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I am in a research group in a French university in physics (I am a 1st year PhD student) and in a seminar in my university I used a slur against an Israeli professor, Professor X.

I am from an Arab country which has conflicts with Israel. Professor X was trying to mock me or act over-smart, but in an innocent and non-malicious manner, and I must say I escalated the situation. After saying the slur, I left the room. As this seminar was in my university, a lot of professors of my department, including my advisor were present and a lot of professors from other institutes in France.

How bad will this incident affect my career? Is anti-Semitism tolerated in academia in the West?

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    Please, before commenting, think about the purposes of comments and check that yours fits one of them. Before answering in a comment, read the answers and find whether they've already included your idea: upvote answers that you find helpful. If you still think your answer is unique and important, make it an answer where it belongs, rather than a comment.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 12, 2022 at 15:30
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    (This is a comment about France, and not an answer to your question. I believe however that it can be useful to you to navigate the culture). We (French) are used to some mild verbal jousts, it is part of the culture. I personally do not like it but you must be aware that what you took for mocking or over-smart behaviour might have been that. Or not. But you need to keep in mind that the verbal exchanges in France are difficult to "feel" when you do not know the culture well, and may be perceived as aggressive. Again, I am not judging, just commenting on what you can witness.
    – WoJ
    Apr 12, 2022 at 16:27

7 Answers 7

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That is very bad. Not because of how anti-Semitism is viewed in the west, or because this person is a professor, but because that is a disrespectful thing to say to anyone.

From the career side (which, I don't think is the most important aspect of this), this incident could very well be considered workplace harassment. @Leherenn comments that "This could legally be considered a racist slur in a public setting, which in France is an offense punishable by up to one year of imprisonment and up to a €45k fine." I am not a lawyer and am from the US, so I cannot advise about this aspect, but this is something you should be aware of. Additionally, even if you didn't use a slur, having an emotional outburst in public during a seminar is very inappropriate and will likely make other people question your professionalism. So there could be consequences. Having said that, if you apologize, reflect on what went wrong, and learn the lesson to not use words like this, hopefully you can move forward without permanent damage. But I would not worry about your career for now. You hurt someone, and your first step is to try to make things right.

I would immediately contact the professor and CC the department head and apologize. Be contrite but keep the email brief, something like

Dear Professor X,

I would like to sincerely apologize for my completely inappropriate outburst earlier. The discussion was heated and my emotions got the better of me, and I said a word that was very disrespectful to you and your community that I should not have said, and that I should never say. I will not let it happen again.

Sincerely,

QINDL

You should reflect, and (if you agree) write an apology in your own words. It will mean much more if it is sincerely written and comes from you.

It's better if you get ahead of it (meaning: it is better if you send an apology as soon as possible, before you are asked to send an apology). They may want to take some disciplinary action; be contrite and sincere, and be willing to take the steps they suggest to rectify the situation.


Additional thoughts

There have been a few comments about also apologizing to the seminar audience and the seminar organizer, so I wanted to add slightly more about this (edit: turned out to be more than "slightly"!)

I think there are several layers to this situation, that need to be unravelled.

