Middle East studies in the News
Columbia Tenures an Israel-Basher [on Joseph Massad]
by Jacob Gershman
JOSEPH Massad's scholarly contribution during his decade as a faculty member of Columbia University's Middle East Studies Department may be summed up as follows: Israel is racist, and homosexuality is an insidious Western invention.
Yet that was enough for Columbia, which officially -- if quietly -- awarded Massad tenure earlier this month.
Columbia's process for reviewing tenure candidates is as rigorous as any Ivy League school's. Ordinarily, an academic of Massad's caliber would be bounced from Morningside Heights. And in fact, the system did work -- it denied Massad tenure two years ago.
But now the school's academic standards have succumbed to ideological tensions and campus politics -- in what appears to be a remarkable manipulation of the tenure process and a breach of fiduciary trust.
First, a little background on Massad.
A Christian secularist of Palestinian-Arab descent, Massad has dedicated his academic career primarily to encouraging the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. Criticism of Israel is far from unusual in his field, but Massad goes much further, taking arguments to bizarre ends. "The ultimate achievement of Israel," he writes, is "the transformation of the Jew into the anti-Semite, and the Palestinian into the Jew." In a book, he rails against the "Zionist theft of Palestinian Arab food (e.g., hummus, falafel)."
In a recent work, "Desiring Arabs," Massad claimed to expose yet another plot against the Muslim world -- the "Gay International." He describes how a vast conspiracy of gay activists descended on Arab countries and endangered the lives of "practitioners of same-sex contact" by transforming them into "subjects who identify as 'homosexual' and 'gay.' "
Nor is Massad fond of the women's rights movement, or "colonial feminism," as he calls it. He bristles at the attention paid to the Muslim practice of honor killings, which he likens to "crimes of passion," accusing women's groups of ignoring "rampant Western misogyny."
He specializes in reductio ad hitlerum. "If Germans spent the day on the beach when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, and Americans cheered in bars and at home the fireworks light show the US military put up over Baghdad while slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in 1991 and in 2003, Israeli Jews insisted on having front row seats on hills overlooking Gaza for a live show, cracking open champagne bottles and cheering the murder and maiming of thousands of civilians, more than half of whom were women and children," he wrote in a February essay, referring to the Gaza War.
Four years ago, it seemed as if Massad would be on his way out of the Broadway gates. A university probe backed up students' complaints that he disparaged Jewish students who disagreed with him. In one instance, while lecturing near campus, he responded to an Israeli student who asked a question by demanding to know how many Palestinians he had killed.
But faculty members opted instead to lionize Massad as a supposed martyr of academic freedom. A crucial ally for him was Dean of Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks, whose wife taught a class with Massad.
In 2007, months after Massad completed his latest book, a committee rejected his tenure application. Tenure candidates rarely get a second shot at Columbia, but Dirks intervened and pushed for a second committee, sources say.
Oddly, the professor who led the first review of Massad refused to serve again. Even odder, the administration justified the do-over by claiming that Massad had switched his field of specialty from political science to cultural studies.
After the second committee approved Massad, President Lee Bollinger and Provost Alan Brinkley took extraordinary measures to protect the secrecy of Massad's tenure case and guard against an outcry from Jewish alumni and donors.
The last step in the process was the trustees. The administration refused to share with the trustees any list of who was on the two tenure committees. The board was also kept in the dark as to why Massad failed the first review. Bollinger and Brinkley also refused to discuss in detail why Massad was permitted another shot.
Instead, the administration -- apparently more interested in managing public relations than dealing with the substance of the underlying problem -- simply provided the trustees with a set of talking points with "helpful facts" about the university's Jewish student center.
When I tried contacting trustee Esta Stecher, a senior administration official alerted the board about my inquiries and reminded the trustees that the university doesn't comment on tenure cases.
In the end, Columbia's board of trustees approved Massad's tenure appointment before ever getting answers.
Which raises the question: Just what does a trustee do? Are they merely fund-raisers? Do they view the title as a ceremonial honor? What's the point?
As for Bollinger, one wonders how he allowed his faculty to undermine his authority and the university's reputation.
The promotion of Massad isn't a victory for academic freedom but a cheapening of it. The freedom extended to a Columbia faculty member isn't the same as the rights of a soapbox crank. Protecting free inquiry and valuing scholarship are not mutually exclusive goals, but together define the university ideal.
If the trustees and Bollinger haven't figured that out, Massad's enduring presence at Columbia will help remind them.
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