Middle East studies in the News
Controversy Doesn't "Swirl"
by Daniel Harlow
One of the first things taught in our introductory writing course is the danger of false metaphor. I wish to draw attention to a specific example that I have heard rather frequently here at Columbia in the past several months: "swirling controversy." The use of this phrase intentionally disregards the mechanism by which the controversy "swirls"—specific actions by individuals who wish to see more controversy. It is a logical sleight-of-hand, disguising the tenuous foundations of the "controversy" and enabling members of the media and political establishment to justify numerous opinion pieces and front page articles. What seems like a simple rhetorical twist greatly obscures that which should be obvious: a "scandal" that supposedly deals with events at Columbia is being propagated almost exclusively by people outside of the University community.
With that in mind, I would like to briefly share my experience last semester in a lecture course co-taught by MEALAC professor Joseph Massad. Professor Massad's half of the course was an overview of current social history of the area referred to as the Middle East. By the time we reached his first lecture, The David Project's film had already been screened and certain journalists and political activists were calling him things like "intimidating," "vitriolic," and "anti-Semitic."
Our course had two full lectures on Israel/Palestine, as well as several other digressions that were usually motivated by student questions. In the first of these two lectures, professor Massad spent a long time giving us an introduction to 19th century European anti-Semitism and the hypocrisies thereof. He used this discussion to set the context for an exposition of the early Zionist movement, during which he relied chiefly on primary sources like Theodore Herzl.
He began the second lecture with a discussion of the post---World War II status of European Jews, not omitting the unwillingness of European states to take back Jews freed from concentration camps and the ensuing refugee problem that was solved to a large extent by emigration to Israel. In addition, he cited current Israeli academic sources to explain how the post-independence Israeli state systematically and openly discriminated against non-Jews, both legally and economically.
Professor Massad was asked many questions, some of which were intended to provoke support for Israeli claims, and he answered them respectfully and factually. Throughout the course he was very forthcoming and open to student concerns, even patiently listening to my confused attempts to criticize the reading list for half-an-hour during his office hours. I spoke to many students in my class, some of whom consider themselves supporters of Israel, and while not all shared my positive feelings towards the course, I did not meet or hear about anyone who felt personally demeaned, intimidated, or made unwelcome.
Whatever shortcomings professor Massad might have as a lecturer, there is no way that the crass caricature presented in the media can square with my classroom experience. The people who demonize him are successful only because their use of dodgy language hides the real basis of their claims, thus avoiding the need to support these claims in a manner satisfactory to an audience that doesn't already agree with their agenda. I do not doubt that some members of the campus community have legitimate concerns, but nobody is more hurt than they when their situation is hijacked by external sources and epistemologically mutilated beyond recognition. I believe that anyone who really wishes to understand what is going on in this situation must first consider three things: what is being said, who is saying it, and on what actual events they are basing their statements. Writers at the NY Daily News may consider hearsay and conjecture sufficient evidence for sensationalist headlines; I hope that we in academia can do better.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in physics and math.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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