  • The first layer is that you have hurt a specific person, and you should apologize to that person directly.
    • I actually hope that what happens here is that you have a one-on-one in person conversation where the two of you can process what happened together, and that you are able to repair your relationship. But, I think I would start by sending an email. Email gives the person a chance to think before responding, and can hopefully lead to an in-person meeting when they are ready.
    • We don't know much about the original incident that prompted you to respond, but I hope this also would be something you discuss one-on-one with the professor.
    • I suggested CC-ing the department chair here because this seems like it could be serious enough where you could face disciplinary action, and keeping the chair informed that you are taking steps to rectify the situation could be important later. It was also suggested in the comments to include the organizer of the seminar; that's a good idea too.
  • Additionally, I think it is appropriate to apologize the group. I feel that it's probably better to do this after you have apologized to the professor (others may disagree). But... this all should ideally be happening very rapidly so not too much time is passing between steps.
    • The main reasons for apologizing to the professor first are (a) the hurt to the professor is larger and more personal and should be dealt with separately, not as part of a group apology, (b) I think it's better to allow them the space to respond to you how they want first in private, because in a group setting they might feel pressure to act a certain way (c) (related to b but more selfish) you don't know how the professor will react, so it's better for you not to be surprised by their reaction to a public setting.
    • Part of the group apology should include a statement like "I have apologized in private to the professor" and perhaps "I am taking X concrete steps to atone for my error."
    • It's also a good idea to loop in the seminar organizer here. You don't want to catch them off guard by sending a surprise email to the seminar mailing list. They may also be willing to give you a few minutes to say something at the next seminar, if you would want to do that.
  • I suspect you will probably be asked to undergo some kind of cultural sensitivity and/or anger management training, and/or have some kind of disciplinary sanction. You should follow these steps and not try to fight them.
  • As has been discussed in other answers here, one of the major underlying issues is that you have violated a foundational value in academic culture. It is important to collaborate across cultural lines, because ultimately we value ideas and knowledge, and not tribal differences. In particular, being able to work with people who are not part of your "tribe" is crucial for academic success.
  • I also just want to make it crystal clear that I suggested a draft email as a starting off point, but it was not meant to be copied/pasted into an email. The apology needs to be sincere and come from you to be meaningful.
  • While bad, I don't think this is fundamentally a hopeless situation. If you are contrite and put in the work to make this right, I am hopeful you will be able to find redemption and move on from this.
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 12, 2022 at 23:15
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    Good advice except that the letter should be less generic. Naturally Andrew cannot write a non-generic letter since he doesn't have the details, but, @QINDL, you should make it specific. Also, I would ask for the opportunity to apologize in person and perhaps in public.
    – einpoklum
    Apr 13, 2022 at 12:26
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    Group apology is not needed. this is between him and the other person.
    – JMERICKS
    Apr 13, 2022 at 18:51
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    @JMERICKS OP insulted the professor in public, so, IMHO, a public apology is called for. Apr 13, 2022 at 19:27
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    @SimonCrase I can't speak to this professor, but as a trans person, in general I'd prefer apologies for similar slurs be made in private. There can (and in this case probably should) be a public expression of regret, but doing the actual apology in public puts pressure on the victim that may be uncomfortable
    – Tristan
    Apr 14, 2022 at 9:55
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We can’t say how it will affect your career, but it does sound pretty bad, and not the sort of behavior that will be allowed to pass without any consequences in an academic workplace in France or another western country. One might hope that the consequences will not be ones that permanently harm your career.

As @Andrew said, you really need to apologize immediately. The severity of the consequences could greatly depend on whether you apologize, and whether your apology comes across as sincere rather than being mainly motivated by fear or defensiveness.

The thing to keep in mind is, it is almost impossible to fake a sincere apology (and I don’t feel it’s appropriate to try to coach you on how to phrase one, even assuming I had that ability), since coming up with the right words to undo some of the harm your words caused to other people requires a level of introspection and maturity that enables you to reflect on why you behaved the way you did, and understand at a deep level why that behavior was wrong. It is much more than a matter of just “I said X, and X is a word that is taboo to use.” You might want to ask yourself, how do you even know such a nasty word? Why did it occur to you in that moment? Were those really your own thoughts you were giving voice to, or some kind of dogma that you absorbed through your education or culture? And other questions.

Also, you should know that many Israeli academics, and Israeli citizens in general, have strong disagreements with some of the policies of their government. If you had kept the debate civil you might have potentially discovered that you and the Israeli professor agree on many things (both scientifically and politically). You might have also come to realize that not all your assumptions about Israel are as correct or obvious as you imagined. But by using a slur, you abolish from the start any chance for holding a rational discourse and promoting mutual understanding between cultures and nations that are in political conflict.

Good luck, I hope you learn from this experience and find a way forward.

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    +1 for the second last paragraph. I have been taught by Israeli academics who refuse to return to Israel because they do not support the Israeli gov. My best friend turned down an excellent postdoc offer in Israel because she felt she could not support recent developments in Palestine, even indirectly. Few people agree with their gov on all points, for many Israeli people the disagreement is rather significant.
    – Clumsy cat
    Apr 12, 2022 at 8:14
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    Indeed, the use of anti-semetic slurs furthers the agenda of those that would like to claim that all criticism if Isreal is motivated by anti-semitism. Apr 12, 2022 at 8:26
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    +1 Excellent answer! Especially for recognizing that racist or xenophobic thoughts can originate not from oneself only but also from upbringing in less-than-ideal conditions, and so one can acknowledge that and improve.
    – Nuclear241
    Apr 12, 2022 at 12:04
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    @Nuclear03020704 hmm, can racist and xenophobic thoughts originate in any other way? Is anyone ever born harboring racist thoughts? I doubt it.
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 12, 2022 at 15:18
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    @DanRomik it is human nature to be more trusting of people who are like you and more suspicious of people who are different. Studies have shown everyone is racist to some extent, even people who are very strongly against racism. No one is immune to unconscious bias. Obviously that's not the main issue here, but it's something to keep in mind if you want to treat everyone justly. (I'm NOT saying racism is okay, only that it's something we must actively overcome. and thinking you aren't at all racist may have the opposite effect of what you want.)
    – Kat
    Apr 12, 2022 at 16:19
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Most of the other answers have focussed specifically on the anti-semitism. I want to highlight a wider point.

