Non-Academic Debate

December 23, 2004

Non-Academic Debate
The war over Mideast Studies at Columbia University

Deena Shanker was a freshman at Columbia University when she first encountered what has now famously been portrayed as Columbia's problem of rampant bias, hostility and vilification of pro-Israel students and viewpoints in courses on the Middle East.

She was in a class called "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies," taught by Prof. Joseph Massad, and in a discussion in the spring of 2002 on Israel's military incursions into Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Shanker said she raised her hand to point out that Israel often issued public warnings prior to its bombings to warn Palestinian civilians in the area.

Massad, she said, exploded with rage.

"If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against the Palestinian people then you can get out of my classroom!" Massad shouted, according to Shanker's account.

Shanker was shocked. "Sometimes teachers and professors yell at students-it happens-but this was not like anything I've ever experienced. He was not treating me like a student," she said.

Shanker said she had grown accustomed to Massad's antagonism toward Israel, but the professor's rage at her for speaking up was frightening. "I felt-I wouldn't say intimidated was the right word-I would say: humiliated, violated, scared. This was very overt and explicit."

The incident Shanker experienced-which Massad has declined to address publicly-was not an isolated one.

Week after week over the last several months, a growing number of Columbia students have come forward to detail charges that classes in the school's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department (MEALAC) have become a forum for anti-Israel vitriol. They say professors routinely use their positions to promote anti-Israel activism, discourage free intellectual discourse on the Israeli-Arab conflict and denigrate students sympathetic to Israeli policies. The result, they say, is a hostile academic environment in which it is impossible for students to express their opinions freely.

There are stories of a professor demanding of an Israeli student, "How many Palestinians have you killed," of another professor taking his class to participate in a pro-Palestinian demonstration, and of one professor telling a class that "The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi."

Aside from Massad, Prof. George Saliba, an expert in the history of Islamic science, and Hamid Dabashi, professor of Persian literature and the sociology of culture, have been accused of academic intimidation and bias.

Some of the accused professors and their defenders say those behind the charges are McCarthyites intent on stifling any criticism of Israel by labeling critics of Israeli policies as anti-Semites.

"This is about politics and the siphoning of the debate and discussion on the question of Palestine and Israel," said one Columbia alumna, Madiha Tahir, a leader of a group calling itself the Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Academic Freedom at Columbia.

Ever since the accusing students went public with their criticism of the professors-in part with the encouragement and financial support of groups outside the university-a host of Columbia students, alumni, trustees, Jewish organizational officials and even a US congressman have demanded that Columbia rein in its delinquent teachers.

Faced with the growing controversy, university officials have met with aggrieved students, set up an ad hoc committee to review the allegations until a more permanent one can be established, and pledged to overhaul Columbia's grievance process for students charging professors with inappropriate academic conduct.

"This is a completely new process that has been set up," Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, said this week in an exclusive interview with the Jerusalem Post. "This is a very important, careful, delicate process to think about behavior in the classroom."

But critics already are charging that the university committee appointed to investigate student claims of bias and intimidation is tainted. They say it is stacked with faculty members who are hostile to Israel-some are signatories to a petition demanding that Columbia divest from companies that sell military equipment to the Jewish state-and who have personal relationships with the professors they have been asked to investigate.

At least one former dean at Columbia, Robert Pollack, a biology professor, said the university already has botched its handling of the issue by letting it fester in public view and not making clear what is and what is not inappropriate conduct for professors.

"The response has not been clear because the different groups here have not been asked, nor told, nor expected to do their jobs properly," Pollack said. "That was an administrative lapse that incomprehensibly continues today, two years later, with the appointment of a faculty committee to consider, in public, the students' charges. This abrogation of administrative responsibility has hurt Columbia."

The principles at stake at Columbia go beyond the problems in the university's Middle East studies department. At issue is the university's academic reputation, the principle of academic freedom, and the question of whether McCarthyite tactics are being used to silence critics of Israeli policies.

