‘Playing Fair’ at Columbia?

‘Playing Fair’ at Columbia?

New York City


New York City

In his attempt to “play fair” Scott Sherman appears to have learned his journalistic ethics from the New York Sun‘s Jacob Gershman [“The Mideast Comes to Columbia,” April 4]. Even the mainstream New York Times showed more journalistic professionalism in its coverage of the Columbia University witchhunt when it refused to engage in the kind of baseless character assassination in which Sherman engages.

Without providing a shred of evidence for his profile, Sherman describes me, among other things, as “dogmatic” and as “a man who traffics in absolutes, a man who often infuriates even those who are sympathetic to his views.” It is unclear how Sherman knows any of this. Has he spoken to all “those who are sympathetic to my views”? Did they all tell him that I often infuriate them? What are the signs of my dogmatism? How can one even begin to respond to such yellow journalism?

But as if this were not enough, Sherman adds that Edward Said “worried about his young friend’s propensity for careless rhetoric–a point that Massad himself acknowledged in his Al-Ahram obituary of Said.”

In fact, I acknowledged no such thing, as neither I nor Edward Said believed that my rhetoric was “careless.” Said was merely concerned about strategy and about my “youthful enthusiasm” (as he termed it) in criticizing certain enemies of the Palestinian struggle, not any alleged carelessness. Sherman’s purpose for such baseless descriptions is for Nation readers to dismiss my political views as akin to Daniel Pipes’s and Martin Kramer’s in their extremism, as he presents me as their mirror image. Sherman concludes: “Massad frequently acts out the [‘devil’] role by unleashing a steady stream of inflammatory anti-Zionist rhetoric: ‘racist Jewish state’ is a locution he constantly employs.”

My characterization of Israel as racist is not some ideological insult but rather a description of a country that has myriad laws that grant Jewish citizens rights and privileges that it denies to non-Jewish citizens. These include the Law of Return (1950), the Law of Absentee Property (1950), the Law of the State’s Property (1951), the Law of Citizenship (1952), the Status Law (1952), the Israel Lands Administration Law (1960), the Construction and Building Law (1951) and myriad others.

This racist character of the country extends to the maintenance of the exclusive Jewish symbolism that Israel deploys, ranging from its Jewish flag and national anthem (which speaks only of Jews) to its ceremonial national days and the practices of institutionalized discrimination against its Arab non-Jewish citizens in every facet of life. I am not sure why Sherman finds this “inflammatory.” Would calling the United States during segregation or South Africa during apartheid racist countries also be considered “inflammatory” anti-American or anti-South African rhetoric?

Unfortunately, in his political biases against defenders of the Palestinian struggle, Sherman does not deviate from the historic stance of The Nation itself, which in its editorial of September 27, 1993, expressed its enthusiastic support for the now-defunct Oslo Accords and cautioned against “extremists” on both sides who opposed it (let us recall that Edward Said was one of the major opponents of Oslo and that he was no “extremist”), warning Israel that unless it satisfies Palestinian aspirations, the Palestinian victims might very well become Nazis and threaten nonracist Israel: “we should recall how the harsh Versailles settlement imposed on Germany after World War I paved the way for Nazi ultranationalism, racist perversions and militarism. The bitter ironies of such a comparison should encourage Israel and its friends, especially the United States, to satisfy Palestinian aspirations for real independence and sovereign rights.”

If Sherman and The Nation are the best that American left journalism has to offer, I will take my chances with the Sun.

Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department, Columbia University

New York City

I thought Scott Sherman’s research thorough and his article well written and in general good, but I found his description of Joseph Massad as “strident, dogmatic, proud, deliberately provocative and utterly uncompromising” an unnecessary and unfortunate personal attack. Massad deserves a better exposé of his excellent scholarship, research and teaching. Sherman mentions his writings but does not say anything about their contents and the interesting ideas discussed in Massad’s books.

