Oct. 31, 2004
Columbia to check anti-Israel bias charge


The producers of a new film on academic bias and harassment of Israel-sympathetic students at Columbia University are hoping their new video will force the school's administration to take effective action against overt anti-Israel bias in Columbia classrooms.

The short video, which shows students describing instances of intimidation and hostility by faculty from Columbia's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, is the latest in a series of efforts by students and some Columbia community members to get the word out that Columbia has a problem of anti-Israel bias. They allege that the school's Middle East classes are unbalanced and that faculty members use their positions to promote anti-Zionist activism, discourage free intellectual discourse on the Israeli-Arab conflict and vilify Israeli students.

"There's a problem. And just because I love Columbia University doesn't mean I should ignore his problem," Ariel Beery, a Columbia senior, said at a news conference at which the video was shown. "It chills the academic environment. It stops up free speech. If the administration were to take this seriously, then we as students at Columbia would be in a different place."

The film, called "Columbia Unbecoming," was produced by the David Project, a grass-roots organization that seeks to counter bias against Israel at college campuses, in the media and in American communities.

Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, said the university takes "very seriously" the allegations detailed in "Columbia Unbecoming." Bollinger asked a campus committee several months ago to look into charges of anti-Israel bias at the school, and he told the New York Daily News in May that the campus free-speech commission had found no evidence of academic bullying. But in a statement Wednesday, Bollinger said that he has asked provost Alan Brinkley, who heads the commission, to look into the specific incidents described in the new video.

In one incident, Prof. Joseph Massad allegedly demanded of Tomy Schoenfeld, an Israeli student, "How many Palestinians have you killed?" In another, Massad, who teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history, told a class, "The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi." In a separate discussion, he allegedly yelled at a Jewish student, "I will not have anybody here deny Israeli atrocities."

Massad did not return a call seeking comment.

Students also told of campus posters for an Israeli film festival that were defaced with swastikas, Arabic slogans and anti-Israel screeds, and a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus to which some professors brought their students.

One professor named in the film, George Saliba, who teaches Arabic and Islamic science, allegedly told a Jewish student in a private discussion that she has no claim to the land of Israel or a right to express her opinion about Israeli-Palestinian issues because she has green eyes.

"You have green eyes; you're not a Semite," Saliba said, according to the account. "I have brown eyes; I'm a Semite."

"I was horrified and hurt and shocked," said the student, Lindsay Shrier, who has since graduated from Columbia. "I never approached him after that, and that's exactly what he wanted me to do."

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Saliba denied ever making such a statement, saying he couldn't even be sure that Shrier had been his student given the size of his classes. Saliba admitted taking his class to a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus but called it a "field trip" to show students in his on class on contemporary Islamic civilization an example of the debate surrounding Israel and the Middle East.

As for the film, Saliba said, "I prefer not to make any comments on things that I have not seen. They smell to me like they are secrecy in the making, a rumors-brewing kind of environment. That is not a healthy discussion for a university."

Before it was shown to the press Wednesday, "Columbia Unbecoming" was screened privately for the president of Columbia, the president of Barnard College, which is part of Columbia, and several others at the university. The professors accused of academic bias were not interviewed for the film, and the film has not yet been made public.

Ralph Avi Goldwasser, the executive director of the David Project, said Columbia's problem is not unique. All over the country, American students with no prior bias on Israel are taking university courses on the Middle East that present a distorted view of the Jewish state.

"These professors miseducate the next generation of students, and there's a rejection of a dissenting point of view on moral grounds," he said. "The one place where you expect a real dialogue it's restrictive and intimidating."

As a result of their anti-Israel bias, Middle East studies faculty members are teaching their personal perspectives on Middle East history and politics, often with disregard for the truth, he said.

The students said they had a hard time making the film, which included interviews with 10 students, because students and sympathetic faculty alike are scared to voice their opinions publicly for fear of academic retribution and being blacklisted as ideological extremists simply because they believe in Israel's right to exist. Students want to protect their grades and their ability get recommendations from professors, and faculty members want to protect themselves and their reputation. One student in the film, Mira Kogen, described a pro-Israel professor in Columbia's Middle East studies department who told her she was afraid to be alone at the department's copy machine.

"We expect to be labeled as McCarthyite," said Noah Liben, who expects to graduate Columbia in December, "when in actuality the McCarthyism is from the other side."

The students behind "Columbia Unbecoming" say they want Columbia to adopt a clear, effective channel for handling students' complains about academic abuse-and not just on Israel. In some cases, students of other ethnicities have experienced similar incidents of bias, they said. They also want whistle-blower protection for students who file complaints, a more diverse Middle East studies curriculum that doesn't just focus on the Israeli-Arab conflict, a commitment to academic integrity and freedom among Middle East studies faculty, and sensitivity training on Judaism for incoming students.

Bollinger said Wednesday that the university is committed to ensuring an atmosphere of free inquiry at the school.

"While it is premature to discuss how we will evaluate and respond to the student accounts in the film, we recognize that protecting and upholding academic freedom requires having a clear, consistent and well-articulated process for airing grievances," Bollinger said.