In December 2003 Rabbi Charles Sheer, the director of the Columbia/Barnard chapter of Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, dispatched an e-bulletin to alumni, students and supporters. There was much to report: In 2002 a movement of students and professors had urged Columbia to divest from companies that manufactured and sold weaponry to Israel. In the end, Rabbi Sheer had vanquished the prodivestment forces with a well-executed campaign that garnered 33,000 signatures. “There have not been any major divestment campaigns on any US campus, and almost no anti-Israel student-initiated activity–speakers, films or demonstrations–on our campus,” Sheer noted with pride. “That’s the good news.” The bad news? “The battleground regarding the Middle East at Columbia University has shifted to the classroom.” Rabbi Sheer was mainly referring to classrooms in a single department–Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC)–and he hinted that a counterstrike against MEALAC was in the making: “A student group,” he wrote, “is currently working on a video that records how intimidated students feel by advocacy teaching….”
Ten months later the New York Sun, a small but influential conservative daily, broke the story of the video Sheer was referring to. The film, the Sun noted, “consists of interviews with several students who contend that they have felt threatened academically for expressing a pro-Israel point of view in classrooms.” Titled Columbia Unbecoming, the film was produced by the David Project, a shadowy, Boston-based group that has ties to the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization whose members include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee.
Over the next five months the Sun ran dozens of rough-edged stories about developments pertaining to the film, many of which appeared under the tagline “Crisis at Columbia.” The paper also hammered the university in a series of editorials: “The Education Department recently indicated it will expand its enforcement activities in respect of campus anti-semitism,” the Sun averred on November 19. “Our reporting suggests that eventually federal authorities will have to get involved at Columbia.” Other local papers echoed the Sun‘s reporting. On November 21 the Daily News published a “special report” headlined “Poison Ivy: Climate of Hate Rocks Columbia University,” in which the paper proclaimed, “Dozens of academics are said to be promoting an I-hate-Israel agenda, embracing the ugliest of Arab propaganda, and teaching that Zionism is the root of all evil in the Mideast.” Similar sentiments appeared on the editorial pages of the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, in the Village Voice (under the byline of Nat Hentoff) and on Fox News.
Local politicians, too, rushed into the fray: In late October US Representative Anthony Weiner, a Democrat who is running for mayor, wrote to Columbia president Lee Bollinger, demanding that he fire Joseph Massad, one of the professors assailed in the film, for “his displays of anti-Semitism.”
The MEALAC professors singled out by Columbia Unbecoming–Joseph Massad, Hamid Dabashi and George Saliba–did not cower before the allegations. “This witch-hunt,” Massad declared in a furious riposte, “aims to stifle pluralism, academic freedom, and the freedom of expression on university campuses in order to ensure that only one opinion is permitted, that of uncritical support for the state of Israel.”
Dabashi, for his part, greeted the controversy with a mixture of indignation and melancholy. He was born in Iran, and has lived in the United States since 1976. “This is not the face of the United States that I can any longer recognize,” Dabashi said recently. “This is not the country to which I immigrated and chose to call home more than a quarter of a century ago–a place where my political heroes lived, people I grew up admiring: Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Ralph Ellison, Rosa Parks, Stanley Kubrick, Ella Fitzgerald. How in such a short time could the face of a nation and the promise of its hopes change so radically, so unrecognizably?”