"We will not allow intimidation of students, but we must also defend academic freedom," Bollinger said. "Pursuing one can put stress on the other. It think it's inevitable."

The controversy at Columbia has combined two separate but perhaps equally damning charges: that Columbia professors are biased against Israel, and that professors have behaved improperly toward students sympathetic to Israel. The distinctions between those two issues has not always been clear.

And while the committee the university administration has appointed is charged with investigating only the latter charge, critics say the issue of anti-Israel bias at Columbia is the more important one. It's also the one more easily ascertained, given that eyewitness accounts of specific classroom incidents are subject to interpretation, sketchy recollections and a lack of verifiable evidence.

"This is about politics," said Daniel Pipes, founder of Campus Watch, a pro-Israel group that monitors Middle East studies departments for political bias. "Columbia has a deeply biased, radical faculty in this area," Pipes said of the MEALAC department. "This is extraordinary given the fact that the university is supposed to be a place where there is debate and learning. I would say it's the place where you have the least debate in the country."

Rabbi Charles Sheer, who recently retired as Columbia's Jewish chaplain after 34 years, said the larger problem is that Columbia students are being taught distorted views of the Middle East.

"It's an academic question," Sheer said. "It's not that easy for the university to clarify whether the students were intimidated. It ends up being a kind of 'he said, she said' thing. But that's not the point," he said. "The point is you have to step back and see if the future State Department members, who are going to be trained at Columbia-because many of them are trained at our university-are they getting an education that's a balanced one?"

Shanker, a MEALAC major, said the bias was most obvious in Massad's classroom. "If you counted the number of times that Massad called Israel a Jewish supremacist racist state, it's unbelievable. He teaches that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the dissolution of the state of Israel," Shanker said. "The focus is on the intimidation, but people should be focusing on the fact that he's teaching things that aren't true."

Bollinger acknowledged that Columbia has work to do when it comes to presenting the full picture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East as a whole. Already, Bollinger said he has added new faculty and programs focused on Israel, raised funds for the endowment of a new university chair in modern Israeli and Jewish studies, and invited scholars from Israel to come teach at Columbia.

"How are we doing and how can we improve our teaching and research on subjects involving the Middle East and Israel-Palestinian issues in particular," Bollinger said. "I see that as the most important outcome of this."

Bollinger's response also has been seen by some as a reaction to threats by alumni and donors to withdraw their financial support from the university if Columbia does not resolve these charges satisfactorily.

Massad agrees that the MEALAC department is unbalanced-in favor of studying Israel. He says MEALAC is charged with covering 1 billion south Asians, 300 million Arabs, tens of millions of Turks, Iranians, Kurds and Armenians, and 6 million Israelis. To that end, MEALAC has devoted three full-time professors to cover Israel and Hebrew, four full-time professors to cover the Arab world, and two full-time professors to cover South Asia. The proportions hardly seem fair.

But Pipes and others say that misses the point: It's not the number of professors studying Israel versus other areas that matters, it's the political orientation the professors bring to the classroom.

"I'm not interested in having Israel studies; I'm interested in having balance in Israel studies," Pipes said. "Where it counts-diversity of opinion-it's locked down and it's one outlook."

In the meantime, the controversy has become an all-out political war for the soul of Columbia's Middle East studies department.

Rep Anthony Weiner, a congressman from Brooklyn, sent Bollinger a letter in October calling for Massad to be fired and saying Columbia would "enhance the public perception that it condones anti-Semitism" if it did not discipline him. This week, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union warned Bollinger in a letter "not to descend into an inquisition into the political views of professors."

At Columbia, both sides in the controversy couch their arguments in terms of preserving academic freedom and open debate.

"This witch-hunt aims to stifle pluralism, academic freedom, and the freedom of expression on university campuses in order to ensure that only one opinion is permitted, that of uncritical support for the State of Israel," said Massad, defending his pedagogy. The public airing of charges against him, most notably in a professionally produced video of student testimonials called "Columbia Unbecoming," is simply the "latest salvo in a campaign of intimidation of Jewish and non-Jewish professors who criticize Israel," he said.

