The Mideast Comes to Columbia | The Nation


The Mideast Comes to Columbia

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Finally, there is the case against Joseph Massad, whom the film calls "one of the most dangerous intellectuals" on campus. One senses that he is the real target of Columbia's internal and external critics. Massad, a Palestinian, earned his doctorate in political science from Columbia, where he developed a close relationship with Edward Said. In 1999 Massad was given an assistant professorship in MEALAC, and he is up for tenure in two years. (His scholarly output would seem to make him a viable candidate: Massad's first book, on Jordanian national identity, was published by Columbia University Press. His second, Desiring Arabs, is forthcoming from Harvard.)

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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For Pipes & Co., Massad is something of a gift: He is strident, dogmatic, proud, deliberately provocative and utterly uncompromising in his defense of the Palestinian struggle. He is a man who traffics in absolutes, a man who often infuriates even those who are sympathetic to his views. Said worried about his young friend's propensity for careless rhetoric--a point that Massad himself acknowledged in his Al-Ahram obituary of Said: "He would caution (actually yell at) me against giving way to my 'youthful' enthusiasm in a world in which we have few friends and numerous enemies." Massad is a ferocious critic of Israel and Zionism, but he is also withering on the subject of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. (He supports a single, binational state.) To his detractors he is a devil figure, a "dangerous intellectual." Massad frequently acts out the role by unleashing a steady stream of inflammatory anti-Zionist rhetoric: "racist Jewish state" is a locution he constantly employs.

Columbia Unbecoming lodges two main accusations against Massad. The first concerns an alleged exchange that took place with a Jewish student, Tomy Schoenfeld, at an off-campus lecture that Massad delivered in 2002. Schoenfeld says he raised his hand and tried to question Massad, who, upon learning that he had served in the Israeli military, shot back, "How many Palestinians have you killed?" Massad denies the allegation: "Tomy Schoenfeld was never my student. I have never met him in any setting."

The second allegation concerns an incident that took place in April 2002, at the time of an Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp, in Massad's Palestinian-Israeli Politics & Societies class. A Barnard student, Deena Shanker--who does not appear in the film; her story is told by someone else--claims that in an acrimonious classroom discussion, she told Massad that Israel provides civilians with advance warning of impending attacks. She says he erupted with these words: "If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against the Palestinian people then you can get out of my classroom!" Massad denies this charge as well. As he told the Jerusalem Post on December 24, "I have never asked and would never ask any of my students to leave my class no matter what their comments and questions were." Shanker stands by her account, and cites two corroborating witnesses, only one of whom was officially registered in the class that semester, though both were in the room that day. Massad has insisted that his classes include unregistered individuals and auditors who he believes are there to heckle him and monitor his teaching.

Nader Uthman, a MEALAC and Center for Comparative Literature & Society doctoral student who was Massad's teaching assistant that semester, says, "In Massad's class, the most prolific contributors to class discussion were students who disagreed with him, and many did not hesitate to interrupt him to make their point." Did Massad, on the tumultuous day in question, threaten to kick Shanker out of the room? Says Uthman, "To my recollection that never happened." Benjamin Bishop, who was present as a grad student that day, reinforces that view. "I have serious doubts about the allegation that Massad told a student to leave the class," says Bishop. "I don't have any memory of that."

Of all the allegations in the film, Shanker's is the most serious; threatening to throw a student out of class would certainly be a violation of professional ethics. The facts concerning what happened that day are murky, but the following can be discerned: On one side was a Palestinian professor who is an unyielding critic of the Israeli government. On the other was a Jewish student who, with Jenin in ruins, mounted an unapologetic defense of the Israeli military with facts she says she heard on CNN. If the faculty committee determines that Shanker's account is correct, Massad's transgression, though certainly reprehensible, would hardly justify the overriding thesis of Columbia Unbecoming: that pro-Israel students are systematically silenced by professors in MEALAC. Shanker herself insists that MEALAC is "a really wonderful department, for the most part." She believes that Columbia's Jewish community is too religious, and she has come to value MEALAC's secularism. "I definitely feel safer in the MEALAC department as a Jew than I do at a religious Columbia Jewish event," she says.

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