Middle East studies in the News
Mideast Tensions Are Getting Personal on Campus at Columbia
by N.R. Kleinfield
As students resume classes at Columbia University today after their winter break, they will face the telltale summonses of college life: Go to class, surf the Internet, sleep, pursue romance, sleep.
And a new one: Testify about the alleged misconduct of their professors.
Every Monday and Friday until its work is done, a novel faculty panel will make itself available to hear narratives from students and faculty members in the hope of sorting out a virulent dispute that has rattled the university for months. If anything is clear in this very unclear quarrel, ostensibly over supposed intimidation of Jewish students by pro-Palestinian professors in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, it is that it has already produced some unbecoming fallout.
It has led one professor, who denounces the whole matter as a "witch hunt," to abandon one of his signature courses. It has prompted a faculty member in the medical school, not at all directly involved, to send an e-mail message to an implicated professor that he is a "pathetic typical Arab liar" and should leave the country. There have been death threats. Students have been labeled as "ignorant" and "liars" by teachers. Perhaps it is not surprising that one professor caught in the whirlpool came down with shingles.
Academic squabbles often go this way, packed with more crass melodrama than the worst reality shows. Clashes in the inherently ungentle halls of academia inevitably touch raw nerves when the context is the tinderbox of the Middle East, when personal identity can be at stake. For some members of the Columbia community on the sidelines, this is gripping theater. As one professor blithely put it, "This is blood sport for me, and I love it."
Determining the boundaries of this dispute is a slippery exercise. At root it is about some Jewish students and recent graduates, who could number several dozen, contending that in recent years they felt mocked and marginalized by pro-Palestinian professors. They have not, however, pointed to any grade retribution. Complaints of this sort have buzzed around campus for some time, but the issue flared into international news in late October, when the news media was shown a film, "Columbia Unbecoming," which had been made at the behest of unhappy Jewish students at Columbia by a pro-Israel group in Boston called the David Project.
The quarrel has also become about whether the department in question, known by the acronym Mealac, is heavily unbalanced in favor of Palestinian sympathizers, not that anyone entirely agrees what "balance" means in academia and whether it is even warranted. And the whole matter has come to be wrapped in the broader cloth of academic freedom.
In no small way, it has also evolved into a test for Columbia's president, Lee C. Bollinger, himself a target of considerable criticism over his handling of the matter.
The dispute has led to abstruse questions being posed, like, "Can a professor officially intimidate a student who is not his student?"
The Columbia contretemps is perhaps the most public expression of a polarization that also festers at other campuses. Indeed, the David Project intends to do films elsewhere, and said that early interviews have already been shot. A somewhat similar dispute happened in 2002 at the University of Chicago, though its provost, Richard P. Saller, said the allegations were more vague and largely judged untrue - one professor had the very good alibi of being in Mongolia at the time of an alleged incident - and the resolution reasonably tidy.
Some Columbia accusations are quite specific, though hard to evaluate stripped of fuller context, but several faculty members say they feel something is there. Dan Miron, a pro-Israel professor in the Mealac department, said that for five years dozens of Jewish students have told him of "rude" and "snotty" treatment by colleagues. "These students didn't look like disturbed people who would invent these things," he said.
The half-hour Columbia film, which has been expanded from its original version, shows 14 students and Rabbi Charles Sheer, who recently retired as director of Columbia's Hillel chapter and who says he has heard numerous intimidation complaints. Some students in the film point to certain shortcomings. It conflates professors' inflammatory written passages with faculty-student friction, muddling what is being contested, and just 6 of the 14 students speak firsthand of incidents.
Two allegations have gained the most traction. One involves a sidewalk encounter between Lindsay Shrier, who has since graduated, and her professor, George Saliba, during which she says he told her that because she had green eyes she was not a Semite and could not claim ancestral ties to Israel. The second transpired at a small lecture off campus at which Tomy Schoenfeld, a student who had served in the Israeli Army, says that when he tried to question Prof. Joseph Massad, the professor first asked him, "How many Palestinians have you killed?"