My late husband, Edward Said, thought highly of his work, as evidenced by the blurb he wrote regarding his book on Jordan. Also, before this controversy erupted, Massad’s class was very popular at Columbia. Many students who took the course thought the material was challenging and provocative. The class was ranked very highly by the students who took the course, and Massad was nominated for the Van Doren Prize. Why is this fact never mentioned by the media while what gets quoted is only what the attackers wrote?


New York City

Scott Sherman’s article is one of the few reliable journalistic accounts of the systematic campaign conducted against my university over the last three years. Sherman’s account is reliable in part because the principal targets of this campaign, to which two of my MEALAC colleagues and I are now subjected, had been given an opportunity to respond to Sherman’s repeated and prolonged queries.

It is therefore exceedingly disappointing to see that after weeks of detailed conversations and extensive e-mail exchanges, Sherman still manages to add yet another layer of insult to injury. Writing of the deceitful and slanderous misrepresentation of my travelogue to Palestine by the Goliath Project, Sherman states:

“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.”

As I repeatedly explained to Sherman, if characterization X is attributed to varied people caught in conditions A, B and C, then by logical conclusion none of these people are essentially characterized, but their common condition analytically diagnosed. The passage in question is not a “sweeping characterization of an entire people”; it is a reading of a people’s body politics when trapped in a systematically militarized state apparatus. Dabashi does not miss the point. Sherman confuses the premise.

If I were to say that people sitting in a room cannot see properly because the light is dim, or cannot hear well because there is construction next door, or cannot clap their hands enthusiastically because the room temperature is very cold and their hands are in their pockets, I am reading their body language not as quintessential to their presumed race but as the bodily reflection of their material condition, namely the room in which they are sitting. Change their room and all those bodily signs will disappear, and they will see, hear and applaud perfectly well. This is elementary logic.

Failing to understand that, and then accusing me of “shrill” writing at a time when from Boston to Philadelphia, from New York to Jerusalem, and from the United States to Israel, militant mobs like the one organized at Columbia Business School; multimillion-dollar establishments like Hillel at Columbia; complicitous presidents like Bollinger and Shapiro, supported by their boards of trustees and militant millionaire clubs among the Columbia and Barnard alumni; advocates of torture like Alan Dershowitz; racist propagandists like Daniel Pipes; anti-intellectual vigilantes like Martin Kramer; organized cells at Columbia medical, business and law schools; a bagful of tabloids in Manhattan; Jack-the-Ripper journalists like Douglas Feiden and Jacob Gershman; a deceitful propaganda machine like the Goliath Project; a minister and his ministry in Israel; city, state and federal politicians seeking higher office here in the United States are all ganging up and calling for the heads of two Arabs and a Muslim in post-9/11 New York is quite an achievement for The Nation, one that I will not forget or forgive.

Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies, Columbia University

New York City

Thank you for the recent series of articles concerning unfounded allegations against Columbia professors by right-wing, anti-Palestinian organizations. While we strongly agree with most of these articles’ conclusions, we reject Scott Sherman’s assertion that a passage written by Professor Hamid Dabashi and quoted in the film Columbia Unbecoming could “easily be construed as anti-Semitic.”

The film, produced by the neoconservative David Project, misquotes Dabashi by deceptively inserting the phrase “Israeli Jews” into a passage he wrote that is critical of Israel. As Sherman indicates, Dabashi never used the phrase “Israeli Jews” in his quoted essay, “For a Fistful of Dust.”

In fact, Dabashi refers to Israel only as a military occupier, not as a Jewish state. Dabashi neither states nor implies that Israeli behavior is inherent to Jews, nor does he claim that Israelis are innate oppressors because of their biology. Instead he argues that a militarized, systematically oppressive society has fused to the souls of Israelis to the point of penetrating every aspect of their being. This cannot, in any way, be taken as an extension of the traditional anti-Semitic canard that Jews are biologically inferior or different.

