Middle East studies in the News
Some Limits on Speech in Classrooms
by Joyce Purnick
While Columbia University struggles to find the line between academic freedom and unacceptable classroom behavior, the city's Department of Education has found a facile but provocative solution: banish the guy.
Earlier this month, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein barred Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, from again lecturing to city teachers enrolled in a professional development course because of "a number of things he's said in the past," said Michael Best, the department's general counsel. Asked if the department had verified those purported remarks, Mr. Best did not answer directly: "He's denied saying certain things; he has not denied saying others."
Set against the backdrop of a simmering campus dispute over Jewish students' charges of intimidation by pro-Palestinian teachers, the Khalidi affair has inevitably been linked to the larger controversy. "In this feeding frenzy for finding culprits, he sort of got lumped in with others, and it's been unfair to him," said Ari L. Goldman, dean of students at Columbia's journalism school.
Mr. Klein's decision has provoked a debate about academic freedom and charges of a McCarthy-like witch hunt. But it has also won praise for Mr. Klein and, implicitly, for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who was consulted in this election year.
And now it has brought a sharp rebuke from Columbia's president, Lee C. Bollinger, who has been under faculty pressure to boldly address the Middle East studies dispute. In a letter to the chancellor, he threatened to withdraw the university's sponsorship of the course unless the ouster was "resolved" somehow.
"The department's decision to dismiss Professor Khalidi from the program was wrong and violates First Amendment principles," Mr. Bollinger wrote Thursday. "The decision was based solely on his purported political views and was made without any consultation and apparently without any review of the facts."
Jerry Russo, a spokesman for Mr. Klein, said, "This is a matter of professional development for teachers as opposed to an issue of academic freedom."
But the matter is largely symbolic, since Professor Khalidi has already given his lecture in the 12-week university-financed course on teaching about the Middle East. "He spoke on geography and demography," said Mark Willner, the program's creator and social studies chairman at Midwood High School in Brooklyn. "There was nothing controversial, nothing political."
There are no known complaints about Professor Khalidi from the schoolteachers, and he has won student praise at Columbia. In fact, Charles Jacobs, who heads the pro-Israeli group that first raised complaints of intimidation in Columbia classrooms, said Professor Khalidi "was not at all criticized. Students said he was the opposite of the people they were complaining about."
What, then, about the offending remarks attributed to the professor? The New York Sun has reported that Professor Khalidi has called Israel a "racist" state with an "apartheid system," and has endorsed the killing of Israeli soldiers as legitimate "resistance" to occupation.
TRUE? "I may have used the word 'racist' about Israeli policies," Professor Khalidi said in interviews Friday and yesterday. "In a speech I talked about the system of control of Palestinians, where they cannot move, and I said if that system is maintained, it would develop into worse than the apartheid system."
As for killing Israeli soldiers: "Under international law, resistance to occupation is legitimate. I didn't endorse killing Israeli soldiers. These people will take anything out of context. Anyone who knows me knows the last thing I am is extreme. I've called suicide bombings a war crime. I'm a ferocious critic of Arafat."
Does principle trump the man and his opinions? Or does academic freedom have limits? David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, contends that Professor Khalidi was a bad choice: "Such a course required a much more disinterested scholar."
Marc Stern, director of legal affairs at the American Jewish Congress, argued otherwise. "I hold no brief for Mr. Khalidi and his views," he said, "but I don't think there ought to be a rule that because someone is an advocate, he cannot also teach."
The writer Nat Hentoff, who has been supportive of the Jewish students who complained of harassment, said he thought that instead of dismissing Professor Khalidi, the chancellor should pair him with a strong supporter of Israel: "The answer to bad speech is more speech."
Except when the answer is no speech.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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