Noah Liben, a former student of Massad's who expects to graduate from Columbia at the end of the current academic term, disagreed.

"I don't think that professors should be allowed to hide behind the banner of academic freedom in order to intimidate students," Liben said. As for those criticizing these professors, he said, "We expect to be labeled as McCarthyite, when in actuality the McCarthyism is from the other side."

Many of the incidents under scrutiny happened two or three years ago, not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and when the Palestinian intifada was at its most intense. The charges are given a full airing in "Columbia Unbecoming," produced by the David Project, a Boston-based group that seeks to combat anti-Israel bias on college campuses.

Though the film has not been released publicly, it was shown to some Columbia administrators, students and alumni beginning last spring and was screened for reporters in October at a press conference in New York. That screening helped elevate the charges into the public discourse, generating significant press coverage in New York and adding significant pressure to the Columbia administration to be seen as taking the accusations seriously.

Massad and Saliba both told the Jerusalem Post they have not seen the film. Dabashi declined to comment.

In the film, students describe an atmosphere of anti-Israel sentiment both inside and outside the classroom. They tell of outright calls for Israel's destruction in academic discussions, describe campus posters for an Israeli film festival that were defaced with swastikas, Arabic slogans and anti-Israel screeds, and recount a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus to which some professors brought their classes.

One student in the film, Mira Kogen, said a pro-Israel professor in Columbia's Middle East studies department told her privately that she was afraid to be alone at the department's copy machine.

In another incident, a Jewish student named Lindsay Shrier said Saliba told her in a private discussion that she had no claim to the land of Israel or a right to express her opinion about Israeli-Palestinian issues because she had green eyes and therefore could not be a Semite.

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

Saliba denied the charge, saying he couldn't even be sure Shrier ever had been a student of his. He did, however, admit to taking his class to a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus. He called it a "field trip" meant to show students in his class on contemporary Islamic civilization an example of the debate surrounding Israel and the Middle East.

As for other allegations detailed in 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."

Saliba is not the only one criticizing the David Project for trumping up the charges in a film.

"Students convinced by the David Project to tell their stories in confidence to other students through a DVD find themselves a year later to have been made unwitting public figures," said Pollack, the former Columbia dean. In so doing, he said, the David Project has taken advantage of the students and turned them into public symbols.

Ralph Avi Goldwasser, the David Project's executive director, denied that his group has taken advantage of students' candidness, even if his disclosure that several of the students shown in the original version of the film have since asked that their names be removed or faces obscured to hide their identity appears to belie his point. Goldwasser said that's why the film has not yet been released to the general public-not, as some have charged, because the David Project is operating surreptitiously.

Critics also have charged that the accused professors were not given the opportunity to defend themselves in the film.

"When there are calls for people to be fired without anything but a few biased, emotional students presenting slanted evidence, that's a witch hunt. It's not like anybody had the opportunity to defend themselves," said Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia and Director of the school's Middle East Institute.

Goldwasser says the film wasn't meant to be a documentary; it merely was an effort to collect students' testimony about classroom incidents. That's why it was shown to Columbia administrators and community members months before it was screened to reporters, he said.

"We wanted to give Columbia a chance to deal with the issue without the publicity and the potential negative impact on Columbia. We wanted to help Columbia," Goldwasser said.

Khalidi said Columbia also deserved blame for allowing the story to spiral out of the control of the Columbia community.

"It should and could have probably been dealt with within the university before the story broke." Why the university could not deal with it internally and effectively "perplexed me and angered me," Khalidi said.

But the students who appear in the film said that was part of the problem. When they had complaints about professors' behavior, they didn't know where to turn, they said, so they stayed silent. When university administrators finally were approached about the matter, their response did not resolve anything, the students said.

