Middle East studies in the News
The Persistence of the Massad Question
by David Myers
Joseph Massad, associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history, has been granted tenure. A reversal of Columbia's original rejection of his tenure bid is not only regrettable, but frightening and embarrassing.
Many news articles about Massad and his quest for tenure have attempted to describe him with the broad and overused adjective, "controversial." This is unfair and too simplistic. The professor is not "controversial"—he is anti-Israel and an embarrassment not only to scholarly pursuit and academia as a whole, but to our university and its reputation.
The opinion pages have so far been astonishingly empty of strong support or opposition, and many students on campus fail to even recognize the professor's name. Therefore, it is likely that most people do not have the slightest idea why the man's work has produced such outrage internationally. While the University's tenure process is secretive, and the considerations on either side of any tenure debate are not made public, it is important that we do our best to understand what is at stake in granting tenure to Massad.
Columbia's tenure guidelines state that "the purpose of this system is to ensure that the same standards of judgment are applied to all appointments to tenure ... and thereby to secure a faculty of exceptional quality and distinction throughout the university." By the very architecture of the system, it is set up to be a mark of academic achievement, and one with tangible benefits. So, it only makes sense that any argument over the topic of tenure should boil down to the academic credentials of the faculty member.
In The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, Massad writes of the Jews' "alleged ancestors" and "the very active invention of ancient Israel, an Israel that had never existed as such before Zionism's fantastic fabrications." It does not follow that any criticism of Israel is, by its very virtue, anti-Semitic. However, this is an unsubstantiated attack made in broad racial terms against the Jewish people. By questioning the genetic connection to the Jews of ancient Israel, one brings into question the Jewish covenant and the legitimacy of the religious belief system.
Later, in the same book, Massad makes reference to "the Israeli government's overall anti-Palestinian policy." Unlike much of the book, which lacks citations, here Massad attempts to demonstrate his academic excellence by making use of an endnote. The endnote for this statement is, in fact, to an opinion piece written by Alexander Cockburn for the Wall Street Journal nearly two decades ago. Not only does the citation for this ludicrously broad claim depend upon an opinion piece, which is by its very nature biased, but it is the opinion of a notoriously controversial figure in the Israeli-Palestinian debate. This is hardly the kind of work to be expected from a Columbia academic.
These are major incidents of academic irresponsibility that can be easily spotted in much of Massad's work. In between these, though, the pages are dotted with smaller, but still cringe-inducing, sins of academia. For example, in an analogy between Israel's European Jewish population's "racist" policies towards Russian Jews in Israel and the state's policies towards the Palestinian population, he describes how "the Ashkenazi establishment continues to rule by denying them all political rights." There is, of course, no citation provided. While there have been tensions in Israel between Russian Jewry and the larger Ashkenazi community, the former enjoy full political rights as citizens (the current foreign minister of Israel is Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian Jew). The case is equally hard to make on the Palestinian end since, among many rights, Palestinian citizens of Israel enjoy freedom of religion, the ability to elect their own representatives, and the ability to hold seats in the Knesset.
So why does any of this matter? Besides being the ultimate blessing that a university can bestow on one of its faculty, tenure is essentially for life. Massad, whose work hovers among frightening, prejudiced, and blatantly offensive, will continue to shape the minds of Columbia undergraduates indefinitely. If he has been allowed to make such egregious claims as an associate professor, what will he be able to falsely state as fact having gained Columbia's enduring stamp of approval? The mark Massad leaves will go far beyond the ugly falsehoods in his books or classroom, the stain remaining visible on the future of the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department and the minds it helps mold.
One must wonder how a university that prides itself on academic brilliance and integrity can stand behind a scholar who demonstrates less of a grip on endnotes than many first-years in University Writing. The need for diverse opinions is a real one, and we, as students, benefit from having our core beliefs challenged. That being said, anti-Semitism is not a challenge worthy of scholarship, nor is the author of anti-Semitic materials worthy of tenure. Given that Massad has been granted tenure, we should all be frightened for the state of academia and disappointed because, as students, we bear the brunt of Columbia's decisions.
The author is a sophomore at Columbia and JTS.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.
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