Middle East studies in the News
Columbia to investigate charges of anti-Jewish intimidation by Arab professors
Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger has called for an internal investigation of assertions that professors have intimidated Jewish students during discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ten current and former Columbia students voiced the complaints in a half-hour video documentary, "Unbecoming Columbia," produced last winter by the David Project, a Boston-based advocacy group.
The documentary focuses on Columbia's Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures Department, saying its chairman, Hamid Dabashi, advocates "dismantling the Zionist entity." Several other professors in the department are described as intimidating and insulting students on various pretexts.
In the video, several students say professors in the department have accused Jewish students during classroom discussions of responsibility for Palestinian deaths. The students say professors have routinely focused discussions exclusively on what the professors called Israeli war crimes, without discussing human rights violations by Arab regimes or Arab terrorism.
Bollinger, said in a statement that he was "troubled" by the accusations which he called "disturbing," saying that Columbia "does not condone the intimidation of students or discrimination of any kind." He said that he had asked the provost, Alan Brinkley, to evaluate the film and develop the university's response.
"This is a serious matter," Bollinger said. "I'm talking about the intellectual climate on a major American campus. We've got to be able to talk about the most controversial subjects of our time and do it in a way that doesn't suppress passion but invites the full range of opinions. And no students should feel intimidated from participating."
The David Project was formed two years ago by Charles Jacobs, a management consultant who co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Group, and Avi Goldwasser, a technology industry executive. One of the film initiators is Rachel Fish, a Harvard Divinity School graduate who led a successful campaign last year to persuade Harvard to return a $2.5 million gift to its donor, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates.
Fish, who began working with the David Project last year, said the group decided to produce the video after she visited the university in 2003 and learned of many incidents where Jewish students were intimidated by professors.
A female student who graduated in 2003, Lindsay Shrier, says that in one history class, a Professor Saliba showed a documentary saying Arabs have a more legitimate claim to land in Israel than do Jews. In a discussion after the film, the professor told Ms. Shrier that she could not have ancestral ties to Israel because her eyes were green.
Saliba, a professor of Arabic and Islamic science, said that he had no recollection of such a conversation with Shrier but admitted that he had said similar things in the past. I do sometimes use the metaphor that inheriting a religion or converting to one is not the same as inheriting the color of one's eyes from one's parents ... and most certainly it does not come with a deed to a specific lot of real estate," said Saliba, who praised his fellow professor Massad as an "extremely bright" scholar with an "international reputation."
Another Columbia student, an Israeli Army veteran, Tomy Schoenfeld, said that a professor refused to answer his question in class and instead asked Schoenfeld, "How many Palestinians have you killed?"
In one scene in the film, a Columbia student, Noah Liben, recalls a class he had with Massad in spring 2001 during which the professor, while making the argument that Zionism is a male-dominated movement, told students that the Hebrew word zion means "penis." Zion actually means a "designated area or sign post," which sounds similar to zayin, which means a weapon or penis, according to Rabbi Charles Sheer, the former Jewish chaplain at Columbia.
At another point while teaching the same course, Palestinian-Israeli Politics and Societies, Massad told students that Jews in Nazi Germany were not physically abused or harassed until Kristallnacht in November 1938, Mr. Liben told the New York Sun, which first reported the controversy.
In the film, Mr. Liben also recounts a lecture a year later given by Mr. Mas sad, who was discussing Israel's 2002 incursion into Jenin in the West Bank.
"He was teaching the class about the Jenin incidents and a girl raised her hand and tried to bring up an alternative point of view," he said in the film. "And before she could get her point across he quickly demanded and shouted at her, 'I will not have anyone sit through this class and deny Israeli atrocities.' "
None of the 10 students interviewed in the documentary filed complaints with Columbia about the confrontations, Mr. Jacobs said. The university's normal grievance procedure, he said, involves reporting problems to professors or department chairmen, and in some cases those are the people who have helped create an intimidating atmosphere.
One professor in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department mentioned in the documentary, Joseph A. Massad, said yesterday that he had not seen it but had read press descriptions of it. "This is a propaganda film funded by a pro-Israel group as part of a racist witchhunt of Arab and Muslim professors," he said. "I have intimidated no one. Neither Columbia University nor I have ever received a complaint from any student."
Neville Hoad, an English professor at the University of Texas, sent a letter to Mr. Bollinger, signed by hundreds of colleagues, calling Massad "a public intellectual who has courageously written in Arabic and in English against anti-Semitism and anti-Semites."
The petition backing Massad was publicized by Mona Baker, a British scholar who believes Israelis should not be hired in academia. It was sent to Messrs. Bollinger and Brinkley on Tuesday.
Massad, who lacks tenure, has argued in his writings that Israel is a racist state that does not have a right to exist. He claims that Israel does not represent the Jews and has called for a "one-state solution" to the Middle East conflict. Palestinians have lost international support, he wrote in 2003, because Yasser Arafat has made too many concessions to Israel and has tried to suppress the intifada.
This is not the first time Columbia has investigated such academic abuses. The new inquiry comes five months after six professors designated by Bollinger investigated similar allegations of biased scholarship and intimidation. The professors reported in May that it had found no evidence of academic abuses, he said.
Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar who became president of Columbia in 2002, said the school "is committed to the core principle of academic freedom in teaching and research. But that principle is not unlimited. It must be viewed within the context of the University's other values. It does not, for example, extend to protecting behavior in the classroom that threatens or intimidates students who express their viewpoints."
Jewish students interviewed for the documentary say evidence of bias is not hard to find and complain that they have had trouble lodging complaints to school officials, who recommend that they bring their complaints to department heads.
A leading scholar of Hebrew literature at Columbia University said yesterday that for years students have complained to him about anti-Israel bias in the classroom. Dan Miron, a tenured professor in the Department, told The New York Sun that the school is awakening to a long-existing problem. "It's been going on for years now," he said. Students who have come to his office, he said, complained that they "were humiliated."
"They were not allowed to ask questions," he said. "It's high time for this to be investigated."
Miron, a scholar of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature who came to Columbia 17 years ago from Hebrew University, said he is one of the department's few sympathizers of Israel. "The department as a whole has been developing an ideology or agenda that is not particularly pro-Israel," he said ironically. "The needs of Israel, the legitimate concerns of Israel, are never taken into account."
"Israelis are put to a test that is not applied to anyone else," he said. "You will not hear a murmur about the people of Sudan, but you will hear that Israeli soldiers are raping Palestinians. Israel is singled out in a way that is racist." Miron also said the anti-Israel atmosphere in the department has "anti-Jewish overtones."
"This is outright hate speech and a scar on the reputation of Columbia," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn). "The only way it can be healed is to fire this professor."
Leaders of The David Project, however, emphasized that they are not calling for Massad's firing, either. Instead, the group has issued a list of several suggestions to Columbia administrators, including a zero-tolerance policy for anti-Semitism, increased diversity of viewpoints within the MEALAC department, and mandatory sensitivity training for incoming first-years about Judaism.
"There is an increasing number of international students on Columbia's campus, many of whom come from anti-Semitic countries," Jacobs said. "We need to work to break down stereotypes."
Mayor Bloomberg praised Bollinger yesterday for "taking the allegations of intolerance on his campus so seriously." Bollinger also met with the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who said he was satisfied with Bollinger's handling of the complaints. "Under President Bollinger's leadership, Columbia University will put into place practices that will contribute to a bias-free academic atmosphere," Foxman told the Sun in a statement.
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