he recent controversy at Columbia University was sparked by the limited release of Columbia Unbecoming , a film that purports to document intimidation of Zionist students by "pro-Palestinian" Columbia professors, mostly in the Middle Eastern &Asian Languages & Cultures Department (MEALAC). The film was produced by a campus group called Columbians for Academic Freedom (CAF) in conjunction with the David Project , a right-wing Zionist organization that initiated and financed the film.
CAF claims that the issue is students' rights. More specifically, the issue according to CAF is academic freedom, that is, the right of students to speak their mind without fear of intimidation from professors. The problem, in other words, has been framed in terms of the right of free speech. But, CAF did not attempt to form broad alliances or join student coalitions fighting for students rights. Nor did CAF go to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the logical choice for voicing such complaints. Instead, the group chose to ally itself with the David Project and produce a narrow, single-minded propaganda film that focuses solely on claims by Zionist students that they were silenced by professors sympathetic to Palestinian human rights.
The film itself is a shifting target. New versions continue to be released with material added or edited to suit the occasion. Unbecoming is careful to hide the identities of students making the charges, but has no similar qualms about libelling professors and publicly initiating a smear campaign against them on the basis of unsubstantiated claims. The film is in limited release here, shown only sporadically to controlled groups of audiences. Meanwhile, one of the students who appears in the film is now running a PR campaign for it and showing it to audiences - in Israel. What does a supposed struggle for students' rights at Columbia University have to do with Israelis?
But, of course, CAF would not like observers to draw the obvious conclusions. At a student debate this fall between CAF and Stop McCarthyism at Columbia (SMAC), a coalition of students and allies to defend the attacked professors, Ariel Beery, the student leading the charge for CAF, reiterated that the central issue was students' rights, not the opinions of professors regarding Israel. At yet another date, Beery warned against the tide of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda, asserting that CAF would stand up for any student, even if s/he were Arab or Muslim. Interestingly enough, the remark was made at a conference where Beery spoke alongside the likes of Harvard professor and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who regularly justifies the use of torture against suspected "terrorists" and the collective punishment of Palestinians, and Daniel Pipes, who nowadays is "rethinking internment" - the title of a talk he recently gave at NYU - and arguing for the collective internment of Muslims.
The conference titled The Middle East & Academic Integrity on the American Campus featured other gems as well including Martin Kramer who is currently sponsoring HR3077, a McCarthyite bit of legislation that would allow government monitoring of college area studies programs; Phyllis Chesler, emeritus professor at College of Staten Island who accused "Islam" of "gender cleansing" against women as well as apartheid, and compared "anti-Israel" activists to the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis; and Rachel Ehrenfeld from the American Center for Democracy who quoted liberally from the Qur'an to explain how Muslims viewed the use of money to influence education as a religious duty. Ironically enough, the previous speaker Laurie Zoloth had just finished explaining to the audience why it is anti-Semitic to argue that Jews use money to garner influence.
When an audience member who was part of the human rights organisation Jews Against the Occupation divulged that he had been shot by the Israeli army as a preamble to a remark, a man shouted, "Too bad they missed." Another added, "They should have shot you in the head." 1
Organized by the Columbia University chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and the Zionist Organization of America which rejects any form of a Palestinian state or American peace efforts, such rhetoric was a foregone conclusion. Yet, despite its protestations against anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, this is the conference where CAF chose to speak and present its complaints about "students' rights" and "academic freedom." This is also one of the venues where it opportunistically chose to show its film.
CAF would also prefer that we not dwell on the fact that Columbia Unbecoming was initiated, financed and backed by the David Project whose agenda is to combat the alleged "anti-Israel" bias on university campuses. The Boston-based Project was founded in August 2002 to promote a "fair and honest understanding of the Middle East conflict." 2 The group's understanding of the conflict is explained on its website:
The Middle East conflict is about the struggle for Jewish political sovereignty and self-determination in the Middle East. The conflict is rooted in Arab leaders' rejection of political equality for religious and ethnic minorities. It is perpetuated by the continued rejection of political rights and equality for Jews by many Arab regimes, and their often stated goal to destroy Israel. Moreover, tyrannical Arab regimes have used anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism as a means of distracting the Arab public from domestic oppression and other societal failures. 3
In other words, the quest for self-determination in the region is for Jews only, not Palestinians, nor Kurds, nor any other group. The ultimate cause of the conflict is the inability of an amorphous band of Arab leaders to grant minority rights rather than, say, Israel 's refusal to grant rights to Palestinians living within its 1948 borders or under its occupation. Very few people, even within the US , would seriously take the position that blame lies wholly with Arabs. Never mind the history of colonialism in the region let alone the continued occupation, repression, ethnic cleansing, house demolitions, and killings that Israel metes out daily to Palestinians. That merits no mention in the David Project's view. This is the group's one-sided, flat vision of the conflict. Anything else is "anti-Israel." No wonder then that professors who dare to suggest that Palestinians have human rights are being accused of "bias" in the Project's documentary and subjected to a vicious campaign.
