Campus Watch in the Media
Rabbi Says Professors 'Attacked' Him
by Jacob Gershman
Columbia University students aren't the only ones who say they've been mistreated by anti-Israel professors at the school.
Rabbi Charles Sheer, who was the university's Jewish chaplain between 1969 and 2004, says faculty members in the Middle East studies department "personally attacked" him in the pages of the student newspaper after he publicly questioned the actions of professors who canceled classes in honor of a major anti-Israel protest on campus.
Rabbi Sheer says he wrote an article critical of the class cancellations in the Columbia Spectator in April 2002 to generate conversation about boundaries between academic learning and political activism.
His article elicited a furious reaction from two professors in the department who denounced the rabbi for questioning their right to cancel class.
One of the professors who canceled class, Hamid Dabashi, wrote in the Columbia Spectator that Rabbi Sheer "has taken upon himself the task of mobilizing and spearheading a crusade of fear and intimidation against members of the Columbia faculty and students who have dared to speak against the slaughter of innocent Palestinians.
"In a succession of rude and intrusive interventions, he has launched a campaign of terror and disinformation reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition against me and other members of Columbia and Barnard faculty who have dared to speak in terms contrary to his political views," continued Mr. Dabashi, who was chairman of the department at the time of writing the letter. He stepped down as chairman at the beginning of the 2004-05 academic year.
Mr. Dabashi accused the rabbi of harassing him and others who believe that Zionism is a "ghastly racist ideology."
Professor George Saliba, who also teaches in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, wrote a letter to the Spectator in which he spoke about the benefits that students received by attending the rally, which was staged by a variety of anti-Israel groups on Israel's independence day.
"Rabbi Sheer cites several conditions under which a class could be canceled, of course including religious holidays, but obviously not including attendance at a political rally where both students and faculty could benefit from access to accurate information on the Middle East that is never reported by the newspapers 'of record' nor is it even allowed to be reported by any member of the press as Ariel Sharon's army prohibited access to the press when he was committing his massacres in Jenin and for days, now weeks, after that," wrote Mr. Saliba.
Messrs. Dabashi and Saliba are among the professors in the department whose alleged inappropriate conduct toward students is under investigation by the university. Some students have accused the professors in the department of intimidating Jewish students and suppressing opinions in the classroom that are favorable to Israel.
Both professors deny that they have mistreated students.
Rabbi Sheer, who until last year was the director of Columbia and Barnard's Hillel and who now teaches a course on the bible at City College, told The New York Sun that Mr. Dabashi's response to his article was a "classical illustration of intimidation."
"If you have any question whether or not these folks will intimidate students in the privacy of the classroom, here they are doing this in public to an adult and rabbi," he said.
Mr. Dabashi did not respond to a request for comment.
The David Project, the pro-Israel group in Boston that documented student complaints in the 25-minute film "Columbia Unbecoming," has recently interviewed Rabbi Sheer for an addendum to the film that is expected to be completed in a couple of weeks.
Rabbi Sheer said he did not expect his article, which did not identify any of the professors, to elicit such reaction. The article recommends that university officials "ponder" whether the professors' behavior was "acceptable."
He said "three or four" classes were canceled on the day of the protest.
According to one of Mr. Dabashi's students at the time, Scott Schonfeld, the professor did not notify students that class would be canceled. On the day of the class, teaching assistants wearing black armbands came in to alert students of the protest and that Mr. Dabashi would be speaking.
The day after the protest, Mr. Dabashi wrote to students apologizing for causing them "any inconvenience" but was unrepentant about joining the protest.
"Let me assert categorically that if there is another occasion when performing my moral duty prevents me from being in my class I will repeat what I did yesterday, cherish the privilege of doing so, and regrettably reschedule my class," he wrote in the email obtained by the Sun.
Rabbi Sheer says that several weeks after his article appeared in the student newspaper he met with university officials, including the dean of the School of International Public Affairs, Lisa Anderson, to talk about his concerns over the professors' behavior.
Ms. Anderson is a member of the committee appointed by President Lee Bollinger that is looking into the student complaints against the Middle East studies professors.
Rabbi Sheer said he was told that the professors hadn't violated any university policy and that if students had complaints, they should take them to the dean of academic affairs.
In light of the recent student complaints, Columbia officials have said they intend to make changes to the university's grievance policies to better handle student complaints.Note: Postings in "Campus Watch in the Media" do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch.
Campus Watch contact e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org