With the history wars, the culture wars and the Australian values furore, allegations of bias have been flying thick and fast in this country. We in the media have sort of grown used to it over the years. But in the US right now, those same sort of allegations, at least where academics are concerned, are not to be sniffed at. A lobby group calling itself Campus Watch has American professors of Middle East Studies in the crosshairs. Here's Chris Hammer.
REPORTER: Chris Hammer
New York's Columbia University - one of America's, indeed one of the world's, most prestigious seats of learning, and right now, one of its most controversial, for Columbia has become the main battleground in a war being fought across American campuses over the issue of academic freedom.
DANIEL PIPES, DIRECTOR, MIDDLE EAST FORUM: I have a feeling that universities have been hijacked. In other words, the people I went to school with in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, my contemporaries, who were the revolutionaries as students, did not achieve their goals of taking over and changing the country, but they did take over and change the universities.
ASSOC. PROFESSOR JOSEPH MASSAD, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Remember, there's a right-wing effort across America today to silence any criticism of Israel and of the US Government. So the Israel lobby found this an opportune time to enter the university and silence the critics of Israel because of this prevailing mood. And therefore the real attack is on academic freedom.
Head down into Columbia's main bookstore, and there you can find the ‘New York Times' bestseller ‘The 101 Most Dangerous Professors in America'. Its flyleaf claims these professors "spew violent anti-Americanism, preach anti-Semitism while collecting tax dollars and tuition fees to indoctrinate our children."
Nine of the professors listed are from Columbia - the highest of any university. Amongst those named, Joseph Massad.
ASSOC. PROFESSOR JOSEPH MASSAD: And therefore any kind of a straight translation or believing that... He's not someone who believes that...
Just 100 metres from the bookstore, Associate Professor Massad is taking a class. He's up for tenure this year - if successful, he'll have a job for life.
ASSOC. PROFESSOR JOSEPH MASSAD: George W. Bush's "You are evil, therefore we are good" is very much part of the slave morality, whatever you may think of that definition.
Professor Massad teaches courses about Israel and Palestine that some of his Israeli and Jewish-American students find confronting. For example, he describes Israel as a racist state.
ASSOC. PROFESSOR JOSEPH MASSAD: Of course, when I say that Israel is racist, I am referring to it descriptively. I'm not simply attempting to insult the country. Israel has a large number of laws that discriminate between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.
DANIEL PIPES: There are certain individuals, like Joseph Massad, who are so extremist that one really has to wonder what is their role in a university.
Criticism of Columbia's Middle Eastern professors intensified back in 2002, at the height of the second intifada. A website was launched called Campus Watch - students were encouraged to dob in professors whom they believed were giving a distorted view of Middle Eastern history and politics.
WINFIELD MYERS, EDITOR, CAMPUS WATCH: Let me, if I can, begin by going to our website. We have had an on-going Columbia project with a series of essays commissioned on Columbia.
Winfield Myers is the editor of Campus Watch - the self-proclaimed watchdog of Middle Eastern Studies in the US and Canada. He makes no secret the website pays special attention to academics like Joseph Massad who are up for tenure or promotion.
WINFIELD MYERS: Faculty hiring is always very crucial because professors hired today, of course, are going to do the hiring tomorrow of young scholars who are coming out of graduate school. And one of the worst problems in Middle East Studies is that the gatekeepers themselves are loath to hire people who disagree with their political ideology.
When Campus Watch began, it singled out eight professors. Columbia's Hamid Dabashi was one of them.
PROFESSOR HAMID DABASHI, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: And the gist of the argument was that I am anti-American, anti-Israeli and pro-terrorist. These are my qualifications. And then my students were encouraged, in that website, to spy against me.
Professor Dabashi says he and the other professors were targeted by an email spamming campaign that threatened to bring down Columbia's computer servers.
PROFESSOR HAMID DABASHI: And on my voicemail I had some obscene, racist and life-threatening voicemails.
REPORTER: So death threats?
PROFESSOR HAMID DABASHI: Exactly.
Another targeted, Rashid Khalidi, now also at Columbia.
PROFESSOR RASHID KHALIDI, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: They cited an introduction to a book I had written taking a line from the first paragraph and a line from the second paragraph and just running them together to make me appear to say something I hadn't said.
Until last year, Professor Khalidi and other Columbia faculty members gave free lectures to local high school teachers. Then a New York tabloid, sourcing material from the Internet, began a campaign against his participation.
