Anti-Semitism Uptown

More nastiness coming out of Columbia University. Earlier this week, the noose, and now this reported in the New York Sun today:

Anti-Semitic vandalism was found in a bathroom at a Columbia University building yesterday, two days after a noose was found hanging on a black professor’s office, university and police officials said.

Peter Awn, a comparative religion scholar and Dean of General Studies at Columbia “distressing” in an e-mail to students yesterday.

“These kinds of hateful crimes directed against the Jewish community or any other individuals or groups will not be tolerated.”

I couldn’t agree more with Professor Awn’s statement. And, yet, can’t resist the opportunity to point out what a problematic word “tolerated” is. If we follow the semantic path set out here, we end up arguing for “no tolerance for intolerance.” We need new ways of talking about what it means to be “against” racism and anti-Semitism.


  1. If we were forced to be formalistic and could not consider the context in which the word ‘tolerance’ was used here, we might end up with “no tolerance for intolerance.” However, I see no problems with that because there are at least three ways to interpret the meaning of ‘intolerant’ and of these three, one should be the default meaning selected by the attentive reader or listener.

    Someone can be intolerant

    1) if she or she tolerates no ideas, symbols, or rituals or

    2) if she or he tolerates no ideas, symbols, or rituals other than those she or he supports most or

    3) if she or he tolerates only the ideas, symbols and rituals that are not, in her or his mind, very dissimilar from or antagonistic towards the ideas, symbols, or rituals she or he supports.

    1 would be an absurd interpretation in almost every context.

    2 would render the use of the word ‘intolerant’ all but useless in most contexts, because so few people tolerate only the ideas, symbols, or rituals they support most. Most people tolerate the ideas, symbols, and rituals they support most as well as the ideas, symbols, and rituals that are very similar to the ideas, symbols, and rituals they support most.

    3 should be the default interpretation.

  2. Jessie Author

    Hey, E.C. ~ I certainly see your point(s) about the interpretation of the Dean’s comment by the “attentive reader or listener.” I didn’t mean to suggest that the meaning wasn’t clear, just that it’s 1) an inelegant turn of phrase, and 2) that the notion of being “tolerated” is, in my view, to set the bar too low in matters of racism.

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