Middle East studies in the News
Columbia Still Unbecoming
by Nat Hentoff
In December, with the approval of Columbia University president Lee Bollinger and Provost Alan Brinkley, Nicholas Dirks, vice president for Arts and Sciences, appointed a committee, composed of members from his faculty, to investigate charges by a number of students in the Middle East studies department that certain of its professors bullied and humiliated students who wanted to question in class those professors' insistently biased views of the state of Israel.
Commenting on the composition of this special committee, Judith Jacobson, an assistant professor of clinical epidemiology in Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, told The New York Sun (which has led all the dailies in coverage of this by now international controversy):
"I don't understand Bollinger's handling of the situation. If I were naming a committee to investigate a problem in a particular department, then I would select people who didn't have a conflict of interest with respect to the subject matter or the people involved." She added that the student complaints that led to the formation of the committee are "just the tip of the iceberg."
Indeed they are. In March 2003, John Corigliano, a classical music composer of deserved repute, said, on receiving an award at Columbia, "There has been an enormous amount of publicity about the various departments of Middle Eastern studies [around the country] and about the fact that the anti-Israel policy in these is enormous. And one can say that about the department of Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Columbia."
Corigliano and others made that point before the film Columbia Unbecoming—with charges by students in the Middle East department—created the current intense focus on the department.
In addition to Professor Judith Jacobson, students who would appear before the committee also questioned its fairness. She calls the student critics of the Middle East department "the brave ones." In a letter to President Bollinger, they noted that "the committee is composed of faculty members who are either personally or professionally close to the professors accused of abuse . . .
"We would not want to speak to [either] a predominantly Zionist nor anti-Zionist committee. Both would shift the issue from what we care about—the rights of students [to academic freedom]."
Judith Jacobson is vice president and coordinator of the Columbia chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. What follows is its assessment of the Columbia administration's investigating committee. (These critiques comport with what I've learned from other sources.) The assessment begins:
"The new committee reports to Nicholas Dirks. . . . In 2002, when he chaired the Department of Anthropology, he and 19 colleagues in that department initiated a petition calling on Columbia to divest itself from companies conducting business [selling arms to Israel]."
On the committee: Lisa Anderson, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. The committee's critics point out that she "was the dissertation advisor of Joseph Massad, the faculty member who has been most frequently mentioned as having . . . suppressed expression of pro-Israel views in class. . . . [Massad], her student and protégé . . . is currently being reviewed for tenure."
On the committee: Jean Howard, professor of English and vice provost for Diversity Initiatives, who signed the petition for divestment, as did another committee member, Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies.
The two signers of the divestment petition have, of course, the right of conscience to use that method of criticizing Israel. What is significant, however, in their being selected for this special investigating committee is that while they were among 106 faculty members who put their names on that divestment petition, 360-plus faculty members opposed that petition in writing. How come President Bollinger appointed not a single one of those 360-plus to the committee? Or any others from Columbia's 3,224 full-time faculty?
Bollinger himself said of the divestment petition: "I want to state clearly that I will not lend any support to this proposal. The petition alleges human rights abuses and compares Israel to South Africa at the time of apartheid, an analogy I believe is both grotesque and offensive."
But two faculty members making that very analogy are on a committee to decide whether certain members of the Middle East studies department do not respect dissent by students in class who disagree with professors' views paralleling those in the divestment petition.
On the committee: Mark Mazower, professor of history and program director of the Center for International History. The Scholars for Peace in the Middle East notes that Professor Mazower "has also compared Israel's 'occupation' of the 'West Bank' to the Nazis' occupation of Eastern Europe."
On the committee: Ira Katznelson, professor of political science and history. He has presided over some of the committee sessions during which students claimed their academic freedom had been denied in some of the Middle East studies classes.
This is an e-mail that Professor Katznelson sent to a prospective student witness before this purportedly objective investigating committee: "I know you have discussed the possibility of meeting with the committee. . . . My colleagues and I wonder if you might be prepared to do so, as you can shed light on the circumstances and origins of [the film] Columbia Unbecoming." (Emphasis added.)
It does appear, as another student said to me, that part of "the thrust of their questioning is into the origins of the film [that brought public attention to this controversy] rather than the incidents in the film." (Emphasis added.)
As Scholars for Peace in the Middle East reasonably concludes: "If the purpose of the committee is to protect MEALAC (Middle East studies) faculty, it seems likely to achieve success. If its purpose is to conduct a serious investigation, it appears doomed to failure."
Columbia president Lee Bollinger is a notable First Amendment scholar. If a committee were charged with investigating some of his utterances—and its members were clearly weighted against those views of his—would he appear before such a committee without his own tape recorder?
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