Middle East studies in the News
Columbia's blind spot
by Richard Schwartz
The stacked deck produced a whitewash. That's the take many observers have of things at Columbia University, where last week a panel of Israel-phobic academics found "no evidence" that professors in the Middle Eastern studies department made anti-Semitic remarks meant to bully Jewish students.
Here's the wrinkle: How can anyone trust the committee's findings, given its members' clear prejudices? Of the five panelists, two signed a petition demanding that Columbia divest from Israel. One member is a dean who recruited some of the professors accused of hectoring Jewish students. Another panelist has in the past ignored complaints from these students.
The fifth, history Prof. Mark Mazower, merits special mention for having likened Israel's occupation of the West Bank to the Nazis' World War II occupation of Eastern Europe.
How's that for a fair and balanced panel?
It's no surprise that this packed jury concluded all is largely well at Columbia. No self-respecting Jew - or thinking human - should buy it.
Nor should Columbia President Lee Bollinger.
One Jewish Columbia alum, an investment banker, said he may withdraw his pledge to endow a scholarship at the engineering school if Bollinger doesn't take a tough stand against anti-Semitism.
The university, meanwhile, is trying to put a good face on matters in part by establishing a new chair in Israeli studies. But this is not a game of point/counterpoint. You don't confront anti-Semitism by debating it. You eliminate it.
Yes, the panel found that one assistant professor, Joseph Massad, did mistreat a Jewish student. But it gave a pass to Prof. George Saliba for allegedly making a racist remark to another Jewish student, terming it "impossible to judge." Meanwhile, the panel wouldn't comment on other troubling incidents reported to have taken place at the Middle Eastern studies department, nor on charges that department courses embrace an anti-Israel agenda.
This isn't Columbia's first brush with anti-Semitism. Between the World Wars, the university rejiggered its admissions criteria to keep many qualified Jewish students out. It took an act of the state Legislature to undo the crime.
Today, it will take an act by Bollinger to undo the harm that has been done by his wayward Middle Eastern studies department. Fortunately, the panel doesn't set policy. That's Bollinger's job. He must set grievance procedures so students can blow the whistle on biased profs without fearing retaliation. He must make sure Massad, now up for tenure, is expelled from campus. And he must reject the panel's watered-down findings and launch a truly impartial investigation.
That's what it will take to determine whether Saliba and other teachers have mistreated students. If they're guilty, they must be disciplined.
If he can't fulfill these responsibilities, he doesn't deserve to lead one of the world's great universities.
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