Middle East studies in the News
Columbia University fails to deal with allegations regarding intimidation
by Noah Liben
The findings of the Columbia University committee created after pro-Israel students at Columbia complained that anti-Israel professors were intimidating them and stifling their views are wholly unsatisfactory and create more problems than they solve.
The committee was inherently flawed and incapable of producing an unbiased report.
Of the five members, two had signed an anti-Israel divestment petition at Columbia; one was the dissertation adviser of Joseph Massad, one of the accused professors; one wrote in the "Financial Times" that Israel is responsible for global anti-Semitism; and one is a university administrator who ignored student complaints for months.
The man who handpicked the committee, Nicholas Dirks, signed the original divestment petition, although he then removed his name. His wife, who also signed the petition, co-teaches a class with Massad.
The very fact that out of the entire Columbia faculty Dirks chose these five members - who are friends and colleagues of the accused professors - represents a further intimidation tactic in itself.
'How many Palestinians have you killed?'
Even disregarding the political leanings of the committee members, their personal connections to the professors should have been enough to keep them off this committee.
The report's findings are hardly shocking. Despite hearing testimony of dozens of cases of professorial misconduct, the committee focused on only three incidents. In one case, Massad allegedly ordered a student to leave his classroom if she persisted in "denying Israeli atrocities."
The committee found "it credible that Professor Massad became angered" at the student's question, and that "his rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds." The report made no recommendations of how to censure Massad for his actions.
The second incident again involved Massad, this time at an extracurricular lecture. There, Massad reportedly refused to take a question from an Israeli student, instead demanding the student answer, "How many Palestinians have you killed?"
The committee concluded that this second instance of Massad's misbehavior "falls into a challenging grey zone." In other words, since no one can confirm the venue in which this incident took place, the committee refrained from rebuking Massad.
Do the committee members honestly believe that such an egregious and ugly misuse of professorial power is acceptable, simply because it was not said in a classroom during class hours?
'The committee was negligent'
The third instance on which the committee reported involved Professor George Saliba, who allegedly told a Jewish student that she had no claim to the land of Israel because she has "green eyes" and is therefore "not a Semite."
The committee found it "credible that this conversation did occur and that a reference to eye color was made near its conclusion." But the committee again refused to condemn the professor.
How can they possibly justify a professor telling a student that she is not a Semite because of her eye color? Would the committee justify a teacher telling an African-American student that he has no voice in a debate over slavery because his skin color is too light?
If its purpose was to protect its fellow faculty members, the committee performed admirably. However, the committee was specifically charged with "looking into the character of teaching at Columbia."
According to these criteria, the committee failed miserably. Columbia President Lee Bollinger, in a March 23 speech before the New York City Bar Association, proclaimed that the classroom must not be turned into a "political convention" and that, "We should not accept the argument that we as teachers can do what we want."
The faculty committee, however, was negligent in its responsibility to ensure that "the character of teaching at Columbia" was not turned into a "political convention."
When Massad teaches that the word "Zion" means "penis" and therefore Zionism is a macho movement, or that Israelis were the ones who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, or that Israelis massacred Palestinians in Jenin, these are not "uncongenial" views, but rather lies and propaganda.
Sadly, the report missed that point.
The report went a step further by turning the tables on the students, shamefully blaming the victims of academic abuse rather than the perpetrators.
Referring to pro-Israel students who dared to challenge anti-Israel lies and inaccuracies, the committee outrageously reported, "Their frequent interruptions and hostile asides disturbed many of the students (in the classes)," and further mentioned a "small but vociferous group of…students" who "disrupt(ed) lectures by their incessant questions and comments."
All the Columbia administration has achieved with its report is an unsatisfactory answer to the first of more such campus battles to come.
Noah Liben recently graduated from the joint program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is currently working at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.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.
Campus Watch contact e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org