In a response printed in the campus newspaper, The Columbia Spectator, Professor Saliba said he did not recall the conversation but believed that Ms. Shrier misunderstood. Professor Massad said through an e-mail message, "It is inconceivable that I would ever respond to a member of the audience in the manner and context that he describes."
Another much-discussed assertion involves Deena Shanker, a Barnard senior not in the film. She said that Professor Massad sometimes ridiculed her questions and during one class exchange yelled at her to get out. (She stayed.) "People in the class were like blown away," she said. At least one other student agrees with this account. In another e-mail message, Professor Massad said Ms. Shanker's version is an "outright lie."
'One Big Fish Soup'
Somewhere in the backdrop to all of this, many feel, is the long shadow of Edward Said, the outspoken advocate for Palestinians and Columbia scholar, who died in 2003, and the increasingly vocal, pro-Palestinian viewpoint at Columbia and other campuses in recent years.
Rashid Khalidi, the director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, said he thinks too many things are being dumped into "one big fish soup" that inflates the student complaints. "Have some students felt intimidated?" he said. "Sure. But should we all be getting our knickers in a twist and agitated? I think not."
He added: "It's particularly piquant to me to hear people who have never taken a Mealac course talking about this. It's like me talking about the astrophysics department."
Three professors, in particular, have been joined at the center of this storm: Professor Massad, Professor Saliba and Professor Hamid Dabashi. The allegations against them, at least those made public so far, vary in texture. Professor Saliba, who teaches Arabic and Islamic science, has chiefly come up for the "green eye" incident. Professor Dabashi has been mentioned for canceling a class to answer his "moral duty" to attend a Palestinian rally and seems implicated chiefly for his published political viewpoints.
Professor Massad, however, fills a category of his own. More complaints have been directed against him. Some students refer to one of his courses as "Israel Is Racist." He is also the most vulnerable, the only one lacking tenure.
Yet all three have been affected. Professor Dabashi, who was born in Iran, said he has become self-conscious about what he says and has canceled several appearances.
"I feel a duty to spread criticism of things I don't believe in," he said. "But I'm wondering for what? A two-headed monster is being made out of me." He replaced the greeting on his voice mail message with a generic one in the hope of dissuading the surge of hate calls. A month ago, he said, he contracted a case of shingles, a virus that has symptoms that can be worsened by stress.
What's most painful to him, he said, is students questioning his two children, both Columbia undergraduates, about his beliefs. He said he tells them, "Stay away from politics."
"To me, these are dark ages," he said. "This is not the United States I moved into in 1976. I don't recognize it. I'm in sort of moral shock."
Professor Massad, a Jordanian-born Palestinian, said he, too, has been swamped with hate mail, defiled as a "camel jockey" and "Islamic Fascist." He said nonenrolled hecklers attend his lectures to provoke him. He said he has chosen not to teach his most controversial course, "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies," in the coming semester, because of the emotional toll and because he worries it might jeopardize his tenure.
In a recent class, when a student's cellphone rang, Professor Massad did reach for humor by telling her he would not order her to leave, the protocol of his co-teacher, because he did not want to intimidate her.
As for the students, Ariel Beery, the School of General Studies student body president and a proponent of the film, mentioned that classmates sometimes taunt him as a "fascist" and "racist."
Dozens of Mealac students, including Jewish and pro-Israel undergraduates, have come forth to defend the professors. "I've had an overwhelmingly positive experience with the department," said Erin Pineda, a Barnard junior and Mealac major. "Sometimes even I don't like some of the answers I get. But that's a far cry from intimidation. By its nature, this is not like a biology department."
Why this dichotomy? Some anti-Mealac professors say the pro-Mealac students have been indoctrinated. Some pro-Mealac professors say the anti-Mealac students are, in effect, hicks, products of sheltered environments where pro-Palestinian views are absent. One faculty member suggested that there is "no underestimating how ignorant college students are."
Ms. Shanker, who grew up in the small town of Goshen, N.Y., where, she said, Israel is rarely discussed, said to this point: "I think that argument is ludicrous. We're not idiots."
