these undoubtedly vile and anti-Semitic tweets. Steven Thrasher should never have been a speaker for the doctoral convocation,” Mr. Hamilton told the Jewish Journal.
Even so, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said Friday that Mr. Thrasher, a BuzzFeed contributing editor and [U.K.] Guardian contributor, would assume the newly created endowed professorship starting June 1.
In August, before Mr. Thrasher earned his Ph.D., Northwestern awarded him the inaugural Daniel H. Renberg Chair at the Medill School of Journalism, a professorship focused on “social justice in reporting, with an emphasis on issues related to the LGBTQ community.”
“Many were understandably offended by some of the comments made by Dr. Thrasher during his commencement speech at New York University earlier this week,” Mr. Schapiro said in a statement. “We do not share all of his views, nor do we feel commencement was the appropriate venue to express them. However, academic freedom assures his right to hold them.”
The statement, made jointly with Northwestern Provost Jonathan Holloway, went on to say that Northwestern “unequivocally rejects BDS” and “remains firmly committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Mr. Thrasher has not commented publicly on the criticism, but he joked about the initial coverage of his speech, which included a jab at President Trump, in the Washington Free Beacon.
“I think ‘NYU Graduation Speaker Calls Trump ‘Fascist,’ Endorses BDS’ is the best headline a conservative outlet has ever used to post about me,” Mr. Thrasher tweeted May 22.
The episode came with NYU already embroiled in an anti-Semitism uproar. Earlier this month, a student filed a federal civil-rights complaint against NYU after Mr. Hamilton gave the President’s Service Award to the campus SJP chapter in April.
Mr. Hamilton described Mr. Thrasher’s remarks as “indefensible,” and Mr. Harper said the speech made some in the audience feel “unwelcome, disrespected and … voiceless.”
“You no doubt expected that this would be the outcome, and for that reason omitted the remarks in question from the speech you submitted for prior review,” Mr. Harper said in an open letter, according to Newsweek.
The Northwestern chair was endowed by Eugene Kapaloski, husband of Mr. Renberg, a wealthy California financier and philanthropist who died in 2014. Among the entities he supported was The Advocate, a major LGBT publication.
Mr. Thrasher was named the 2012 Journalist of the Year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association “for his investigative feature writing in The New York Times, Village Voice and Out magazine,” according to the Northwestern press release.
“The search committee received so many stunning applications for this first-of-its-kind position,” said Medill associate professor Douglas Foster, who led the faculty search committee. “Steven Thrasher’s unusual combination of investigative skills, incisive commentary and promising scholarship stood out.”
Mr. Foster continued: “As the inaugural Daniel H. Renberg Chair, he’ll surely make his mark by helping the next generation of journalists invent better ways of covering diverse LGTBQ communities.”
Standing with Mr. Thrasher was the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which accused NYU of a “bald double-standard.”
“Like the far-right in the United States today, the NYU administration is implicitly arguing that ‘free speech’ should exist only for political viewpoints that include support for the state of Israel,” the USACBI said in a statement.
Mr. Thrasher’s imminent arrival at Northwestern raised concerns among supporters of Israel.
“Thrasher demonstrates that, when soil conditions are right, poisonous weeds can grow in our best universities, on our own very watch,” UCLA professor and NYU alumnus Judea Pearl told the Jewish Journal. “I dread the thought that a racist deformity of such toxicity will be given a podium and clone students at Northwestern University.”
Added Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center: “Next stop for Thrasher’s fact-free alternative reality: Northwestern University.”