Middle East studies in the News
NYU reflects on Columbia bias probe
As Columbia University looks inward after several of its professors were charged with being anti-Semitic, NYU students say that academic discourse here about the Middle East has been, for the most part, balanced.
NYU's uptown neighbor announced on Oct. 27 that it would investigate several students' claims that they were harassed by professors for their pro-Israel leanings.
The controversy was sparked by a short documentary called "Columbia Unbecoming," in which 10 Columbia students speak about bias in their classrooms. The film was produced last winter by a pro-Israel group called the David Project.
Several NYU students said that while Middle Eastern studies professors at NYU may reveal some bias through their instruction, they are respectful of all ideas.
CAS junior Noam Besdin, co-chair of the pro-Israel student group Gesher, said that while he knows of professors who lean one way or another, he hasn't witnessed hostility as pronounced as was described at Columbia.
"To claim it is anti-Semitism is usually over the line, just because I think these people don't hate Jews," he said.
Kristen Brown, a CAS freshman in the Middle Eastern studies department, likewise said that her Israeli professor disclosed in the beginning of the year that he sided with Israel but said he would address both sides equally in class.
"He made it clear that he has a viewpoint, but it's not necessarily the correct viewpoint," she said. "He allows us to decide for ourselves."
The Columbia controversy
In one of the most shocking anecdotes in "Columbia Unbecoming," Columbia student Tomy Schoenfeld, an Israeli army veteran, said his professor, Joseph Massad, refused to answer a question he posed in class, instead asking Schoenfeld, "How many Palestinians have you killed?"
The documentary led Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., to call on Columbia to dismiss Massad, a suggestion the university has taken very seriously, spokeswoman Susan Brown said.
Columbia's investigation has "many prongs," she said, including figuring out alternative ways students could report problems with professors.
The students interviewed in the documentary have said they did not file official complaints at Columbia because the complaints would have gone to their professors or the chair of the department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures, and they feared retribution.
"We are having the deans look at mechanisms for resolving grievances, and seeing whether they need to be improved, or have new ones put into place," Brown said.
Columbia's investigations will also address issues beyond just the alleged anti-Semitism, she said.
"[Columbia is] looking at the general climate for free speech on campus across a much broader range of issues, not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but all issues with very strong fabric for civil discourse," she said.
Bias at NYU?
Students and professors involved in NYU's Middle Eastern studies department said anti-Israel sentiments are hardly common on campus, even if in-class conversations can become heated at times.
Brown, the CAS freshman, said her professor helped her shape her own views, rather than imposing them on her.
"The fact that my views are not outwardly pro-Israel or Palestine is a reflection of that," she said.
And that open-mindedness is the goal of NYU professors, said Zachary Lockman, chair of NYU's department of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.
"We work hard to foster an open atmosphere so that students feel free to express their views and defend them rationally," he said. "I would hope that here at NYU we have the kind of atmosphere in the classroom and the community where people can disagree with each other without leveling accusations of anti-Semitism."
Gesher co-chair Besdin said he's taken three "extremely balanced" classes about the Middle East. Yet not all NYU classes concerning the region are free of controversy, he said. In fact, he said students have come up to him during Gesher meetings angry about a professor's comments.
"I tell them to be as educated as possible, and I tell them not to take those things personally," he said. "Find out the facts that are often at your fingertips at the library, and present the other side."
NYU on the Columbia case
Lockman questioned whether Columbia's Middle Eastern program is any more biased than NYU's.
"It seems to me that this [situation] has been blown out of proportion," he said. "It is an attack on a number of respected scholars by people who know that if you accuse people with anti-Semitism, it causes a lot of waves."
Lockman said he was troubled by the way the Columbia students made their allegations.
"Professor Massad and the other professors charged have the right to academic freedom," he said. "It seems to me that the people who made these claims decided not to go through the university channels that are meant to receive this, but instead launched a public campaign, which has a different purpose."
Yet Besdin, who said his friends at Columbia have reported bias in their courses, said that if the charges are true, the Columbia professors' comments would go well beyond honest discourse.
"It's not a question of academic freedom, it's a question of how you treat the issue," Gesher co-chair Besdin said. "Nobody's asking anyone to lie. There's something to be said about presenting both sides of an issue instead of just vilifying one." •
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