Balanced vs. Unbalanced
A curious facet of the dispute is that for the most part, the complaining students seem much less angry than people on the periphery. For instance, Mr. Schoenfeld, who took only a few Mealac courses and has graduated, said he has no problem with the department and did not find it unbalanced. He does not think Professor Massad should be fired.
On the other hand, an assistant professor in the medical school sent an e-mail message to Professor Massad, saying: "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."
Alan Brinkley, Columbia's provost, told the school's dean to advise the professor that such messages are unacceptable.
Many Columbia professors are worried foremost about the implications for academic freedom.
"I've been teaching 33 years and I've always thought we all knew what was appropriate faculty deportment," said Andrew J. Nathan, a political science professor who is dubious about the students' charges. "Now it is not clear to everyone that the classroom is where the faculty is in full control. I teach a course called Introduction to Human Rights. We had a whole week on the torture memos of the Bush administration. Now I'm starting to wonder whether there's somebody in my class of 143 students who might grieve against me, that I indoctrinated them, that they went through emotional suffering to hear about these things."
Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences, said: "Many professors have offensive opinions. If the answer to whether you can have those opinions is no, then we're cooked as an institution."
Mr. Bollinger has been assailed by faculty members for too weakly defending the rights of professors and failing to contain the controversy. They suspect he is boxed in by the demands of fund-raising and the university's ambitions to expand its campus. "There has been an administrative silence," Professor Pollack said, "when there should be a ringing endorsement of academic freedom."
Mr. Bollinger, who said he finds the dispute "very painful," maintained that he is trying to safeguard both faculty and student rights. "Many people, perhaps understandably, do not grasp what's at stake," he said. "They see one side of it, one aspect of it. This can't be reduced to a single line of thought."
Pro-Israel professors on campus, who have been conspicuously quiet, say they feel cowed and nervously out of fashion. "Many Jewish faculty members feel uncomfortable with this whole issue and wish it would go away," said Stephanie G. Neuman, a senior research scholar and the director of the university's comparative defense studies program, who has taught at Columbia since the 1970's. "Most of them come out of the same leftist, assimilationist background as I do. We're uncomfortable with the idea that the left has abandoned Israel and maybe abandoned Jews. We're in cognitive dissonance."
It is impossible to gauge the institutional damage from the quarrel. Some faculty members say alumni have told them they will withhold donations. Other professors say some parents are directing their children elsewhere. "Parents of Jewish students have said to me, given the turmoil at Columbia, I think I'll send my kid to Penn," one professor said.
Mr. Bollinger says he doubts repercussions will be pronounced. One thing the university has promised is to construct better grievance procedures, even though administration officials said students rarely grouse about professors. And Mr. Bollinger says the university has more work to do to in enriching the curriculum and adding to the scholarship in the Middle East department.
A Panel's Tall Task
The five-member faculty committee investigating this dispute has itself been maligned, especially by those displeased with the Mealac department. They contend that the committee includes insiders disposed toward the accused professors, including some who have signed Israel-divestment petitions. Some students from the film are considering not talking to the panel. Mr. Bollinger said he has faith in its composition.
Clearly, the panel faces a tall task. Some incidents reduce to a student's word against a professor's. There is the matter of what constitutes intimidation. Some faculty members argue that a professor cannot intimidate someone who is not his student, because the professor wields no power. If the committee agrees, that would toss out the Tomy Schoenfeld allegation, since he was not in Professor Massad's class.
The committee hopes to sort through this dispute by the end of February. No one imagines its conclusions will be the final word. The fight is too pitched and will not stop.
The other day, Mr. Bollinger said he found viewpoints of Professor Dabashi "deeply personally offensive."
Asked to respond, Professor Dabashi came back: "I find him 10 times more outrageous. What sort of president is he?"
"It's time we need to step back," Ms. Shanker said. "It's getting personal. I actually really like the Mealac department. But I've been called a liar. I'm not even sure how to react to that. This is getting ridiculous."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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