Middle East studies in the News
'Witch-Hunt' Laid to 'Pro-Israel Groups'
by Jacob Gershman
The Columbia University scholar at the center of student allegations of anti-Israel actions by faculty members is claiming that he is a victim of a "witch-hunt" led by "pro-Israel groups."
Accused by Jewish students of intimidating them in the classroom and discriminating against them for their sympathetic views of Israel, an assistant professor of modern Arab politics, Joseph Massad, has posted a 2,000-word statement on his department's Web site defending himself against many of the complaints.
"Let me first state that I have intimidated no one," he said.
Mr. Massad's lengthy statement marks his strongest effort to rebut the allegations that were featured in a new documentary film, "Columbia Unbe coming," consisting of interviews with students.
Reports of the film have prompted the university's president, Lee Bollinger, to announce an investigation into the student complaints, which have caused wide concern among Jewish leaders, alumni, and donors across the nation about the level of anti-Israel sentiment at the Ivy League school.
Mr. Massad is among a number of Columbia faculty members accused in the film of silencing students who disagree with them. In one instance, Mr. Massad is said to have ordered an Israeli student to tell him how many Palestinians he killed.
While there has been no indication that Mr. Massad's job is threatened, Columbia is facing intense public pressure to at least deny him tenure. Last month, a New York City congressman, Rep. Anthony Weiner, called on Columbia to "fire" Mr. Massad and accused him of anti-Semitism.
Mr. Massad has refused to speak to The New York Sun.
In his statement, Mr. Massad, whose soon-to-be-released second book is called "The Persistence of the Palestinian Question," reverses a number of the charges made against him. Continuing an argument that he has made in his writings, Mr. Massad argues that he himself is a target of anti-Semitism:
"All those pro-Israeli propagandists who want to reduce the Jewish people to the State of Israel are the anti-Semites who want to eliminate the existing pluralism among Jews," he wrote.
Mr. Massad said those who are leveling accusations against him and other faculty members in his department are on a "witch-hunt" that "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."
Mr. Massad also attacks a colleague in his department, Hebrew literature professor Dan Miron, for expressing "support for this campaign of intimidation." Mr. Miron, a tenured professor, told the Sun last week that students approach him at least once a week complaining of bias and intimidation in their courses.
Mr. Massad is the most outspoken critic of Israel and Zionism at Columbia and among a number of Middle East scholars at Columbia to have been greatly influenced by the late English professor Edward Said. He argues that Israel is a racist state that does not legitimately represent Jews. He supports a one-state solution to the Middle East conflict and has criticized the Palestinian Arab leader, Yasser Arafat, for his lack of support for the current intifada against Israel.
It is precisely these arguments that have gained Mr. Massad notice in his academic field and have troubled those who believe that Middle East studies has been hijacked by anti-Israel activists.
"That a professor at my alma mater should be capable of this kind of reasoning is a cause for alarm," said the prominent conservative intellectual and former editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, who in 1982 wrote an essay in the magazine titled "J'Accuse" that argued that vilification of Israel in the press was a form of anti-Semitism.
"I'm appalled that this person is teaching at Columbia," he said.
While some critics of Middle East studies in academia have argued that Mr. Massad's and other scholars' frequent singling out of Israel for censure above other countries in the region and in the world amounts to anti-Semitism, Mr. Massad writes in his statement that "the test of their anti-Semitism is not whether they like or hate Israel. The test of anti-Semitism is anti-Jewish hatred."
Mr. Massad also challenges some of the specific claims against him documented in the 25-minute "Columbia Unbecoming," produced by a Boston based group called the David Project.
Mr. Massad said he has never equated Zionism with Nazism and said he did not, as one student, Noah Liben, alleged, tell students that Zion in Hebrew means "penis."
In 2001, Mr. Liben was a student in Mr. Massad's course, Palestinian Israeli Politics and Societies. In the film, Mr. Liben, 22, also says Mr. Massad reprimanded a Jewish student for defending Israel's 2002 military action against terrorists in Jenin in the West Bank.
"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,'" Mr. Liben said in the film.
Mr. Massad did not address the alleged incident in his statement.
In response to Mr. Massad's statement, Mr. Liben told the Sun, "I am thick-skinned and it took a lot of courage to continue conversing with professor Massad after these incidents took place. But the fact is they took place, and they were intimidating to students."
Mr. Massad also wrote that he "never met" Tomy Schoenfeld, the Israeli student who in the film says Mr. Massad refused to answer his question at a lecture on campus until the student informed him of the number of Palestinians he killed as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. Mr. Massad does not deny the incident in his statement.
The executive director of the David Project, Avi Goldwasser, said Mr. Massad's statement was an attempt to "shift the blame to the victims of his actions."
"It's obvious that given the power relationship between professors and students on campus, Mr. Massad should be held accountable for abusing his faculty position," he said.
Mr. Massad also addresses the broader attacks against his department, Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, which has been accused of bias against Israel. More than a third of fulltime faculty members in 2002 signed a petition calling on Columbia to divest from companies selling arms to Israel.
"Columbia University is home to the most prestigious Center for Israel and Jewish Studies in the country," he wrote, pointing out that Columbia "does not have a Center for Arab Studies, let alone a Center for Palestine studies."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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