Middle East studies in the News
Faculty Committee Largely Clears Scholars
by Jacob Gershman
Columbia University, after a months-long investigation, has determined that only a small fraction of complaints from Jewish students against anti-Israel professors constituted intimidation.
The faculty committee appointed by Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, to investigate a series of student allegations against professors in the Middle Eastern studies department issued a report yesterday largely clearing the accused scholars of blame. At the same time, committee members described a polarized classroom environment in which pro-Israel students disturbed lectures and seminars with inappropriate interruptions.
Columbia's top administrators released statements applauding the report and saying that within the next two weeks they would announce specific actions based on the committee's recommendations, such as improved grievance procedures. The committee made no recommendations regarding disciplinary action.
Mr. Bollinger, in a letter to the Columbia community set for release today, said: "The neglect over time of our grievance procedures has had many unfortunate consequences, and one is the resulting burden on students of complaints unheard. An institutional failure to provide means of addressing such concerns, as well as those of members of the faculty, has had a cascading effect. I deeply regret these problems persisted and were not remedied earlier."
In an effort to manage favorable coverage of its investigation into the complaints, the university disclosed a summary of the committee's report only to the Columbia Spectator, the campus newspaper, and the New York Times. Those newspapers, sources indicated to The New York Sun last night, made an agreement with the central administration that they would not speak to the students who made the complaints against the professors.
The Sun obtained a copy of the report without the permission of the university administration. Last night, when a reporter from the Sun came to Low Library, the central administration building, for a copy of the report, a security guard threatened to arrest the reporter if she did not leave the building.
According to one student, senior Ariel Beery, one of the campus's most outspoken critics of the professors, a Columbia spokeswoman told him that students were not being shown the report yesterday "for your own good."
Late last night, however, after some of the students who made the charges demanded to see the report, the administration relented and showed it to them.
"The report only focuses on three incidents, and we brought to them a lot more incidents that were not reported and they made no mention of them," Mr. Beery said.
The public complaints, aired in a documentary video, "Columbia Unbecoming," produced by a pro-Israel group based in Boston, have focused national attention on the treatment of Jewish students and how Israel is portrayed and researched at one of the nation's most prestigious universities.
The committee's report - four months in the making and the product of dozens of interviews with students and faculty members - represents a significant victory for Columbia's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures.
One of the incidents not mentioned by the report involves assistant professor Joseph Massad, who allegedly told a class that it was Israelis - not Germans or Palestinians - who shot to death the Israeli Olympic athletes in the 1972 Munich Massacre, according to one of Mr. Massad's former students.
Mr. Massad's alleged interpretation of events is sharply contradicted by historians, who say the 11 Olympic athletes were murdered by their Palestinian hostage-takers in a botched rescue operation conducted by German authorities. Historians have debated whether some of the athletes died in the crossfire between German police and the kidnappers, but the notion that the athletes were killed by Israeli gunfire has not been given credence.
The committee gently criticized Mr. Massad in its report for purportedly threatening to expel a female Jewish student, Deena Shanker, from his classroom in 2002 when she asked him whether the Israeli military warned Palestinian Arab civilians of the West Bank before launching military strikes there. "That provoked him to start screaming, 'If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against the Palestinians then you could leave the class,'" Ms. Shanker told the Sun last fall.
Mr. Massad has denied threatening the student, whose account of the incident has been backed by at least one another student, and said he treats his students fairly and with respect.
The committee said Mr. Massad had no real intention of expelling Ms. Shanker from the class, but he lost his temper and "exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism."
The committee, however, did not come to a conclusion on guilt in a separate incident involving Mr. Massad. In an incident that occurred in spring 2002, Mr. Massad is alleged to have refused to answer a question posted by a student, Tomy Schoenfeld, at an on-campus lecture until the student, an Israeli army veteran, told the professor how many Palestinians he killed.
The committee reported that although another student corroborated the incident, "It is conceivable that Professor Massad did not know that Mr. Schoenfeld was a student," and said the incident seemed to "fall into a challenging grey zone."
The committee did not investigate issues of professorial bias in the classroom, stating that it "judged that our charge did not encompass the examination of such matters."
On the issue of anti-Semitism, the committee concluded: "We found no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic. Professor Massad, for one, has been categorical in his classes concerning the unacceptability of anti-semitic views."
The committee made no mention of an article that an Iranian professor at Columbia, Hamid Dabashi wrote for an Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, last fall in which he wrote that Israelis suffer from "a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture."
In an admonishment to students, the committee stated, "There is a thin line between participating fully and enthusiastically in a discussion, and intervening in a fashion which significantly disrupts the class."
The panel also essentially cleared the professors who on April 17, 2002, canceled classes on the day of an anti-Israel rally on campus and encouraged students to attend the demonstration.
After the incident, Rabbi Charles Sheer, who was the university's Jewish chaplain between 1969 and 2004, told the Sun that faculty members in the Middle East studies department "personally attacked" him in the pages of the student newspaper for publicly questioning the professors' action.
One of the professors who canceled class, Mr. Dabashi, wrote in the Columbia Spectator that Rabbi Sheer "has taken upon himself the task of mobilizing and spearheading a crusade of fear and intimidation against members of the Columbia faculty and students who have dared to speak against the slaughter of innocent Palestinians."
The committee investigating concluded: "That faculty construed Rabbi Sheer's intervention as inappropriate is understandable; that Rabbi Sheer and the students whom he believed he was supporting were frustrated by that response is equally unsurprising."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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