Middle East studies in the News
Politics of Middle East play out in class fracas
by Stevenson Swanson
NEW YORK -- The Upper West Side of Manhattan may be half a world away from the Middle East, but a bitter war of words has turned the narrow campus of Columbia University into a miniature Gaza Strip, riven by divisions between supporters of the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
Jewish students charge that three professors in the university's Middle East & Jewish Studies department have ridiculed and intimidated them for making pro-Israel remarks, violating their rights as students to express opinions contrary to those of their professors.
The allegations reflect the growing scrutiny that Middle East studies departments across the country are facing from pro-Israel groups that claim Arab or Islamic professors are slanting their courses to favor the Palestinian side, sometimes to the point of challenging Israel's right to exist.
But nowhere is that scrutiny more public--or more heated--than on the one-block-wide quadrangle of Columbia's main campus.
"They're trying to create a hegemony of ideas," said senior Ariel Beery, 25, referring to the professors at the center of the debate. "They're not allowing students to debate them or to disagree with some of their premises without attacking them in a personal manner."
The university's Middle East & Jewish Studies department was the subject of a highly critical documentary this fall by a Boston-based pro-Israel group, and university President Lee Bollinger named a committee of Columbia academics in December to investigate the students' charges and decide whether the three professors should be disciplined.
Floyd Abrams, a noted 1st Amendment lawyer, will advise the committee, which probably will not issue its findings before the end of February.
"In the classroom, students as well as faculty share in the inherent right to explore and to speak to the subject under discussion," Bollinger, formerly president of the University of Michigan, said in the statement announcing the committee. "I believe it is imperative that we see students as colleagues in the pursuit of knowledge."
Far from being treated as colleagues, some students of professor Joseph Massad, one of the faculty members under scrutiny, say he berates and humiliates those who challenge him.
A female student who asked him whether Israeli authorities warned Palestinians before destroying the residences of suspected terrorists said he cut her off and told her that he would not allow her to deny Israeli "atrocities" in his class.
Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics, reportedly asked another student who identified himself as a former Israeli soldier how many Palestinians he had killed.
Another faculty member at the center of the controversy is professor George Saliba, a specialist in the history of Arabic and Islamic science, who reportedly told a student that her opinion about Israel was not valid because she had green eyes and was not a "true Semite."
And professor Hamid Dabashi, the former chairman of Columbia's Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, reportedly has said that Israel is a "ghastly state of racism and apartheid" that "must be dismantled."
These accounts of the three professors' actions and beliefs are included in "Columbia Unbecoming," a 20-minute documentary produced by the David Project, a Boston-based group that says its mission is to make sure the Israeli position is fairly represented in college classes.
Professors rebut claims
The professors deny the students' accusations.
"I have been maliciously slandered," Dabashi said in an e-mail message, adding that his relationship with his students has always been "one of mutual respect, irrespective of their gender, nationality, or religious identity."
As for his comments about dismantling Israel, Dabashi said the quotes were taken out of context and that he opposes "any sort of religious state," including a "Christian empire," Islamic republic or Jewish state.
Saliba wrote a rebuttal in the student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, in which he said he did not remember making a remark about the student's eye color disqualifying her from having a valid opinion about Israel.
"What seems to have happened is probably a misquotation of an argument I sometimes make," wrote Saliba, who was unavailable for an interview. "The gist of it would be to say that being born in a specific religion, or converting to one, is not the same as inheriting the color of one's eyes from one's parents and thus does not produce evidence of land ownership of a specific real estate."
In responding to a request for an interview, Massad referred to a statement on his faculty Web site, where he calls the controversy "a witch hunt."
"The aim of the David Project propaganda film is to undermine our academic freedom, our freedom of speech, and Columbia's tradition of openness and pluralism," he says on the Web site.
The documentary, first shown at Columbia in late October, is not available to the public. Charles Jacobs, president of the David Project, said the film was intended to be shown mainly to university administrators and trustees so they would take the issue seriously.
"It's our opinion that a professor should be allowed to have any point of view," Jacobs said. "But you don't tell people to shut up because you don't agree with me. It's very intimidating. If you're a student, you need good grades and you need letters of recommendation from these professors."
Since the campus screenings of "Columbia Unbecoming," more students have come forward with allegations that the professors made intimidating remarks, according to Beery, the Columbia student, who is president of the student body of one of Columbia's undergraduate colleges.
"They have been degrading and dehumanizing and disrespecting and completely overstepping the modes of behavior that they should stick to when they have such incredibly important positions of responsibility," said Beery, an Israeli who is studying economics and political science.
Others have rallied to support the professors. More than 700 scholars from around the world signed a petition backing Massad. And a newly formed student group at Columbia, the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend Academic Freedom, disputes many of the charges of intimidation.
History student Leeam Azulay-Yagev, also an Israeli, called Dabashi and Saliba two of her favorite professors.
"These professors do not intimidate anyone," she said. "They are thought-provoking, yes, but I have never seen them treat anyone with anything but respect and a willingness to listen."
Jacobs, the David Project head, sees the Columbia dispute as one example among many nationwide. His group is planning to make similar films about other, unnamed universities.
For Columbia, however, the controversy goes to the heart of the university ethos--the balance between a professor's right to express unpopular views and a student's right to challenge those views.
"Academic freedom is something that is basic to free inquiry, but it's not an unlimited principle," said university spokeswoman Susan Brown. "So the question is: When does a professor cross the line?"
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