Even Jewish critics of the film reap harsh criticism from Charles Jacobs, founder of the David Project, who - speaking at the aforementioned conference - called them "Marranos of Morningside Heights," a derogatory reference to Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid the Spanish Inquisition. 4 Jacobs has a long history; from founding the Campaign for Accuracy in the Middle East (CAMERA) in 1982, a group that harassed news organizations if they portrayed Israel negatively at a time when Israel's invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra-Shatila massacres were exposing it to bad press, to founding the now discredited American Anti-Slavery Society which misrepresented the Sudanese civil war as a case of Muslim Arabs enslaving African Christians.
In 2002, Jacobs, working with Hillel and other organizations, helped establish the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) as a response to the rising concern among Zionist organizations and the Israeli government regarding American Jewish youth. Natan Sharansky, Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs, explained the problem after a tour of American college campuses:
Israel has few strategic assets as critical as American Jewry..The continuing support of American Jewry depends on this younger generation..But if this younger generation were to disappear.Israel would find within a very few years that it faces an entirely different United States. This younger generation is growing up on the university campus.. Will they be as pro-Israel as today's decision-makers? Will they stand up fearlessly for Israel ?.I have grave doubts..It is a matter of critical importance for the State of Israel and the Jewish people.. Can the trends be reversed? Can we recapture the campus? I believe we can. But it will require a concentrated effort. 5
The ICC, which lists the David Project as an affiliate, published a policy report Tenured or Tenuous in which it identified the "problem of faculty" on US campuses as a major priority area. One of the examples of this problem, the report stated, was the MEALAC department at Columbia University and the new Edward Said Chair for Arab Studies. 6 The report further states, "One of the most important issues in introducing new scholars to the academy is maintaining control over their selection. Without control, there is little to prevent anti-Israel faculty from vetoing pro-Israel scholars and hiring hostile professors." 7
This then, is the genealogy of Columbia Unbecoming , and the current attacks on professors at Columbia. It should be clear, but still worth stating, that this is an explicitly ideological agenda that seeks censorship and control rather than academic freedom.
The efforts of groups like Campus Watch , a McCarthyite group founded by Daniel Pipes that monitors Middle East studies programs and publishes blacklists of professors deemed to be "anti-Israel", and the David Project are now paying off. Instead of dismissing the lobby attempts of outside groups, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, bowed to external pressure and convened the Ad-Hoc Grievance Committee to review the allegations against its professors.
As if the committee itself were not proof enough of the university's attitude of appeasement towards these pressure groups, it appointed Floyd Abrams as advisor to the committee, a position whose mandate has not been made public. Abrams has worked and consulted with the Anti-Defamation League, one of the groups campaigning against one of the accused professors, Dr. Joseph Massad. In fact, Abrams received the Hubert H. Humphrey award from the League in 2003. He has spoken in lectures and the media against Prof. Massad. Moreover, he is clearly identified with pro-Israeli politics. In his endorsement of Alan Dershowitz' book, The Case for Israel , Abrams had this to say:
In a world in which Israel seems always to be the accused, regardless of the facts, Alan
Dershowitz's defense offers an oasis of sanity and straight talk. It may be too much to hope that Israel 's accusers will read this powerful and persuasive response to their charges. It is not at all too much to ask that fair--minded observers do so. 8
In a statement to the committee, Dr. Massad questioned the problematic nature of the committee. Nevertheless, the committee proceeded with its mandated task and published its report on 28 March 2005. Of central importance are the committee's findings regarding Professor Joseph Massad who has been particularly targeted, partly due perhaps to his untenured status at Columbia. Dr. Massad is well known for his signature course Palestinian & Israeli Politics & Societies which he started teaching in Spring 2000. Contrary to the dogmatic, stifling professor that Columbia Unbecoming paints him to be, Prof. Massad received a Certificate of Appreciation from Columbia 's Class of 2000 for the course. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Massad says he began to be told by students that his class was a topic of discussion among campus Zionists. Attempts were made to monitor the class. The committee report corroborates the claim stating that the committee members "find it deeply disturbing that faculty were apparently prepared to encourage students to report to them on a fellow-professor's classroom statements." 9 Meanwhile, off campus, Daniel Pipes also targeted Prof. Massad through Campus Watch, and urged students to spy and report on the class.
