Middle East studies in the News
Insight, not bias, in my Columbia U. class
by Halley Bondy
As a Barnard College student in Prof. Rashid Khalidi's class, I have listened with growing disbelief to the rousing accusations about alleged anti-Israeli instruction at Columbia University. And it seemed odd to me in February, when the city's public schools chancellor turned away Khalidi, who was set to head a teacher development course. The reason given was that Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies in Columbia's history department, had made anti-Israel statements sometime in the past.
As a Jew, I can attest to the fact that Khalidi is hardly the anti-Semite that Chancellor Joel Klein was led to believe he is. I am a student in Khalidi's "History of the Modern Middle East" course. Yes, he is a critic - an analyst - of Israeli policy. But he is also a critic of Yasser Arafat, of Cold War politics, of British colonialism and of any form of blind fundamentalism.
The course spans centuries and the vast region between the Atlantic Ocean and Central Asia, from the European commercial revolution onward. With so much to cover in a single semester, there is little time for polarized Israeli-Palestinian agendas. Israel is a minuscule part of the history we learn.
The lecture hall is filled to capacity with well over 100 students who fought tooth and nail to enroll. At 10:35 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, we scramble to find electric outlets for our laptops; Khalidi speaks too quickly and too intricately for manual note-taking. He enters the hall with a commanding flare. An audible sigh spreads across the classroom as we prepare ourselves for the professor's astute summary of the 200 pages we read the night before.
Names, documents, years, wars, coups, nationalist movements are placed into context. Certainly, Khalidi has opinions. He is not afraid to posit that Israel, as well as virtually every other country, has behaved badly at times. But he challenges us to question the material for ourselves.
In contrast to many heated experiences I've had in other Columbia classes, no student has raised his or her hand to berate Khalidi in anger. This is not because he has harangued students and intimidated them; it is because the man knows his facts. His views derive from research and authority.
Khalidi was not in the classroom when he supposedly called Israel "an apartheid system in creation" - the phrase that scared off Klein, and one the New York Sun chose to highlight without context. Khalidi is being judged not by his students or his peers, but by people who have never set foot in his Columbia lectures.
Students in Khalidi's class, and in the university's embattled department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures, have an obligation to set matters straight. The debate must not be hijacked by people who have never taken a Middle Eastern studies course at Columbia. Otherwise, where is the balance? And where, in the end, is my academic freedom?
Bondy is working toward her bachelor's degree in anthropology.
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