The Mideast Comes to Columbia

The Mideast Comes to Columbia

The current battle is the latest in a larger, ideologically driven conflict.


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?”

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.

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.”

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.)

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.

The roots of the Columbia conflict can be traced back to campus political developments in 2001 and early 2002. In March 2002 a network of national Jewish organizations met to evaluate what they saw as an alarming rise in anti-Israel activity on campus. From those meetings emerged the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), which is a partnership of Hillel and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. (The three organizations share a building in Washington.) According to a 2002 article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a Jewish-oriented news service, top-flight talent was brought in to advise the ICC and assemble a battle plan. “Pro-Israel professionals from the elite consulting firm McKinsey & Company offered pro-bono services,” the article noted. Those professionals created a document for the ICC arguing that “the primary goal for this year should be to ‘take back the campus’ by influencing public opinion through lectures, the Internet and coalitions.” The ICC–which recently received a $1,050,000 grant from the Schusterman Foundation, and whose speakers list includes Daniel Pipes–has an impressive array of “members”: AIPAC, ADL, Americans for Peace Now and the Zionist Organization of America, among others.

The ICC has a single “affiliate member”: the David Project. The David Project is led by Charles Jacobs, who is a co-founder of CAMERA, the pro-Israel media watchdog group; the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Group, which calls itself “America’s leading human rights group dedicated to abolishing modern day slavery worldwide”; and, along with Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol, among others, a member of the board of advisers of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The ICC’s website lists a number of “regional ICCs” that receive “strategic advice and guidance” from the Washington headquarters. The regional ICC representative in New York is none other than Rachel Fish, the director of the David Project’s New York office. Jacobs was tight-lipped in a recent interview: He refused to provide details about his financial backers, referring only to unnamed “individuals and foundations”; and he declined to elaborate on the extent to which the David Project receives tactical advice from professional pro-Israel lobbyists and operatives allied with the ICC.

What can easily be determined is that in October 2003, the David Project met with Columbia students and agreed to provide funding for a film that would give voice to their complaints. Rabbi Sheer, who ran Columbia’s Kraft Center, gave his blessing: Sheer was already a fierce critic of MEALAC, having collided, over the previous two years, with both Dabashi and Saliba.

In April 2002 Dabashi and several other professors spoke at a campus demonstration against the Israeli incursions into the occupied territories. Rabbi Sheer was upset by the event–the speeches, he later noted, were “sadly reminiscent of the kind of speech one hears on Arab TV”–and complained to administrators about it. He also contacted Dabashi and requested the text of his remarks at the teach-in. Dabashi felt these actions were unnecessarily intrusive, coming as they did from a campus religious official, and thrashed the rabbi in an essay for the Columbia Spectator. (Saliba, in a separate letter to the paper, was also blunt: “Rabbi! Just preach! Do not even attempt to teach!”) Nine months later Dabashi organized a Palestinian film festival on campus, which again brought him into conflict with Sheer. Sheer left Columbia in 2004; Hillel sources insist that his departure had nothing to do with his support for the film. But Sheer evidently decided to bow out in pugilistic fashion: He has a starring role in the latest version of Columbia Unbecoming–a film, he now notes with regret in his voice, that has harmed Columbia’s reputation. Says Dabashi: “This film is his revenge on Columbia, and of course on MEALAC”–an opinion Sheer describes as “ludicrous.”

Since Sheer’s departure, the anti-MEALAC campaign has been energetically waged by a small group of undergraduates clustered around a charismatic 25-year-old student politician with shoulder-length hair named Ariel Beery, who is a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces. But other students have risen to MEALAC’s defense. One undergraduate, Eric Posner, who is also a former IDF member, collected pro-MEALAC testimony from twenty or so majors and gave the material to the investigating committee established by Columbia president Bollinger. One student said of Massad: “He always made clear the distinctions between Zionism and Judaism and was unrelenting in his criticism of anti-Semitism and anti-Semites.” Another student said of Dabashi: “He told me that he wasn’t even reading the accusations about him because he didn’t want to know which of his students might be talking about him or what they might be saying, for fear of being unable to treat them fairly.”

In July 2000 Edward Said, in a symbolic act of resistance, hurled a stone near the Lebanon-Israel border, an act that infuriated his detractors and led to calls for his dismissal from Columbia. In response, the then-provost of Columbia, Jonathan Cole, with the authorization of president George Rupp, issued a statement in defense of Said: “If we are to deny Professor Said the protection to write and speak freely, whose speech will next be suppressed and who will be the inquisitor who determines who should have a right to speak his or her mind without fear of retribution?” With that statement, many at Columbia believe, Cole honored himself and the best traditions of the university. “I felt it was important to defend Edward as soon as possible so that our position was clear and could not be misinterpreted,” Cole said recently. “Some on the outside did not like my statement, others applauded it, but it was, I believe, clear and unequivocal.”

