Middle East studies in the News
What Columbia Should Do Now
by Gary Rosenblatt
Dear President Bollinger,
I don't envy you the task of resolving the continuing dispute on campus over the charges that some pro-Palestinian professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture department (MEALAC) have intimidated students sympathetic to Israel. You are faced with two competing truths: the importance of academic freedom — for both students and professors. You must moderate between the need to allow teachers to speak their minds in class vs. assuring students that they are free to hold and express views without fear of reprimand.
But now that the ad hoc academic committee you appointed to take testimony on this matter has issued its report, essentially absolving the professors, it is time for you to act and do the right thing.
You well know that this case has drawn national and international attention, with outside competing factions trying to widen the conflict, but there are really only two issues here, and one non-issue.
The non-issue is anti-Semitism. For all the emotional charges and counter-charges of these last few months, no responsible critic is saying that Columbia University harbors or tolerates anti-Semitism. The university has a significant number of Jewish students and faculty, and virtually all resent the implication that the campus is somehow unsafe for them as Jews. So the New York Times headline on the academic report, "Columbia Panel Clears Professors Of Anti-Semitism," was a red herring, making an already complicated situation that much more confusing and misleading.
The immediate issue is whether some professors have created an environment of intimidation in their classrooms, making students who don't share their Mideast views feel uncomfortable. The ad hoc committee, comprised of five faculty members, several of whom have displayed strong sympathy to the Palestinian cause, interviewed more than 60 people and heard of dozens of cases of intimidation. The committee rightfully concluded that grievance procedures were inadequate and need to be addressed immediately. But it found only one charge that "exceeded commonly accepted bounds of behavior," when Prof. Joseph Massad, a chief target of the Jewish critics, told a pro-Israel student who sought to defend Israel's military actions in class, "If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!"
Though Massad strongly denied that the incident took place, the committee found the account "credible."
But what of the many other reports of similar, if less dramatic, troubling actions by professors in MEALAC, which has a long history of anti-Israel sentiment expressed in class as well as in academic writings?
In conversations with Jewish leaders and journalists in recent months, you have admitted as much, acknowledging that the department needs more balance and that you will do your best to create a corrective.
Now it is time for you to make good on those observations because the larger issue here, beyond the specific allegations brought by students, is that the Mideast is not being taught at Columbia with fairness and openness to all sides of the Israel-Arab conflict. That issue was not part of the mandate of the ad hoc committee, but it is the root of the problem. A cursory look at the reading lists for many Mideast courses shows a bias toward the Arab perspective, and a number of MEALAC faculty members have, in their writings and lectures, expressed opposition to the very principle of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
The creation of an Israel studies chair, as now planned, is most welcome, but it must become an integral part of MEALAC rather than an isolated island of pro-Israel instruction on campus. The point of balanced teaching is not to have separate faculty fiefdoms, each expressing a narrow and exclusive view, but to blend within individual courses an appreciation for and insight into competing narratives. That is what quality universities should be striving for in molding thoughtful and well-rounded students to deal with the complexities of Mideast history and ideology.
The students who were courageous enough to come forward and speak out against the injustices deserve praise for prodding the university to do its job better, and you have told them so. Now you must show that you have taken their grievances to heart.
It is significant, and helpful, that you have responded quickly in addressing the serious flaw in Columbia's procedures in reporting and responding to grievances, and in your creation of a President's Council on Student Affairs, allowing you to meet several times a year with student and administrative representatives.
But more needs to be done about the heart of the matter here: making the university a place for balanced teaching, not political advocacy.
By all accounts, including our own meeting some months ago, you are a seasoned scholar and man of decency who is trying to make the right decisions in this volatile and complex case. Surely your faculty members will be upset if you act in a way that seems to diminish their authority. But you owe it to the students, and your finely tuned sense of fairness, to recognize that the primary goal here is to make the classroom a model of tolerance, not threats, and to ensure that courses are taught not to close minds but to open them. n
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