A key skill for an academic is to be able to handle criticism in a calm and professional manner. Even when the criticism is unwelcome, misguided, rudely-delivered or downright unfair: you need to be able to keep your cool, and respond appropriately. What you certainly cannot do is respond with an ad hominem attack.

If your immediate response to criticism is to attempt to undermine the criticiser by focussing on their personal characteristics - whether that's race, religion, nationality, sex, hair colour, or anything else - your temperament is poorly-suited to success in academia. Expressing specifically anti-semitic sentiments certainly compounds the issue - but the problem is wider than that. The people who witnessed your outburst will no doubt wonder if something similar will happen when you get an awkward question at a conference, or a difficult review on a paper. Unfortunately, but understandably, they are likely to be unwilling to risk having their name tarnished by association.

The manner in which you respond to a (perceived) attack is deep-rooted, and I suspect changing this is something where you would really benefit from professional help.

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    This! Peaceful, factual and considered discussions are the basis that academia is built upon, the OP just showed that he is lacking these skills and attitude. That's what really hampers the career and makes a catastrophic impression amongst other academics.
    – Mayou36
    Apr 13, 2022 at 9:44
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    Agree with your answer up to the last sentence. Having racial prejudice is not a mental disorder requiring psychological professionals. It's something OP should work on/through, for certain, perhaps with help from others, but not a matter for "professionals".
    – einpoklum
    Apr 13, 2022 at 12:24
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    @einpoklum In line with the general tenor of this answer, I was suggesting that specialist expertise might be beneficial in helping the OP learn to understand and manage their responses in conflict situations. I did not suggest that racial prejudice is a mental disorder.
    – avid
    Apr 13, 2022 at 12:34
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    Disorder may be too specific a word, but I agree with the strength of it. It says so much about OP that they chose to use a hateful slur. I know any polite, well-socialized person would never even think to turn to slurs in an academic disagreement. By their own admission OP escalated this situation. Who chooses to do this unless they have some serious self-reflection incoming?
    – Eric
    Apr 13, 2022 at 17:45
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    @einpoklum many people who don’t have mental disorders could benefit a lot from seeing a therapist (aka getting “professional help”). avid did not say anything about mental disorders.
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 14, 2022 at 20:40
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At that moment that you realized that you need to leave the seminar, I believe your instinct told you that it is very bad and it is going to affect you and your career.

The most important thing, which is pretty worrisome in my opinion, is your next question:

Is anti-semitism tolerated in academia in the West?

It seems even now you have doubt that if these kind of behaviors are OK or not, which tells me that still you are not aware of using prejudice to judge people is pretty harmful. In fact, the main point is that: just because someone holds nationality of a country, it doesn't mean that he/she approves all the actions taken by his/her country.

I repeat my point in my comment here: being anti-X (fill X with any ethnicity) is not OK anywhere on this planet. Just FYI, because some people throw anti-something rants in social media or somewhere else and in your eyes they could get away with it, it doesn't mean it's OK to repeat their action.