PROFESSOR RASHID KHALIDI: Then the school board people, apparently taken aback, said, "Then if this is true about him, then he shouldn't be involved in this program." When that happened the university reacted very strongly, saying that if the city is going to try and impose political criteria for the faculty who are doing this, we won't be involved with this program. I mean, I was doing it as a public service, it wasn't as if I needed the job. It was a thing that we did. We were very sorry, as were the teachers, that we had to stop the program.
The highest profile victim claimed by Campus Watch so far has been Michigan University professor Juan Cole. This is his web log, Informed Comment, where he accuses the Bush Administration of lying about the Iraq war and "deliberately spinning and misleading the US public." Earlier this year, Professor Cole was first invited to apply for a job at Yale, then found unsuitable.
The driving force behind Campus Watch is Daniel Pipes, one of America's most prominent and influential supporters of Israel. He says his website helped ignite a campaign in the local media against Juan Cole's appointment.
DANIEL PIPES: And so when the faculty came to make a decision, they took these other concerns into account and he was rejected. And he says, and I would agree, that it was because there was outside involvement. Had it simply been the professors on their own, in the traditional way, he would have received that appointment.
New York is home to both Columbia University and the largest Jewish population of any city in the world. The campaign against academics critical of Israel has been extended into a film titled ‘Columbia Unbecoming'. Ariel Beery was one of the Jewish students behind the film, made two years ago while he was at Columbia.
ARIEL BEERY, STUDENT ACTIVIST: The film was only a documentation of testimonies, that's all, never meant to be a film itself, never meant for public consumption.
The film accuses five professors in Columbia's Middle East department of intimidating students Ariel Beery says it was meant only for the eyes of the university administration.
ARIEL BEERY: The complaint against the professors didn't have anything to do with their political statements. It had to do with how they used their power in the classroom to limit the academic freedom of students.
But from the word go, the film was financed and controlled not by the students, but by a pro-Israel group called the David Project. This is their website. There's a link to view the film but it doesn't work. In fact, a copy of the film has never been released to the public. But the David Project certainly made sure the film's allegations were spread far and wide.
LIEL LEIBOVITZ, JOURNALIST, THE JEWISH WEEK: I am journalist for the New York ‘Jewish Week', which is the largest Jewish newspaper in America, and I was contacted by the David Project I believe sometime in October of ‘04, very early in the process of the film becoming known. My own initial findings were that the film, at best, was deeply flawed and, at worst, was making a disingenuous case.
Liel Leibovitz contacted 36, mainly Jewish, students who'd studied under the professors accused in the film. He asked them if they'd been intimidated.
LIEL LEIBOVITZ: I was rather shocked by what I found because not a single student reported any such sentiment. The only thing that I kept hearing constantly was that the experience in the classroom, the experience under these professors, while often challenging, while often diverging from what the students had learnt in the Israeli public education system or in Hebrew school, was actually exhilarating, was thought-provoking, in other words it was everything college is supposed to be. I also had an opportunity to speak to some of the students, by then, who were interviewed in film, and was rather surprised to learn that a number of them had not even studied under the professors who were being accused.
The David Project started screening the film to select audiences, including in Israel. Liel has now seen the film four or five times and each time it's been changed.
LIEL LEIBOVITZ: For example, I witnessed the film being screened at an academic conference, where interstitials were inserted with quotes from the professors' articles, and the whole tone of the film was sort of re-edited to feel very rational, very factual, very straightforward. Then a few weeks later in a Jewish community gathering, the film was shown again, and this time certain interviews were inserted that were much more emotional in nature and the interstitials with the quotes were taken out. And the whole effect was to stir people into action rather than to promote some sort of intellectual debate. I think such manipulation of content is simply unfair.
News of the film sent New York's tabloids into a frenzy. They described Columbia variously as: "Poison Ivy", "Hate-U on the Hudson", and teaching "Hate 101". Prominent amongst those accused in the film of intimidating students, Joseph Massad.
ASSOC. PROFESSOR JOSEPH MASSAD: Remember, as soon as this defamatory film had been released, a member of Congress in New York immediately called on Columbia University to fire me, the editorial board of two newspapers in New York also called on Columbia to fire me, there was a special meeting of the New York City Council about the situation of alleged intimidation that pro-Israel Jewish students had been subjected to at Columbia.
Some of Professor Massad's students, like Monique Dols, leapt to his defence.
MONIQUE DOLS, COLUMBIA STUDENT: We often had people who were outside of the class come into the class and disrupt the class and so on how so? Well, they would sit in the back of the room. They said they were auditors but they were clearly there to comment and disrupt Professor Massad's class. So if anyone was being intimidated, it was the professors like Professor Massad.