"If the administration were to take this seriously, then we as students at Columbia would be in a different place," said Ariel Beery, a Columbia senior.

Like many of the students in the film, Beery never took a course with any of the allegedly offending professors-a point frequently made by the professors' defenders. But Beery and others say that's irrelevant; many of the charges made against the professors involve incidents that occurred at public lectures sponsored by the university.

Bollinger is careful to point out that the university committee will not consider comments or actions made by professors outside of the classrooms, however disagreeable. "They're citizens too," Bollinger said.

Beery said Columbia needs to adopt a clear, effective channel for handling students' complaints about academic abuse and allow them what amounts to whistle-blower protection. 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, he said. Students want to protect their grades and their ability get recommendations from professors, and faculty members want to protect themselves and their reputation.

So far, no students have charged that their grade was affected by their political sentiments.

Bollinger has acknowledged the university's failure in dealing effectively with the students' complaints through existing university channels, and he said part of the university's goal is to establish a clearer process for lodging complaints about academic intimidation. Ultimately, he said, he believes the students have confidence in the process he now has set in motion: establishing a committee to review complaints, investigate further if necessary, and take action-he would not specify what kind-if it turns out professors have intimidated and abused students.

"Faculty widely and students widely have confidence in the institution and the ad hoc process that's been set up," Bollinger said. "We are hopeful that when there are concerns, students will find coming to us the best way to proceed."

But the composition of the ad hoc committee appointed to investigate the students' charges has raised some eyebrows-particularly at the David Project.

Two of the five professors on the committee are signatories to Columbia's divestment petition, and many have relationships with the professors they're charged with investigating.

"It's biased," Goldwasser said. "Almost all have personal relationships with the professors at question. How can they judge their own colleagues-their own friends?"

Susan Brown, a spokeswoman for Columbia, said the committee members' political views are irrelevant: their job is to investigate claims of academic malfeasance, not political ideology. She also said their personal relationships with the accused professors would not influence their work.

"These people were carefully selected based on their professionalism, their stature as scholars both within the Columbia community and outside, and their experience with and sensitivity to student and faculty concerns," Brown said. "There's a long tradition in the academy of faculty taking on the responsibility of reviewing the teaching and professionalism of their peers. That's how it's done, and it has worked pretty well as a widespread practice."

"I'm sure if it came to a time where they had to recuse themselves, they would," she added.

The university committee, which Bollinger said will begin looking into the charges shortly after the spring 2005 term gets under way, has its work cut out for it.

Perhaps most difficult will be assessing what constitutes intimidation or abuse by professors. The same strong remarks by a professor that might cause one student to break down into tears and feel abused or intimidated might well be received by another as nothing more than a hard round in a rigorous, open debate. Intimidation, it would appear, is in the eye of the beholder.

"What we're talking about here is drawing lines," Bollinger said. "I've really defined as well as can be defined the responsibility of the faculty member in the classroom."

But can definitions work when it comes to conduct that is open to interpretation?

Bollinger says he's aware of the difficulties. "Some things we may say it's just too dangerous to inquire into them because we will lose more than what we will gain about what we value, and some things we may say we must inquire into them because we will lose more than we will gain if we don't."

The path one chooses to take, Bollinger said, depends in part on how carefully one can single out the problem.

"In the case of intimidation and abuse of students, it is so much a violation about what we believe in, it is so destructive to the mission of the university, that it really is the only path we can take," he said. "We cannot stand by and let that behavior go by."

Perhaps just to be safe, Bollinger has taken the unusual step of asking a lawyer, freedom-of-speech expert Floyd Abrams, to serve as an adviser to Columbia's investigative committee. The idea behind the appointment, Abrams said, is "to make sure that the hearing is fair and could not be challenged by someone anywhere in any court."

"It's not that anyone's threatening to go to court, but it seems to me that if you want to do this, you want to do it right," he said.

Sidebar: A lesson in academic politics