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    Yes, the same could be said about Russia. The Russian people and the Russian government are two very very different things. Apr 13, 2022 at 11:24
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    OP not being sure about acceptance of anti-semitism in the west is a symptom : anti-semitism is quite simply the norm in many Arab countries. And, if OP is religious and regularly praying, describing the Jews as "those who have incurred Your wrath" 17 times a day doesn't help much in order to become more open-minded towards them. Apr 13, 2022 at 14:19
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    @EricDuminil Well, that would shift the discussion towards investigating the morality in Islam from a perspective of a westerner, which is a gray area and it is not going to help OP. If OP is a religious person it might have an opposite effect. It is pretty difficult to convince someone rationally when someone believes in something. That belief could be anything. Even believing non-religious concepts is not going to end up in something good. Belief is the most dangerous thing to humanity... Apr 13, 2022 at 15:48
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    @PeterMortensen unfortunately the mainstream western media are trying hard to sell the war as something based in the Russian culture permeated by Russian imperialism.
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 14, 2022 at 7:55
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    @EarlGrey Well, it's not that easy I think to put a clear cut between a government and its people. Of course, for more democratic government, the administration represents the majority of people's ideas, and totalitarian regimes usually represent a small fraction of people in that country, but for example it's not like men and women included in Russian government came from a different planet and Russian government's actions had nothing to do with Russian history, culture, technology, geopolitics, etc. It's like claiming Nazis were not from German people, which is obviously incorrect. Apr 14, 2022 at 15:59
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I live in Israel, am probably older than you are and maybe older than the professor.

We are used to those exchanges and conflicts, online and face to face.

From your description of the way the professor handled your comment, I think he is not angry with you. He probably knows that you are young, agitated and don't have a long time experience in those kinds of situations.

Approach the professor, apologize and add this incident to the list of things you have learned from.

Regarding your question about the possible harm to your career, probably not.

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    I'm so sorry that it's a familiar experience.
    – adam.baker
    Apr 12, 2022 at 13:11
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    I wouldn't be so quick to claim you know the professor's position on this. Apr 12, 2022 at 14:42
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    So, an Israeli tries to offer advice online, in good faith and without judgment or hostility, to a citizen of an enemy state confessing to antisemitic behavior, and gets heavily downvoted and criticized. Is anyone else seeing something wrong with this picture? @Schmuddi
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 12, 2022 at 20:14
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    @DanRomik: I think the premise of the answer isn't a given ("the professor wasn't angry at you"), and I think the conclusion is wrong ("this will probably not harm your career"). If this had happened in my department, and if that had been my PhD student, chances are very high that this would severely reduce my support for them. I downvoted because I think the conclusion of this answer – although the position expressed here is laudable, and I should have mentioned that in my comment – is wrong. We can discuss in the chat if this downvote is justified or not.
    – Schmuddi
    Apr 13, 2022 at 5:46
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    No downvote, but I broadly agree with @Schmuddi. Regardless of the way the academic who was targeted feels about this, the rest of the department is likely to have a strong reaction to it. Rightly so, even if the academic in question can rise above it, bigotry shouldn't be normalised. As much as everyone likes to hate on "cancel culture" some words cause harm and should have consequences.
    – Clumsy cat
    Apr 13, 2022 at 7:59
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You should ask your supervisor for advice. S/he will be able to tell you what the consequence are likely to be. S/he will be able to tell you whether the person you insulted is likely to be open to a dialogue and whether the university has already started disciplinary action (depending on the rules that might include exclusion from the PhD programme, but it could also be a formal warning of some kind). Because the event was public, some of the attendees might expect some kind of disciplinary action for acts of hatred.


Besides the above advice which is really my answer, here are some random thoughts.

I think a lot will depend on how other people perceive you on a day to day basis. Have you had other outbursts? Are you on average fairly condescending towards other? Are you respectful to the opinions of other researchers? In simple terms, what type of human being are you. If there is doubt about whether you fit the implicit attitudes expected of people in the community, you should really try to learn from that feedback.

No career is ever done. It's sad and painful, but many people will not find anti-semiticism a problem. I think it is. The fact that you are now mostly worried about your career makes me wonder whether you understand that hatred of another people group based on religion or politics is unwarranted. What I find encouraging in your post is that you are very well aware of your behaviour, that could be a great starting point for reflection on your behaviour.

One factor that might help you in this case is the fact that many senior staff in France are aware of the fact that students from certain countries are exposed to a lot of hatred towards certain groups and that it needs a fair amount of introspection to unlearn some of these things.

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Was Professor X visiting, i.e. giving a seminar? Or is he local, part of your own faculty? If the latter, make it clear to the dean or HoD that you wish to deliver your apology in person and humbly ask that they arrange this for you.

If the former, you still need to apologise. However, I have a bit more sympathy for your position (not your antisemitism) since academics can sometimes get a bit funny (provocative, belligerent) when they are visiting a different uni.

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    He was visiting.
    – user135061
    Apr 13, 2022 at 13:35

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