Middle East studies in the News
MEALAC Movie Premiers for 400
by Megan Greenwell
Hundreds of students packed Lerner Cinema last night for the first public opportunity to see Columbia Unbecoming, a 25-minute documentary alleging intimidation and harassment in some Columbia classrooms.
Dozens of students were turned away at the door after the cinema's 375 seats and most of the back aisle filled to capacity. The film screening was scheduled by LionPAC, a student group dedicated to supporting the Israeli government, after the film stirred controversy because of student allegations against Columbia professors.
"This is an issue of being able to voice a pro-Israel perspective ... but it is a symptom of a much larger problem," said LionPAC president Elana Jaffe, BC '06, in her introduction to the film. "The implications of the film go far beyond LionPAC."
The film was created last winter after leaders of the Boston-based Israel advocacy group The David Project met with LionPAC leaders and heard stories of intimidation by some professors. Middle East Asian Languages and Cultures professors George Saliba, Hamid Dabashi, and Joseph Massad are mentioned specifically by students in the film.
Though last night was the first chance for the vast majority of the audience to see the documentary, the anecdotes recounted have become familiar to many students since Barnard College President Judith Shapiro mentioned the film in a Washington, D.C. speech two weeks ago. In the documentary, several students allege that professors in the Middle East Asian Languages and Cultures department discriminated against them when they voiced pro-Israel views.
"There is a problem. This is not just a few isolated incidents," said Daniella Kahane, BC '05. She said that Dabashi had tried to silence Columbia/Barnard Hillel Director Rabbi Charles Sheer after Sheer stated publicly that Dabashi's appointment was evidence of an unbalanced MEALAC department.
Mira Kogen, GS '05, said even Israeli professors are intimidated by colleagues in the department. One professor, she said, was "scared to stand near the copy machine" in the department office because of retribution from professors she said are anti-Israel.
"If a woman with a Ph.D. is scared to stand near the copy machine, how are students expected to stand up to these professors?" Kogen asked.
The bulk of last night's event, though, was dedicated to a discussion of the film facilitated by University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis. The process of student comments and responses proceeded fairly smoothly, though audience members periodically yelled at speakers and were asked to remain quiet.
One of the most passionate student comments came from Eric Posner, GS '05 and a MEALAC major. Posner passed out fliers with comments supporting Massad, and wore a sandwich board reading "I served in the Israeli Army. I love Massad."
"This movie films half a dozen students who are interested in creating a paranoia of anti-Semitism on campus," he said. "There is no anti-Semitism on campus. Hillel has never received a formal complaint about this from any of these students and neither has the administration."
Most of the statements and questions posed by audience members were from people who had problems with the film's assertions or methods. Students interviewed in the documentary, as well as one of the filmmakers, responded to each question, emphasizing that they were not calling for any professors to be fired and are not alleging anti-Semitism.
"We need to create a culture where we can speak as fellow students, not as these rivals," said Ariel Beery, GS '05 and a student featured in the film.
Though several students were upset about the limited discussion time after the movie was shown, LionPAC leaders promised there would be other opportunities. Several audience members requested additional screenings for students who were shut out of the event due to space constraints.
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