Middle East studies in the News
Bias of Massad Is Being Noted in His Classes
by Jacob Gershman
Israel is: a) a Jewish supremacist state, b) the worst human-rights abuser in the Middle East, c) a major factor preventing the democratization of the Arab region, or d) all of the above.
If you answered "d," you would fit right in at a core-curriculum course at Columbia University taught by an assistant professor of modern Arab politics, Joseph Massad, who is a rising star of the university's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures.
Mr. Massad, author of the forthcoming book "The Persistence of the Palestinian Question," is best known as one of the Columbia scholars whose alleged mistreatment of Jewish students is at the center of a campus controversy that has attracted national attention from Jewish and academic leaders.
Though the dispute has focused on allegations of intimidation and harassment of students, the more common criticism brought up by students of Mr. Massad has to do not with the appropriateness of his conduct, but with the quality and content of his teaching.
Students of his say he is relentless in his condemnations of Israel and America, even in a course he taught in the fall called Topics in Asian Civilization, in which Israel, at least according to the syllabus, plays only a minor role.
Mr. Massad is not without his admirers. For some Columbia undergraduates, Mr. Massad's political convictions are his primary appeal.
"Many students take offense at the very quality that makes Massad such a brilliant academic and honest, effective teacher," one anonymous student posted on a Web site that collects reviews of Columbia professors and courses. "He neither claims nor supports purported academic 'objectivity.' He holds an intellectual conviction and offers rational, clear, and cogent arguments."
For other students, like sophomore Bari Weiss, taking one of his courses can be "suffocating."
In the fall semester, she was a student in Topics in Asian Civilization. Mr. Massad taught the second half and was responsible for covering a history of the Middle East from the beginnings of Islam to 20th-century Arab nationalism.
"The course was supposed to be all about the Middle East," Ms. Weiss said. "The amount of time he spent talking about Zionism or the Jewish nation or Jewish culture was inappropriate."
In previous semesters, Mr. Massad taught a seminar course on the Middle East conflict, but "under the duress of coercion and intimidation" he chose not to teach it this academic year, he wrote on his university Web site. One student who took the course in 2002, Deena Shanker, said Mr. Massad told her to leave the class if she persisted in denying that Israel committed atrocities against Palestinians. Mr. Massad, who refuses to speak to The New York Sun, has denied mistreating any students and has accused his critics of trying to censor his political views.
According to three students' course notes from Topics in Asian Civilization, including ones Ms. Weiss took, Mr. Massad in his lectures repeatedly likened Israel to apartheid South Africa, dismissed its legitimacy as a Jewish state, and almost never addressed human rights abuses in countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The other two students whose notes were obtained by the Sun did not want their names to be used in this article.
"I was shocked knowing what was going on in the Middle East and the egregious human-rights violations that the professor either glossed over them or ignored them completely," Ms. Weiss, 20, said. She is one of the students who have pressed Columbia to investigate the conduct of professors in the Middle East studies department.
"In nearly all of his lectures, professor Massad found a way to denounce Israel and the West," Ms. Weiss, who received an "A" for the course, said.
"We were not presented with any material that argued that Zionism is not racist," she said.
Topics in Asian Civilization is required for students who major in Middle East studies, and it also can be used by all Columbia undergraduates to help fulfill their "major cultures" requirement, which makes up part of the university's renowned core curriculum. One hundred and sixty-five students enrolled in the course, according to Columbia's online course bulletin.
The first half of the course, which focuses on South Asia, is taught by Janaki Bakhle. She is the wife of a history professor, Nicholas Dirks, who is Columbia's vice president for arts and sciences and is responsible for overseeing a faculty committee that is investigating the complaints against the professors in the Middle East studies department.
Mr. Massad says in a course description distributed to students that its purpose is not "to give you a comprehensive history" of the Middle East but will "pay attention to gender, religion, and politics in both pre-modern and modern periods." The words Zionism and Israel do not appear in the description.
Among the books assigned in the course are Edward Said's "Orientalism," the late Columbia scholar's landmark book attacking Western scholarship; Albert Hourani's "A History of the Arab Peoples," and As'ad Abukhalil's "The Battle for Saudi Arabia."
