Middle East studies in the News
Columbia University Launches Probe Into Bias Claims
by Eric J. Greenberg
Allegations of anti-Israel threats and intimidation have rocked Columbia University, sparking the school's president to launch an investigation into the discrimination claims.
The president of the university, Lee Bollinger, announced October 27 that the school would investigate the allegations, aired in a new 25-minute documentary.
The film, which was shown to members of the press but has not been released to the public, features 10 current or former students who accuse several Middle Eastern studies professors of making racist and anti-Israel statements in class.
"Because of the disturbing and offensive nature of incidents described in the film, I've asked Provost Alan Brinkley to look into them," Bollinger said in a statement.
But the fallout over the documentary continued this week, with some faculty members confirming reports of bias against pro-Israel advocates in and out of the classrooms at the esteemed Ivy League campus.
Judith Jacobson, president of the Columbia chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East , a group that bills itself as seeking a solution that preserves Israel's security and "the rights and legitimate aspirations of her neighbors" acknowledged that the documentary is anecdotal and not based on a scientific survey. Still, she added, "It suggests to me that there is a pattern of disrespect for support for Israel." Jacobson, an assistant professor of clinical epidemiology at the School for Public Health, said that on Columbias campus expressing support for Israels right to exist as a Jewish State is considered "an extreme position."
The controversy erupted last week following the press screening of the documentary, titled "Columbia Unbecoming," a joint production of The David Project, a Boston-based Israel advocacy group, and LionPAC, Columbias pro-Israel political action club. It presented a litany of charges against scholars in the Middle East and Asian languages and culture department. David Project officials said they intended to replicate the documentaries on other campuses around the United States where students have voiced similar complaints, including San Francisco State University, the University of California at Berkeley and Duke.
Many of the allegations in the film center on Joseph Massad, a non-tenured professor of modern Arab politics. Tomy Schoenfeld, an Israeli who attended Columbia and served in the Israeli military, recounted how during a lecture in 2001, he asked Massad a question.
"Before I could continue, [Massad] stopped me and said, 'Did you serve in the military?'" Schoenfeld recalled during a press conference Wednesday. "He asked me how many Palestinians I had killed. I was shocked. What did that have to do with anything?"
Columbia senior Ariel Beery quoted Massad telling students: "The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi" and "I will not have someone in this class who denies Israeli atrocities."
Senior Aharon Horowitz, who studied Arabic and wears a skullcap, said that when he asked a language professor how to use the verb "prevent" in Arabic, the teacher wrote on the board, "Israelis prevent ambulances from entering refugee camps."
In the documentary, Columbia alumnus Lindsay Shrier said that after a class several years ago, she engaged in a 45-minute debate with George Saliba, a Middle Eastern studies professor, regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said the conversation ended with him telling her: "You have no claim to the land of Israel. You have no voice in this debate. You have green eyes. You're not a Semite. I have brown eyes. I am a Semite."
"I was horrified and hurt and stunned," she said. "He wanted to intimidate me and keep me quiet, and he succeeded. I never approached him after that."
After reading a transcript of the film, Saliba, a professor of Arabic and Islamic science, told The New York Sun that he had no recollection of such a conversation with the alumnus, Shrier. "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," he said.
He called Massad an "extremely bright" scholar with an "international reputation."U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Brooklyn Democrat, publicly urged Columbia to "fire" Massad.
Massad reportedly criticized the film as propaganda, although he had not yet seen it.
"This is a propaganda film funded by a pro-Israel group as part of a racist witch-hunt of Arab and Muslim professors," he told The New York Times. "I have intimidated no one. Neither Columbia University nor I have ever received a complaint from any student."
In the past Massad described Israel as a racist state and argued that it has no right to exist. He and Saliba did not return calls from the Forward for comment.
Several Jewish and non-Jewish students interviewed said they had no problems with the Middle East department and they did not believe the alleged anti-Israel sentiment was widespread among the departments faculty.
But Jacobson countered that any number was too high.
"The fact is it doesnt need to be prevalent," she said. "It is like sexual harassment. You have to address it when it occurs. We have to make it clear to everyone that abusing people for views expressed respectfully is not appropriate behavior in a university and it does not promote learning."
Scholars around the country are rallying to Massads defense. A petition launched by University of Texas professor Neville Hoad and containing 700 signatures of scholars from the around the world is being organized.
The recently announced investigation marks the second probe regarding claims of anti-Israel bias launched by the Columbia president in a year. The previous examination was concluded quietly last May, with no public report issued. Referring to the first investigation, Bollinger told the New York Daily News that the faculty investigators "said to me they have not found claims of bias or intimidation."
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that after meeting with Bollinger, he is convinced the president understands the seriousness of the problem. "[Bollinger] has an approach to deal with it, and we should give him some time," Foxman told the Forward.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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