Middle East studies in the News
In the Name of Academic Freedom
by Bari Weiss
If the signers of the Joseph Massad Academic Freedom Petition really believe in what they are signing, then they will have no choice but to stand in support of the students' message behind the documentary "Columbia Unbecoming." Contrary to what some people would like to believe, "Columbia Unbecoming" is not a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not about The Right versus The Left. It is most certainly not about Muslims versus Jews, although the fact that some are calling this a "racist witch-hunt of Arab and Muslim professors" might lead you to believe otherwise.
To be sure, the process by which the film was brought to the public was problematic. Bringing personal accusations by students against professors to the media opened up specific professors to offensive responses. Moshe Rubin's vicious e-mail, as reported in Spectator ("Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar.") is completely appalling. However, these obstacles do not undermine the message of academic freedom and intellectual diversity. Despite the fact that this petition was crafted and signed when they had not yet seen the film, the author and the signers of the Joseph Massad Academic Freedom Petition led people to believe that the film's message is actually about fundamentalism and censorship.
When students are not allowed to voice their opinions, let alone pose questions to their professors, the classroom is no longer a "site of engaged reflection and unsettling debate," as the petition says, but a censored environment where the silencing of dissenting beliefs is acceptable. This film shares the testimonials of students who are standing up for the values of diversity and academic freedom. Their stories challenge Columbia to once again become a place where the voices of all students have a place in the discourse. They force us to examine whether Columbia, and the Middel Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures department specifically, houses professors that offer different perspectives and display a true regard for the academic process.
But perhaps these students don't have a right to speak up. If one looks at the petition, it seems to call their very ability to represent themselves into question. It reads, "this campaign is fed by false and baseless accusations on the part of self-appointed individuals and organizations who claim for themselves a legitimacy or a representativity they never gained." Huh? I didn't realize that students do not have a right to represent themselves. Perhaps Jewish students need to earn the right to be heard as legitimate voices at Columbia.
While I am disgusted by the anti-Semitic comments that cover the petition, I will take seriously the petition's signers who claim to support the notion of academic freedom. For example one signer writes, "Academic and intellectual freedom is for everyone! Not only for those who toe the line." The author is right. Indeed, academic freedom should be for everyone. What this student fails to realize is that, in MEALAC, many professors are only presenting one narrative and are failing to provide a window for other perspectives, and by doing so, are forcing students to toe their own line. In the name of academic and intellectual freedom, students should have the opportunity to engage with other avenues of thought, and certainly not be shot down when they question a professor's point of view.
If the University is indeed to be a place of "vigorous intellectual exchange," students and professors both among their own constituencies and with one another, must learn to debate and even (gasp!) disagree. Columbians, do not let yourselves be fooled by those who wish to polarize this debate and hijack the banner of liberal values and academic freedom. Let us all take heed to the words of another signer of the petition who writes, "The sign of civilization is the tolerance of opposing views." I could not agree more.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.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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