The committee report further notes that a student who had heard of the controversial nature of Prof Massad's class audited it and "found no signs that Professor Massad treated students with any kind of systematic bias. What he did find, however, was, as he put it, 'a professor who was constantly harassed by outside agitators.' A small group of unregistered auditors attended Professor Massad's lectures, and their frequent interruptions and hostile asides disturbed many of the students." 10
It is therefore puzzling that the report finds any of the allegations credible. The most egregious of these is by a student, Deena Shanker who took Prof. Massad's class in Spring 2002. Shanker alleges that in response to a question she asked, Prof. Massad " blew up, yelling, 'If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!'" 11The committee report states that while two students, one of whom was Shanker's visitor for the day, corroborate the main elements of Shanker's story, three others -two graduate teaching assistants and an undergraduate- have no recollection of such an episode. "Nor is it recorded in the teaching evaluations made available to us." 12 Yet, strangely enough, without any conclusive evidence, the report states that "upon extensive deliberation, the committee finds it credible that Professor Massad became angered at a question that he understood to countenance Israeli conduct of which he disapproved, and that he responded heatedly." 13
I should state at this point that I was also a registered student in the class in question, and have no recollection of such an event ever having taken place. What I do recall however, is a coterie of students, some of whom sat in the front rows of the classroom, others who lined the back, who incessantly questioned Prof. Massad often in a rather rude manner and demanded citations for his lectures. At times, their cantankerous behaviour and belligerent demeanour created undue tension in class and had the effect of dampening discussion especially as some of us did not wish to draw the ire of these students. I, as well as other classmates, were impressed by Prof. Massad's collected, calm response and poise in the face of these attacks. The committee report also notes the same:
We have no basis for believing that Professor Massad systematically suppressed dissenting views in his classroom. To the contrary, there is ample evidence of his willingness -- as part of a deliberate pedagogical strategy -- to permit anyone who wished to do so to comment or raise a question during his lectures. For many students this approach itself became problematic because it allowed a small but vociferous group of fellow students to disrupt lectures by their incessant questions and comments. 14
There are further flaws in the report which Prof. Massad has addressed in his response to the committee's report.
CAF charges that "pro-Israel" voices were silenced at Columbia. More broadly, they argue that the MEALAC department is not balanced. In this, I agree. MEALAC has only 4 full-time professors covering over 300 million Arabs, only 2 professors covering over 1 billion South Asians, and none who specialize in the tens of millions of Kurds, Armenians and Turks who are part of the Middle East. By contrast, MEALAC employs 3 professors of Israel and Hebrew studies to cover 6 million Israelis. Additionally, the university is home to the Center for Israel and Jewish studies which has 13 full-time affiliated professors, and is also now establishing an Israel chair while no such center for Arab studies or Palestine studies exists.
More generally, there are real structural inequalities with which Columbia , along with other universities, needs to deal which serve as bars for a variety of people. The New York Times recently reported a study showing that in 2003, of the 433 new professors hired into tenure-track positions at Ivy League campuses, only 14 were Black and 8 were Hispanic. Women received 150 of the jobs. The same study also shows that in 2003, Black professors had no more than 4 percent of the tenure-track positions at any Ivy university. 15
But, predictably enough, these are of no concern to the self-designated expounders of "academic freedom" and "students' rights" who are singularly obsessed with indicting professors for critiquing Israel 's policies and occupation.
What is going on at Columbia is a silencing campaign. "Academic freedom" is the name of that silencing. We should remember our Orwell. We should remember him well.
1 For two articles documenting some of what happened at the conference, please see, Leibovitz, Liel. " Weiner: Disband Columbia Bias Panel " Jewish Week. 11 Mar 2005.
Popper, Nathaniel. " Students, Outsiders Spar at Columbia Conference ." The Forward. 11 Mar 2005.
2 The David Project website .
4Leibovitz, Liel. " Weiner: Disband Columbia Bias Panel " Jewish Week . 11 Mar 2005.
5Sharansky, Natan. " Tour of U.S. Schools Reveals Why Zionism Is Flunking on Campus." The Forward . 24 Oct 2003. http://www.forward.com/issues/2003/03.10.24/oped1.html
6 Bard, Mitchell. Tenured or Tenuous . Published by The Israel on Campus Coalition and the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
8The quote is posted on the book publisher's website: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/Section/id-102314.html
9Ad Hoc Grievance Committee Report 28 Mar 2005.
15 Arenson, Karen. "Little Advance is Seen at Ivies in the Hiring of Minorities and Women." New York Times 1 Mar 2005 : A1 p13.