Middle East studies in the News
Classroom freedom is for teachers and students
by Sheryl McCarthy
If you thought the Middle East was the only place where pro-Israel Jews and pro-Palestinian Arabs and Muslims were bumping heads, try Morningside Heights.
A small tempest is raging at Columbia University between Jewish students who are offended by harsh criticisms of Israel and pro-Palestinian professors who criticize Israel's policies on a regular basis.
The controversy surfaced when a Boston-based group called The David Project made a short film about the experiences six Jewish students say they and other Columbia students had with professors in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department. Singled out are professors Joseph Massad, George Saliba and Hamid Dabashi.
The alleged incidents include shouting down a student who tried to argue that the Israeli raid on a Palestinian refugee camp wasn't in fact a massacre; asking an Israeli student who had served in the Israeli Army, "How many Palestinians have you killed?"; showing a documentary that argued that Arabs have a more legitimate claim to land in Israel than Jews; and telling a student her green eyes proved she wasn't Semitic while the professor's brown eyes proved he was.
Since the film became public, the New York Sun and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn-Queens) have called for Professor Massad's firing and for the disciplining of several other Columbia professors with pro-Palestinian leanings. But at a campus-wide showing of the film last week, many of the students who attended - some of them Jewish - backed the professors and questioned the film's motives. Professor Massad has denied intimidating any students, and hundreds of academics from around the world have signed a letter to Columbia University president Lee Bollinger supporting Massad and condemning the attacks on him as politically motivated.
When I first heard about the controversy, I assumed that these were hyper-sensitive students who regarded any criticism of Israel as a form of anti-Semitism. I've had my own experiences with readers calling me anti-Semitic because I criticized one policy or another of the Israeli government. But after talking with several of the students in the film, I felt that they genuinely felt put down by professors who showed little tolerance for, or willingness to discuss, their opinions. At the same time, I wonder whether these students are letting themselves be used by The David Project, whose mission is to quash any criticism of Israel. Whose intellectual freedom is under attack at Columbia - the students or the professors?
Columbia has been a lightning rod for pro-Israel activists because of the prominence of the late Edward Said, a former Columbia professor who was a strong critic of Israel and a supporter of the Palestinian cause. A student and faculty-led movement to get the university to divest its holdings in companies that sell arms and military hardware to Israel has also drawn fire from Israel supporters.
A university is supposed to encourage a healthy exchange of ideas, and there's nothing wrong with a professor's espousing a passionate position in support of the Palestinians, just as I'm sure there are professors at Columbia who are passionate advocates for Israel.
University officials say they're investigating the students' complaints, and I agree that some of them, if true, revealed professors who were intolerant and bullying. Arab and Muslim professors shouldn't feel afraid to express their views in class, but Jewish students shouldn't feel intimidated either.
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