Of course, all generalizations about a people are, to a certain extent, simplifications and inaccurate. The oppression of the Palestinian people is anathema to many Israelis, some of whom have expressed views similar to Dabashi’s. As former speaker of the Israeli Knesset and Labor Party leader Avraham Burg has written, “The disease eating away at the body of Zionism has already attacked the head.”

http://www.jatonyc.org (12 signatories)

(12 signatories)


New York City

Scott Sherman’s article about Columbia offers a welcome contrast to the horrifyingly, almost psychotically, biased editorial offered up by the New York Times. Unlike whatever blind assassin the Times was calling on, Sherman listens carefully to both sides and with genuine professionalism tries hard–some would say too hard–to give the student complainants their due. As a result, he at least is fully “credible” when he suggests that the accusations against the MEALAC professors did not amount to true grievances and that the idea of Columbia as a place that’s uncomfortable for Jews or Zionists is a complete fantasy. He sees that the real story here is the deliberate intrusion into the university by pro-Israel advocacy groups and the inadequacy of Columbia’s defense of its faculty. There are things about which one wishes more had been said, like the value of Joseph Massad’s scholarship or the student who pilfered Rashid Khalidi’s correspondence and gave it to the Sun. But for these and other matters there will be time, alas, as the Sun and its murky allies have certainly not finished with their mudslinging. I hope Sherman will stay on the case.

Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University


Brooklyn, NY

Joseph Massad’s letter reinforces the characterization of him in my article: He is a man who favors rigid thinking and coarse rhetoric, a man who cannot tolerate even the slightest difference with his point of view. In researching my piece about the controversy at Columbia, I interviewed more than sixty students, faculty and alumni, many of whom have had extensive contact with Massad from the time of his arrival at Columbia.

My description of Massad as “strident, dogmatic, proud, deliberately provocative and utterly uncompromising in his defense of the Palestinian struggle” was not intended as a “personal attack.” That description emerged both from my reporting and from my own reading of Massad’s written work, especially, but not limited to, the rough-edged articles he has written for the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, which can be easily accessed on that paper’s website. I invite Nation readers to peruse those articles and come to their own conclusions. I have no doubt that his first book, on Jordanian national identity, is written in a more measured tone, as befits a young professor seeking tenure at a top institution.

My statement about Edward Said’s misgivings about Massad’s rhetorical style was based on a conversation with an unimpeachable source who was extremely close to Said; that person wishes to remain anonymous. In her letter, Mariam Said does not deny that Edward Said expressed dismay about Massad’s use of language.

Since my article went to press, Columbia’s ad hoc faculty committee, consisting of five distinguished professors–Ira Katznelson, Mark Mazower, Lisa Anderson, Farah Griffin and Jean Howard–has issued its much-awaited report on the controversy. The report concluded that the primary accusation against Massad–that he lashed out at a student named Deena Shanker during an acrimonious classroom debate–is “credible”: “Upon extensive deliberation,” the report noted, “the committee finds it credible that Professor Massad became angered at a question that he understood to countenance Israeli conduct of which he disapproved, and that he responded heatedly. While we have no reason to believe that Professor Massad intended to expel Ms. Shanker from the classroom…his rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism.” Quoting from The Faculty Handbook of Columbia University, the report went on to say that “angry criticism directed at a student in class because she disagrees, or appears to disagree, with a faculty member on a matter of substance is not consistent with the obligation ‘to show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own,’ to exercise ‘responsible self-discipline,’ and to ‘demonstrate appropriate restraint.'”

Regarding Massad, the report also noted: “A significant number of students found Professor Massad to be an excellent and inspiring teacher, and several described his class as the best they took at Columbia. But even some of the students who found the class valuable noted Professor Massad’s repeated deployment of a tendentious and highly charged vocabulary, and some complained about what they felt was his repeated, even unremitting, use of stigmatizing characterizations and his sometimes intemperate response to dissenting views. Some reported that they were deterred from asking questions by the atmosphere this created.”

Given these findings, I see no reason to retreat from my original description of Joseph Massad.


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