Middle East studies in the News
Stifling the spirit of education in America
by Joel Klein
"Lo! body and soul! -- this land! Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships ..."
--Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
New York City is one of the most varicolored and diverse places to be found. It is the cultural mecca of the western hemisphere, a bastion of freedom and liberty where droves of immigrants followed the clarion call, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Situated amongst this magnificent diversity, in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan at 116th and Broadway, the main campus of New York City's only Ivy League school, Columbia University, spans over 32 acres. Columbia, one of the world's foremost universities, is known for its academic excellence and diversity, rivaled by only a handful of schools worldwide.
Enter Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department, otherwise known as MEALAC. Recently, several influential professors and instructors -- namely Joseph Massad, George Saliba and Hamid Dabashi -- in the department have come under a great deal of criticism for making abusive and/or intimidating statements, denying academic freedom and displaying unprofessional behavior. These gentlemen who are under fire are avowedly anti-Israel, and as a whole, the department is under criticism for holding homogeneous views regarding Israel. And now, the university administration is taking heat because of a failure to deal with the situation and in many ways making it worse.
The conflict began with Dr. Edward Said of MEALAC, who died in 2003 and subsequently had a professorship endowed in his name with money from a variety of donors -- the names of whom were concealed for unknown reasons until only recently. One group that contributed $200,000 was the United Arab Emirates, which, among other things, denies the existence of the Holocaust on state TV.
In similar fashion, Harvard's Divinity School received a gift of $2.5 million from the same source, but had the sense to return the money.
Columbia's administrators, however, did not.
The situation intensified when a group known as the David Project helped produce a film titled "Columbia Unbecoming," which aimed to bring the suppression of dissenting pro-Israel viewpoints to the attention of officials at Columbia. The film shows that inside and outside the classroom, students who disagreed with MEALAC professors were silenced or ridiculed.
For instance, George Saliba allegedly told one girl that she was wrong to question his views because, "You have no claim to the land of Israel ... you have green eyes. You're not a Semite. I have brown eyes, I'm a Semite."
Joseph Massad, a professor of Arab politics, said to Tomy Schoenfeld at a public lecture, "How many Palestinians have you killed?" And on another occasion, Massad allegedly said, "If you're going to deny the atrocities committed against the Palestinian people, then you can get out of my classroom."
Aside from these supposedly intolerant and intimidating statements, other radical statements have been made.
For instance, Joseph Massad, in a lecture at Oxford said, "The Jews are not a nation. The Jewish state is a racist state that does not have a right to exist."
And now, to make matters worse, Columbia President Lee Bollinger has started an investigation into these professors' behavior, but as a New York Post writer has shown, "out of five members on Bollinger's committee: two signed an anti-Israel divestment petition, one was the thesis adviser for Joseph Massad ... one has written that Israel is responsible for global anti-Semitism and one is a university administrator who ignored student complaints for months. The man who hand-picked the committee, Nick Dirks, is married to a professor who co-teaches a class with Massad."
It seems that there is a blatant conflict of interest within the committee.
This entire fiasco brings up several very important questions. Do radical and biased personal politics really belong in the classroom? And is this really what academic diversity is about -- calling for the abolition of Israel?
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a difficult, if not impossible, issue to deal with,and it seems that Columbia's MEALAC department is not helping the issue. Rather than the department providing an academic atmosphere in which students can make their own conclusions, students' opinions are silenced, their complaints are not even recognized by the university, and then a biased panel is brought forth to investigate. It just doesn't add up to academic freedom.
Furthermore, at least some effort could be made by the MEALAC department to provide a balanced perspective on the issue, but instead, the primary voices of dissent have come from Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, the David Project and various Internet resources.
Dershowitz wrote, "I strongly believe in academic freedom and freedom of speech, even for those who themselves do not believe in it. Many of those who have insisted on freedom of speech for the one-sided bigots among the Columbia faculty would be the first to deny the same freedom to a pro-Israel professor -- if there were one ...."
Whether or not Dershowitz is correct regarding pro-Israel professors, I don't know. But it does seem that MEALAC professors have been stifling debate by silencing other viewpoints, especially from students.
Finally, whereas some of the professors in the MEALAC department see academic diversity as an opportunity to express their biases and agenda, a better and truer form of diversity would be the presentation of both sides of the conflict, granting students the opportunity to make up their minds for themselves, without a heavy-handed bias or the fear of recrimination.
Systematic bias like this betrays the spirit of true academic freedom, the spirit of diversity, and ultimately, the spirit of America.
Joel Klein is a senior in chemistry. The opinions expressed in his columns, which appear every Monday, do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Barometer staff. Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.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.
Campus Watch contact e-mail: email@example.com