The Mideast Comes to Columbia | The Nation


The Mideast Comes to Columbia

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The current battle at Columbia is the latest salvo in a larger, post-9/11 conflict concerning Middle East studies on campus. In late 2003 the House of Representatives passed HR 3077. The bill, which languished in a Senate committee, mandated that area studies programs that receive federal funding under Title VI of the Higher Education Act must "foster debate on American foreign policy from diverse perspectives." HR 3077 sent a chill through many scholars of the Middle East. "This bill represented an unprecedented degree of intrusion by the federal government into what goes on in our classrooms and in our universities," says Zachary Lockman, chair of the department of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University.

Scott Sherman wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Liel Leibovitz of The Jewish Week. Fatin Abbas provided research for this article.

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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An intellectual architect of HR 3077 was Martin Kramer, who, along with Daniel Pipes, has taken it upon himself to police and patrol the discipline of Middle East studies. Kramer is the author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (2001), a senior associate of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and an indefatigable polemicist and critic. Since Columbia Unbecoming was first screened this past October, Kramer has been especially vituperative in his attacks on Massad, MEALAC and even president Bollinger. (In late January Kramer averred that Columbia's president "should have to jump through a hundred more hoops" before the MEALAC matter can be settled.) Pipes runs his own think tank, the Middle East Forum, which in 2002 launched Campus Watch, whose mission is to critique and harass liberal and progressive scholars of the Arab world [see Eyal Press, "Neocon Man," May 10, 2004]. The current developments at Columbia are deeply satisfying to Kramer and Pipes: A few months ago Harvard Magazine asked Pipes to delineate Campus Watch's recent accomplishments, and he replied, "Pressuring Columbia University to the point that the president has organized a committee [to investigate] political intimidation in the classroom."

The creation of that committee, which consists of five Columbia faculty members, would not have occurred without Columbia Unbecoming. But one can't easily speak of "the film," since a number of different versions exist. Columbia students close to the debate maintain there are at least six versions. The film has never been released to the public, but it has been selectively screened for Columbia administrators, trustees, students and journalists. This magazine requested a copy from the David Project and was repeatedly rebuffed. I finally saw one version of the film in its entirety at a packed campus screening in late January. What's clear is that Columbia Unbecoming is a propaganda film: one that portrays Jewish students as "silenced" by professors who "criticize Israel and...question its legitimacy"; in which vague and anonymous accusations are tossed about by students whose faces are sometimes blurred and whose voices are sometimes masked; which deliberately conflates what instructors say in the classroom with what they publish and do outside the classroom; and which attributes sinister motives to Columbia administrators and faculty, not one of whom is given the opportunity to respond to the allegations.

Columbia Unbecoming is a source of anguish and embarrassment to some prominent members of the university's Jewish community. Robert Pollack is a professor of biological sciences, a former dean of the university's Columbia College and a man who was instrumental in raising $13 million for the construction of the Kraft Center, a six-story building that is now the permanent home of Columbia's Jewish community. (Much of Columbia Unbecoming was shot in the Kraft Center.) "This building is a gift of the American Jewish community in its fullest happiness," says Pollack. "One must wonder: Why would a video like this be made in a building like that?" Pollack is no great admirer of MEALAC, and he clashed with Columbia's Edward Said over the Israel-Palestine conflict, but he has no patience for the view that the university is hostile to Jewish students: "It is a crazy, crazy exaggeration to claim that Jews are under attack at Columbia or that the faculty is anti-Semitic." And he is caustic about Columbia Unbecoming: "No one has seen the video," says Pollack. "There is no video to see. There's a cloud of videos constantly changing. It's innuendo and gossip."

Nevertheless, Columbia Unbecoming does lodge a specific set of allegations against MEALAC in general and Saliba, Dabashi and Massad in particular--allegations that have traveled far and wide, including to Israel, where the film has been screened.

George Saliba, a professor of Arabic and Islamic sciences, has taught at Columbia since 1978. In the film a student describes a heated discussion with Saliba outside of class about the Israel-Palestine conflict. She claims he said: "You have no voice in this debate...you have green eyes...you're not a Semite...I'm a Semite...I have brown eyes. You have no claim to the land of Israel." In late October Saliba obtained a transcript of the film from the New York Sun and dispatched a statement to the Columbia Spectator, the campus newspaper. "The statements that she attributes to me in the transcript, marked between quotations, are blatantly false," Saliba wrote, "and I can say in good conscience, and categorically, that I would not have used such phrases." (Saliba also noted that the student received a very respectable grade for the class. Indeed, none of the students in the film have charged that their grades have suffered because of their political views.)

In its treatment of Hamid Dabashi, the David Project has neglected his academic scholarship on Iranian cinema, culture and politics. Instead, the film leans heavily on a single passage lifted from a recent essay he wrote for the Egyptian publication Al-Ahram, titled "For a Fistful of Dust: A Passage to Palestine." The following words from the essay appear in the film: "Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left...its deep marks on the faces of the Israeli Jews, the way they talk, walk, the way they greet each other.... There is a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture."

Dabashi correctly insists that the David Project mangled the quote--inserting the phrase "Israeli Jews" where he had "these people"--and took the entire passage out of context. (The context was his description of a five-hour ordeal in Ben Gurion Airport, during which time Dabashi was searched and detained by Israeli security officials.) "The phrase 'Israeli Jews' never ever appears in that entire essay. That is not my vocabulary," he says. "I was referring to citizens of a militarized state, both its victims and its victimizers. I could have written that passage about Americans in Iraq or Janjaweed in Darfur." Maybe so, but Dabashi misses the point. What's troubling about the passage is its sweeping characterization of an entire people--"Israeli Jews" or not--as vulgar and domineering in their very essence. The passage can easily be construed as anti-Semitic. Dabashi, at a minimum, is guilty of shrill and careless writing. In panning for gold, his critics discovered a precious nugget, one that he would do well to disown.

Dabashi, however, sees himself as a victim--of Campus Watch, of the David Project, of American xenophobia and nativism. In June 2002 Daniel Pipes co-wrote a piece in the New York Post titled "Extremists on Campus," which lashed Massad and Dabashi. Returning to New York from a trip to Japan, Dabashi says, he found his voice mail overflowing with bile: "Hey, Mr. Dabashi," said one caller. "I read about you in today's New York Post. You stinking, terrorist Muslim pig."

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