Barnard Professor Nara Milanich’s Timid Activism 

This rant is coming a little bit late, I’ve been stewing about it for a while, but I’ve been distracted while I’ve been fighting with my now-ex-publisher. 

We’ve stopped fighting, we’ve parted ways, but I am still angry. And my novels are now out of print. 

I’m going to try to distract myself from this to-me-only tragedy. 

I have a beef with Barnard professor Nara Milanich.  

Prohibiting Dorm Decorations 

The New York Times reported (and America subsequently debated, at length, perhaps ad nauseum) Barnard College’s decision to prohibit “decorations” on dorm doors. 

A lot of students plastered their doors with anti-Israel propaganda, which created a hostile environment for some of the Jewish students. Rather than ban offensive messaging, Barnard chose to ban everything. 

They could not, after all, permit messages that celebrate Jewish life and campus and not also permit the counter-argument, that Jews should all be killed in a “globalized intifada,” which, after all, is a legitimate topic for academic writing at Columbia these days. 

So pictures of cute kittens are banned alongside calls for genocide. 

Here I need to offer the standard disclaimer: I am pro-Israel and also pro-Palestine, I am pro-Israeli and also pro-Palestinian. I am that near-extinct species, the left-wing Zionist. I do not wish to see Israelis pushed into the sea, I want two states living side by side. 

I find the debate over door decorations idiotic, but it is the situation we find ourselves in today. How does one address an entire field of scholarship devoted to the destruction of a recognized nationality? One bans door decorations, and one kicks the can down the road. 

New Protest Protocols

Less publicly controversial than the ban on decorations, but, in my view, weirder, is the uproar over Barnard’s new “protest protocols,” also described in the Times article, which were unveiled in a college message entitled “New Policy for Safe Campus Demonstrations.” 

The message states, “This policy is intended to protect the right to engage in campus demonstrations and ensure that demonstrations are conducted safely and do not interfere with the rights of others[.]” 

According to the Times, demonstrations are allowed on one campus lawn, Futter Field, named for a past president, between the hours of 2 and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, on forty-eight advance notice, and the filing of paperwork.  

Pro-Palestinian professors and students want to engage in civil disobedience, and they want to engage in civil disobedience now, but Barnard isn’t letting them! 

Now we turn to the most jaw-dropping quote in the article, from Professor Nara Milanich, a Barnard history professor. 

Nara Milanich, A 21st Century Rosa Parks

“Did Rosa Parks ask if it was the right time to sit in the wrong seat?” Prof. Milanich exclaims. “I mean, it’s just maddening.”

Milanich seems to believe that Rosa Parks didn’t have to ask if it was the right time to sit in the wrong seat because the authorities in Montgomery, Alabama, gave her permission at the time of her choosing, and didn’t make her fill out paperwork and wait forty-eight hours. 

Rosa Parks, way back in the ‘sixties, didn’t have to ask, according to Prof. Milanich; today, by contrast, she needs to obtain permission from her administration. The Alabama authorities were terrific!

A history professor said this. 

Rosa Parks didn’t ask because she knew she would not be granted permission to sit in the wrong seat on the bus, because she was breaking the rules, intentionally, for what she believed in. 

Prof. Milanich also signed a letter that she was “appalled [that] some students have had offers of employment withdrawn by employers” who disagreed with their statements expressing support for the terrorist attacks of October 7.

The point of civil disobedience is that you disobey, and you take the consequences for your rule-breaking. There will be repercussions.

Rosa Parks knew that she faced jail for what she was doing, that she could lose employment. She intended to violate the rights of others, the rights of whites to sit in whites-only seats, because she opposed those rights. 

Yearning for the Activism of Yesteryear

In the 1980s, anti-Apartheid protests swept Columbia University, where Barnard is situated. 

Members of the Coalition for a Free South Africa chained closed the doors to Hamilton Hall, denying entry to administrators, professors who taught class in the building and students who attended that class. These protestors didn’t have permission for this demonstration. The point was to break the rules, to make business-as-usual impossible at Columbia, to force divestment down the administration’s throat. They faced arrest and expulsion, but in the end, they prevailed. Their protest intentionally reenacted the Students for a Democratic Society blockade of Hamilton Hall in 1968; some of the students involved in that action were not only expelled but became fugitives and went underground for decades. 

Yet protestors at Barnard seem scandalized when the school sets up ground rules around the protests. They call for the destruction of a recognized nationality, yet they are “appalled” that an employer who disagrees with what by any definition is a call to genocide might not want to hire them. Do they not recognize that post-Barnard employers have a perfect right to their own opinions as well.

My advice to these Barnard protestors: if you really want to see the Hamas flag fly over Tel Aviv, if you really want to see Jewish blood flow in the streets of Jerusalem, homosexuality outlawed in Eilat and trans women beheaded in Haifa, then recognize that you cannot also demand that everyone agree with you. Be prepared to give up everything for a cause that many people will despise. Break the rules. Get arrested. Get expelled. Lose that cushy post-Barnard job. Go to prison for what you believe. Then go on a hunger strike in prison. If you are right, then at the end of a long struggle, like Rosa Parks, you will prevail, but it won’t be without sacrifice.

If it doesn’t matter that much to you, then just go to class, write editorials for The Columbia Spectator, vote for Congressional candidates who believe what you believe, graduate with honors and get that job at Goldman Sachs. Nod politely when your boss talks about his vacation to Israel. Go to law school at Yale. Be a person with perhaps a controversial opinion that you admit to your closest friends, but don’t pretend to be an activist.

Like the fellow said, I’m looking for the treason that I knew in ’65.

You won’t find it at Barnard. It’s like they don’t understand the concept of civil disobedience at all.


Alon Preiss, the author of this column, writes fiction set in the 1980s. He is the author of In Love With Alice (2017) and A Flash of Blue Sky, both of which are now out of print, which means you have to hunt for them. A third book featuring many of the same characters, He Knew Her Once/Long Ago, was under contract to Chickadee Prince Books for years, and was never published.

Image designed by Kaylee Srithnam.

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