Middle East studies in the News
by Paul Mirengoff
ABIGAIL THERNSTROM once described the American college campus as an island of repression in a sea of freedom. The report of Columbia University's ad hoc grievance committee suggests that Columbia is such an island. On its face, the report presents findings and recommendations concerning allegations by Columbia students that they were subjected to intimidation and abuse by members of the university's department of Middle East and Asian Language and Cultures (MEALAC). However, the report is better understood as a directive to Columbia students to take without protest the poisonous medicine being administered by the anti-Israel, anti-American radicals who dominate MEALAC.
The Columbia Middle Eastern studies faculty has long been a hot-bed of pro-Palestinian activism. (This sorry history was captured by Ron Lewenberg in an article for FrontPage magazine.) The driving force behind this radicalism was the late Professor Edward Said.
Said's spirit lives on within MEALAC. According to Jacob Gershman of the New York Sun, the department chairman, Hamid Dabashi, wrote last fall that Israelis suffer from "a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture." Last winter, MEALAC held a Palestinian film festival that promoted the destruction of Israel. And, according to one of his former students, MEALAC professor Joseph Massad told a class that it was Israelis who massacred their own Olympic athletes at Munich in 1972.
Several MEALAC professors have also been accused of intimidating and/or verbally abusing students who question their teachings. Columbia established the ad hoc grievance committee to consider the students' accusations. However, the committee was stacked in favor of the accused professors. According to Ryan Sager, of the five committee members, two were also members of MEALAC. A third was the dissertation adviser of one of the accused professors (the aforementioned Massad). A fourth has blamed Israel for post-war anti-Semitism and advanced the theory that the United States invaded Iraq for the benefit of Israel. And this lopsided panel was hand-picked by an administrator married to a professor who co-teaches a class with Massad.
Unsurprisingly, the committee produced a whitewash of past misconduct. Even worse, it produced a document that seeks to insulate the radical faculty from future criticism. The report takes the existence of a virulently anti-western Middle East studies department as a given. It does so on the grounds that faculty members have the right to hold and espouse their views, however controversial. One wonders whether the committee would have been this sanguine about a department that was uniformly and militantly anti-Palestinian.
The real problem with the report, however, lies in its hostility towards the natural responses of students trapped in the classrooms of Columbia's radical anti-Israeli activists. For instance, students who might disagree with the proposition that the Israelis killed their own Olympic athletes in 1972 are admonished not to express their disagreement in ways that might "disrupt" the classroom or adversely "affect the pedagogic experiences of their classmates." Strangely, the committee expresses concern over the chilling effect that strident objections to indoctrination by faculty members allegedly has had on students who agree with the MEALAC's radicals. Yet the report ignores the effect that its admonition, coupled with the inherent power wielded by professors in the classroom, may have on dissent.
The committee has even less sympathy for attempts to break the monopoly power of the MEALAC faculty. It proposes a ban on having outsiders audit classes, unless they have "the explicit, prior permission of the instructor." But it's not just outsiders who are to be denied a role in helping students cope with MEALAC's onslaught. The committee finds it "deeply disturbing" that some faculty members provided a sympathetic hearing to students offended by MEALAC's propaganda. And it singles out the school's Jewish Chaplain for expressing his dismay. The committee recommends a "review of the prerogatives and responsibilities" of school Chaplains in order to bring them more closely under the control of "appropriate faculty committees and university offices."
HAVING DONE ITS BEST to deny students effective recourse, the committee offered them a grievance procedure. But the committee's resolution of the grievances before it casts much doubt that this mechanism will provide meaningful relief. For reasons it neglects to explain, the committee found it necessary to address only three of the dozens of complaints brought to its attention.
In one case, Professor Massad was accused of telling a student, "If you are going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom." This was in response to a student who asked whether Israelis sometimes give warnings before bombing certain areas so that no one will be hurt. Although Massad denied the allegation, the committee found it "credible," in light of detailed corroborating evidence.
A second student, a former member of the Israeli military, complained that, when he tried to ask Massad a question during a student-sponsored lecture, Massad asked him twice how many Palestinians he had killed. The committee found nothing to disapprove of here, because the discussion did not occur in a classroom. It went on to praise Massad for his "warmth, dynamism, and candor."
The third student reported that, when she complained after class to Professor George Saliba about a one-sided video he had presented, he responded, "See you have green eyes; you are not a Semite. I am true Smite. I have brown eyes. You have no claim to the land of Israel." The committee found that Saliba did make an inappropriate reference to the student's eyes, but that he probably did so in the context of arguing that biological or genetic continuity arguments are not persuasive as the basis for claims to land. The committee did not explain how, if Saliba said that biological and genetic considerations are irrelevant to land claims, a student could interpret that statement to mean that these biological and genetic arguments are dispositive of such claims.
Where would the committee's recommendations leave Columbia students? At the mercy of a rabidly biased Middle East studies faculty. If a professor becomes grossly uncivil, a student can complain, but only to a committee that probably would be unable to adjudicate the matter while the student is still under the professor's dominion. And if the committee did resolve the complaint, it likely would accept the ludicrous half-defenses offered by the likes of Professor Saliba, excuse misconduct based on such technicalities as the location of the building where it occurred, or (if all else failed) fall back on the "warmth" of the offending professor.
With this report, Columbia University moves closer to "island of repression" status.
Paul Mirengoff is a contributor to the blog Power Line and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.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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