Middle East studies in the News
Columbia to check anti-Israel bias charge
by Uriel Heilman
In reaction to a new film on academic bias and harassment of Israel-sympathetic students at Columbia University, the school's president, Lee C. Bollinger, has decided to have the charges raised by the documentary investigated.
The short video, which shows students describing instances of intimidation and hostility by faculty members of the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, is the latest in a series of efforts by students and some Columbia community members to get the word out that the school has a problem of anti-Israel bias. They allege that the school's Middle East classes are unbalanced and that faculty members use their positions to promote anti-Zionist activism, discourage free intellectual discourse on the Israeli-Arab conflict, and vilify Israeli students.
"There's a problem. And just because I love Columbia University doesn't mean I should ignore this problem," Ariel Beery, a senior, said at a news conference at which the video was shown. "It chills the academic environment. It stops up free speech. If the administration were to take this seriously, then we as students at Columbia would be in a different place."
The film, called Columbia Unbecoming, was produced by the David Project, a grass-roots organization that seeks to counter anti-Israel bias on college campuses, in the media, and in American communities.
Bollinger said the university takes "very seriously" the allegations detailed in the film. Several months ago, he asked a campus committee to look into charges of anti-Israel bias at the school, and he told the New York Daily News in May that the campus free-speech commission had found no evidence of academic bullying. But in a statement issued this week, Bollinger said that he has asked provost Alan Brinkley, who heads the commission, to look into the specific incidents described in the video.
In one incident, Prof. Joseph Massad allegedly demanded of Tomy Schoenfeld, an Israeli student, "How many Palestinians have you killed?" In another, Massad, who teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history, told a class, "The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi." In a separate discussion, he allegedly yelled at a Jewish student, "I will not have anybody here deny Israeli atrocities."
Massad did not return a call seeking comment.
Students also told of campus posters for an Israeli film festival that were defaced with swastikas, Arabic slogans, and anti-Israel screeds, and a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus to which some professors brought their students.
One professor named in the film, George Saliba, who teaches Arabic and Islamic science, allegedly told a Jewish student in a private discussion that she has no claim to the land of Israel or a right to express her opinion about Israeli-Palestinian issues because she has green eyes.
"You have green eyes; you're not a Semite," Saliba said, according to the account. "I have brown eyes; I'm a Semite."
In an interview, Saliba denied ever making such a statement, saying he couldn't even be sure that Shrier had been his student, given the size of his classes. Saliba admitted taking his class to a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus but called it a "field trip" to show students in his on class on contemporary Islamic civilization an example of the debate surrounding Israel and the Middle East.
As for the film, Saliba said, "I prefer not to make any comments on things that I have not seen. They smell to me like they are secrecy in the making, a rumors-brewing kind of environment. That is not a healthy discussion for a university."
Before it was shown to the press Wednesday, Columbia Unbecoming was screened privately for Bollinger, the president of Barnard College, which is part of Columbia, and several others at the university. The professors accused of academic bias were not interviewed for the film, and it has not yet been made public.
Ralph Avi Goldwasser, executive director of the David Project, said Columbia's problem is not unique. All over the country, students with no prior bias on Israel are taking university courses on the Middle East that present a distorted view of the country.
"These professors miseducate the next generation of students, and there's a rejection of a dissenting point of view on moral grounds," he said. "The one place where you expect a real dialogue, it's restrictive and intimidating."
As a result of their anti-Israel bias, Middle East studies faculty members are teaching their personal perspectives, often with disregard for the truth, he said.
The students said they had a hard time making the film, which included interviews with 10 students, because students and sympathetic faculty are afraid to voice their opinions publicly for fear of academic retribution and being blacklisted as ideological extremists simply because they believe in Israel's right to exist. Students want to protect their grades and their ability get recommendations from professors, and faculty members want to protect themselves and their reputation. One student in the film, Mira Kogen, described a pro-Israel professor in the Middle East studies department who told her she was afraid to be alone at the department's copy machine.
"We expect to be labeled as McCarthyite," said Noah Liben, who expects to graduate Columbia in December, "when in actuality the McCarthyism is from the other side."
The students behind Columbia Unbecoming say they want the university to adopt a clear, effective channel for handling students' complains about academic abuse – and not just on Israel. In some cases, students of other ethnicities have experienced similar incidents of bias, they said. They also want whistle-blower protection for students who file complaints, a Middle East studies curriculum that doesn't just focus on the Israeli-Arab conflict, a commitment to academic integrity and freedom among Middle East studies faculty, and sensitivity training on Judaism for incoming students.
Bollinger said Wednesday that the university is committed to ensuring an atmosphere of free inquiry.
"While it is premature to discuss how we will evaluate and respond to the student accounts in the film, we recognize that protecting and upholding academic freedom requires having a clear, consistent and well-articulated process for airing grievances," he said.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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