Middle East studies in the News
Columbia Crumbles [on Joseph Massad]
BEFORE a global audience, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger in late 2007 walked onstage next to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and tore into him. "I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better," Bollinger said in introducing the stunned leader.
Now, with the cameras no longer rolling, Bollinger appears to have lost his nerve. While having the courage to dress down one of America's most dangerous adversaries, he recently buckled to a faculty clique that demanded he grant tenure to Joseph Massad, an Arab studies professor, much of whose writings and classroom lectures match Ahmadinejad's most inflammatory rhetoric.
Bollinger, sources say, has recommended that Columbia's trustees award Massad tenure -- an honor conferring lifetime job security. In about a week, Columbia's trustees will either give their stamp of approval -- or nix the tenure in an almost-unheard-of trustee intervention that would infuriate a good part of the faculty.
That Columbia would even consider giving Massad tenure reflects the advance of advocacy and extremism over scholarship and the growing acceptance of anti-Israel rejectionism at Morningside Heights. But at heart, the Massad tenure battle is about the failure of leadership of Bollinger -- whose job it is to safeguard Columbia's academic integrity.
Bollinger permitted his dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences -- an anthropologist whose name appeared on an anti-Israel endowment-divestment petition -- to orchestrate an unusual second-round tenure review after Massad was first rejected by his peers. In the process, Massad -- who the university has criticized for lashing out at pro-Israel students and who promotes Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians -- has become a martyr for academic freedom.
A secular anti-Zionist, Massad has built his scholarship about Israel around the idea that Zionism, of any historical or ideological stripe, is a white-supremacist movement aligned with European anti-Semitism and modeled after Nazism.
In his academic writings, Massad refers to Israel as the "Zionist colonial project" or a "racist Jewish state," calling Israel's supporters "Jewish supremacists" and "anti-Semites." He views "Zionism's project as nothing short of turning the Jew into the anti-Semite."
In an academic paper, he wrote: "It is only by making the costs of Jewish supremacy too high that Israeli Jews will give it up. This can be done by the continuing resistance of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories to all the civil and military institutions that uphold Jewish supremacy."
Despite his secular orientation, Massad backs Hamas and its terrorist tactics (he considers Hamas' attacks on Israeli civilians "resistance," not terrorism) and refers to the Palestinian Authority as the "Palestinian Collaborationist Authority."
His position so accords with Hamas' that he's gained a readership among its most militant followers. The Hamas-connected, Arabic-language forum Paldf.net has posted and praised his articles, including a January essay in which he likens Israel's assault on Gaza to the Nazi crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and suggests that "collaborator and coup leader" Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas salvage his honor by committing suicide.
According to Columbia's faculty handbook, second tenure reviews are approved in "rare instances" of "substantial scholarly growth." Massad's latest book, "Desiring Arabs" -- possibly the official basis for his second-chance review -- argues as its central thesis that the Western gay-rights movement, which he labels "Gay International," is just another insidious colonial project.
"It is the very discourse of the Gay International which produces homosexuals, as well as gays and lesbians, where they do not exist," writes Massad, sounding much like Ahmadinejad, who told his Columbia audience, "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country." Further, Massad asserts that gay-rights advocates are to blame for the crackdowns on same-sex relationships in Arab countries.
Massad writes in his book that Harvard University Press was going to publish it, but that in the end he and Harvard parted ways over "differing visions." The most prestigious journal that reviewed it, the American Historical Review, said: "If Massad's evidence is to be trusted, then he is completely wrong in his conclusions."
In the classroom, Massad, who has some student admirers, doesn't filter his views. Although his courses mostly deal with Arab culture and history, his opinions on Israel regularly creep into his lectures, past students say.
In 2004, a former student charged that Massad two years earlier had erupted in anger when she defended Israel's military tactics. "If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom," she recalled him saying. While Massad denied the charge, a university investigation sided with the student, criticizing Massad.
Columbia's trustees must decide: Do they attempt to clean up after Bollinger and stop this absurdity -- or do they confer academic legitimacy on Massad's ideas and agenda? Hesitant to insert themselves in an academic matter, the trustees would be wise to consider the consequences of silence.
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