The one assigned book on Israel is "Israel, a Colonial Settler State?" by a French Marxist scholar, Maxime Rodinson. The book includes a map of 1967 Israel that is labeled "Palestine," and makes the argument that Jews have as much right to Israel as Arabs have to Spain.
"If there is any chance of someday seeing a peaceful solution," the author, who was Jewish, wrote in the book's conclusion, "it will not be achieved by telling the Arabs that it is their duty to applaud their conquerors because they are Europeans or are in the process of becoming Europeanized, because they are 'advanced,' because they are revolutionary or (almost) socialist, and, even less, simply because they are Jews!"
According to Ms. Weiss's notes, on the day the book was discussed, Mr. Massad told students that Jews accepted in the 19th century the racist European notion that Jews are a race and not a religion. He also spoke of how modern European Zionists promulgated "myths" to make their claim to the land of Palestine. Under the heading "Zionist myth," Ms. Weiss writes: "1. Ancient Hebrews of Palestine lived exclusively in Palestine. 2. Mod. Euro. Jews are direct biological descendants of Hebrews. 3. Based on #1 and #2, Mod. Euro. Jews have exclusive rights to Palestine."
In that class, Mr. Massad also described how Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, made an alliance with "anti-Semites" to "help kick Euro Jews out," Ms. Weiss's notes state.
According to another student's notes, Mr. Massad told the class a joke about Zionism to drive home the notion that it was a fringe movement among Jews. "What makes a Zionist a Zionist? A Jew who asks a Jew to send a third Jew to Palestine," the professor said, according to the notes.
Later in the course, according to the notes, Mr. Massad argued that Zionism did not preserve Jewish culture and failed as a political movement because of the amount of violence that Jews have suffered since Israel's founding.
"Israel today place where Jews are most likely to be killed due to anti-Semitism," Ms. Weiss wrote.
Mr. Massad, who in his writings has argued that Palestinians ought to continue their "resistance" against Israel, often spoke in class of Israeli victims of Palestinian violence as unintended targets. For example, in discussing the 1974 Palestinian takeover of an Israeli school in Ma'alot that resulted in the deaths of 21 Jewish students, Mr. Massad said "civilian children died in the crossfire" when Israeli troops stormed the school.
In one of his few references to terrorism, Mr. Massad told students, in a lecture about Saudi Arabia's influence on the Palestine Liberation Organization, that in the 1950s "Israelis introduced plane hijackings to the region," according to a student's notes.
The professor portrayed Wahhabism, the radical strain of Islam whose followers include Osama bin Laden, as no more fundamentalist than Protestantism and Calvinism.
In a lecture on gender in the Middle East, Ms. Weiss noted, Mr. Massad described President Bush as a "colonial feminist," defining the term as a person who "pushes for" women's rights overseas, "but not at home."
He accused Western critics who speak out against the abuse of women in Islamic countries of seeking to blame "Islam for all crimes done by Muslims," the notes state.
"In trying to discuss how we in the West exoticize women's role in Islamic countries, he posed the question, 'Why is wearing the hijab any more oppressive than having to cover your shoulders in America,' " Ms. Weiss said.
In making the case that women play an important role in Palestinian politics, Mr. Massad told students that Palestinian women helped distribute food supplies to "guerrillas," according to Ms. Weiss's notes. He also offered up the example of Leila Khaled, the Arab woman who hijacked a TWA plane in 1969.
On his Web site, Mr. Massad defends his teaching style. "Many of my Jewish and non-Jewish students (including my Arab students) differ with me in all sorts of ways, whether on politics or on philosophy or theory," he wrote. "This is exactly what teaching and learning are about, how to articulate differences and understand other perspectives while acquiring knowledge, how to analyze one's own perspective and those of others, how to interrogate the basis of an opinion."
Ms. Weiss expresses a different view of Mr. Massad's course and his department.
"It's suffocating to be told to think about history through one grand theory," the student said. "It is assumed in this department that this is the way you think about history."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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