Middle East studies in the News
Charges of anti-Israel bias rock Columbia
by Sarah Breger
Columbia University has found itself the center of media attention after the release of a controversial documentary depicting discrimination by professors against pro-Israel students on campus.
The film, called Columbia Unbecoming, chronicles students' claims of bias and intimidation by professors of Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department when the students expressed their support of Israel. While the 25-minute documentary was first screened in November, its effects are still resonating on Columbia's campus.
The issue prompted Israeli Ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon to withdraw last week from an international conference scheduled to take place at Columbia. Watchdog groups from across the nation have been drawn to the campus to observe the controversy.
However, the administration's troubles may be just beginning.
"We are aware that the administration has been aware of these problems for years and has done nothing about it," Columbia sophomore Bari Weiss said.
Weiss is a co-founder of Columbians for Academic Freedom, an organization that supports the documentary and is fighting to ensure "that the administration does not have the opportunity to whitewash" the problem of student intimidation by faculty.
Accusations made by the students in the film vary in degree and context.
They include a professor telling his class, "The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi."
Professor Joseph Massad has found himself the center of the accusations. He was mentioned in the documentary as asking a student who served in the Israeli Army in a lecture, "How many Palestinians have you killed?"
Massad has also been accused of ridiculing students' questions and telling one pro-Israel student to get out of his classroom.
He has released a statement on his Web site defending his actions but would not comment further this week.
"The witch-hunt aims to stifle pluralism, academic freedom and the freedom of expression on university campuses in order to ensure that only one opinion is permitted, that of uncritical support of the State of Israel," Massad wrote in the statement.
Massad has been forced to cancel his popular "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies" class, he said, because of fear of criticism and the risk of jeopardizing his tenure. He and other professors who are cited in the film have received threatening phone calls and e-mails.
At Columbia, many professors have deemed the charges unfounded and a threat to their academic right of free speech.
Students studying in Penn's Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department, however, said they do not see bias or intimidation in the classroom here.
"Generally Penn is very good at trying to provide an educational environment without intimidation from professors," said College junior Alex Chester, who is president of Penn's Pro-Israel Activism Committee.
Chester, who factored in Columbia's alleged anti-Israel bias when deciding which college to attend, said that while it is unavoidable for professors' opinions to seep into the classroom, he has seen a conscious effort made by most Penn professors to be balanced.
In an attempt to diffuse the situation, Columbia has formed a faculty ad hoc committee to investigate the charges of bias and intimidation.
However, critics are charging that the committee is made up of faculty who have strong connections to Columbia's MEALAC faculty and known political biases against Israel.
Weiss says her organization is dedicated to showing "how unfair this committee is -- both through the media and on campus."
Several Columbia students have declined to appear in person before the committee, either because of fears of academic retribution or disapproval of the composition of the committee.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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