Today, many Columbia faculty members believe that on the question of academic freedom, Lee Bollinger, one of the country’s pre-eminent scholars of the First Amendment and a man with a reputation as a liberal, has been rather less than clear and unequivocal. Bollinger did issue a press release on October 22 affirming that Columbia is “fully committed to upholding academic integrity and freedom of expression” and that the university “will not penalize faculty for statements made in public debate.” At the same time, however, Bollinger insisted that “academic freedom is not unlimited. It does not…extend to protecting behavior in the classroom that threatens or intimidates students for expressing their viewpoints or that uses the classroom as a means of political indoctrination.” In a recent interview, Bollinger came across as a beleaguered politician trying to locate and occupy the middle ground. “We must protect students,” he said, “just as we must protect faculty. We must live by our principles.”

Yet Bollinger has not spoken in a clear and decisive voice to the general public, or even to his own community. He did not respond publicly to Representative Weiner’s demand that Massad be fired; he seems unwilling to offer even a perfunctory defense of the MEALAC department; and he failed to confront and contest a torrent of tendentious information from four New York newspapers. The David Project and its supporters have orchestrated a media barrage of sustained intensity against Columbia. By not responding forcefully to that barrage, Bollinger has conveyed the impression that his institution is not equipped to handle the allegations, and that his faculty are fair game for partisan attacks.

“Columbia’s response has been a disaster,” says Robert Pollack. “People across the boundaries of all disagreement on Middle East issues agree that we don’t understand the silence.” The administration “made a mistake in adopting an agnostic posture at the outset, in using the word ‘investigate,'” says Columbia political scientist Andrew Nathan. “They should have said: ‘We have confidence in our faculty governance procedures. Deans and faculty committees regularly review the quality of faculty, curriculum, courses and teaching. We will protect them from outside pressure so they can do their job.'”

Those observing the controversy from outside Columbia are also perplexed by Bollinger’s behavior. “I really think Lee Bollinger has damaged every academic in the United States by his refusal to articulate a view on academic freedom,” says Stanley Katz, an expert on higher education at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. “I don’t know how to construe his unwillingness to speak out, except to say that either he’s afraid to, or that he does not support academic freedom. I find both alternatives disappointing and unpleasant.”

It is widely assumed at Columbia that Bollinger is under considerable pressure from pro-Israel alumni, whose ire could complicate his fundraising goals, and that his caution is connected to political imperatives having to do with Columbia’s planned expansion into West Harlem–a $5 billion, thirty-year project on which Bollinger has staked much of his legacy. Bollinger is not eager to discuss these political imperatives, and he is currently awaiting the report of his faculty committee (whose members are maligned in the latest version of Columbia Unbecoming, partially on the grounds that two of them signed the 2002 divestment petition).

But the report, which is expected in late March, is unlikely to end the imbroglio. The coalition arrayed against Columbia seems increasingly confident and well organized. It has begun to campaign for an external body to investigate the charges, and has enlisted Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and Village Voice journalist Nat Hentoff in that cause. Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer can barely contain their satisfaction: In televised remarks to his Columbia supporters on March 6, Kramer noted that the MEALAC controversy could mark “a turning point” in the ongoing campus ideological war over Middle East studies.

There are signs, however, that Columbia’s president is beginning to rouse himself: In late February Bollinger sent a powerful letter of protest on behalf of one of his top Middle East scholars, Rashid Khalidi, who was recently dismissed from a teacher-training program run by the New York City Department of Education on the grounds that he had made “past statements” critical of Israel. But Bollinger needs to go much further in confronting his critics. Asked about Martin Kramer’s assertion that he should have to jump through “a hundred more hoops,” Bollinger replied, “I have no doubt that some of the attacks on Columbia are ill motivated, and I have no respect for the purposes they are trying to achieve.” If Bollinger indeed feels that way, he should speak in a much louder voice about why the attacks on his institution are ill motivated; who precisely is behind those attacks; and what are the larger “purposes” those critics are trying to achieve. Five years ago, George Rupp and Jonathan Cole defended Columbia in a most eloquent and capable manner. Bollinger has yet to pass that test. Meanwhile, we haven’t heard the last of the David Project: The group has announced that it will produce other films about other campuses.*

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