In Brooklyn, I track down another of Joseph Massad's former students, Ben Wheeler.
BEN WHEELER, FORMER COLUMBIA STUDENT: I'm Jewish. And when I was in Hebrew school, growing up, the very simple description of Israel and Palestine that I heard was that there was an uninhabited desert wasteland, and after the Holocaust the Jews needed a homeland and this land was available and so they made the desert bloom. And there was sort of no mention of the Palestinians. And if there ever was, it was essentially that, yeah, there are some people who aren't happy about it because they don't like Jews.
Ben says Joseph Massad did present a pro-Palestinian position but he did not browbeat students.
BEN WHEELER: There was certainly a mixed reaction among the Jewish American students. I think that a lot of students were offended by the particular facts that Massad was choosing to focus on and talk about, many of them, partially because they hadn't known those facts. And I think a lot of students were surprised or shocked to hear the criticism of Israel that was more intense and more cogent than perhaps they were expecting.
But ‘Columbia Unbecoming' and the media campaign orchestrated by the David Project, had its impact. University President Lee Bollinger, who declined to be interviewed for this story, initiated an investigation.
ASSOC. PROFESSOR JOSEPH MASSAD: I think this was a terrible precedent. The only precedent I can think of that is similar would be during McCarthyism when university would crack down and set up committees to investigate professors for their political views. I was very saddened to see that the administration had in fact cooperated with these outside forces against its own professors and its own faculty.
The investigation cleared the professors, with one minor exception for Joseph Massad. It was found he had threatened to banish a student from his class for defending Israeli military tactics. It's an allegation he continues to deny - 20 students present in the class have signed a letter saying the allegation is "unequivocally false".
ASSOC. PROFESSOR JOSEPH MASSAD: So basically they threw a morsel for the right-wing forces that were besieging the university. And instead of standing by academic freedom, instead of saying this is clearly a sham of an allegation, that there was not an element of truth to it.... This was not actually a legal procedure. This was a committee, in my opinion a harassment committee, an inquisition committee, that did not give, sort of, the right of habeas corpus or due process to the accused.
REPORTER: Now a new battleground is emerging in America's academic wars. Rather than target individual professors, the whole area of Middle East studies is coming under threat. And the new weapon of choice is funding, both private and public.
This is the annual conference of the American Political Science Association, addressed on this occasion by Harvard Professor Stephen Walt.
PROFESSOR STEPHEN WALT, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: You have a recipe for interfering all over the world.
Professor Walt caused a stir earlier this year when he and a colleague published an article asserting that American support for Israel could only be explained by the domestic political power wielded by the Israel Lobby.
PROFESSOR STEPHEN WALT: There was a taboo here, if you will, an elephant in the room that wasn't being discussed openly. Our main goal was to get this subject out in the open where we could talk about it in a sort of candid and serious way. I think that we have accomplished.
Professor Walt says at Harvard, there was concern his article may have cost the university money.
PROFESSOR STEPHEN WALT: I was just told indirectly that there were some donors that were very upset. And I had at least one colleague who at one point said I might have cost Harvard $100 million. Now, I don't think that is actually true, but that was the kind of concern that was raised.
Many of these academics gathered to listen to Professor Walt work at private universities. These universities have seen an increase in donations and endowments recently, from oil-rich Arabs on one side, and from wealthy Jewish philanthropists on the other.
LIEL LEIBOVITZ: The last, I would say, six or seven years has seen a sort of arms race, if you will, on who funds more departments or more chairs to promote a certain viewpoint.
At Columbia, the professors in the Middle East department believe there's a civil war under way for the hearts and minds of Americans.
PROFESSOR HAMID DABASHI: I consider myself integral, part and parcel of a struggle within the United States to safeguard it as a free and democratic republic. I oppose the mutation of this free and democratic republic into a predatory empire. This is what I oppose.
Now the battle has reached Congress itself. For 50 years, the US Government has funded Middle East studies, recognising an understanding of the region is vital to US strategic interests. There are now moves to bring that funding - worth more than US$80 million per year - under congressional oversight.
PROFESSOR STEPHEN WALT: And I think it would have terribly chilling effect on people if an university professor suddenly felt their entire program might be cut if they wrote something that the administration didn't like.
Daniel Pipes, on the other hand, would welcome congressional guidance.
DANIEL PIPES: I mean, this is a key issue, the Middle East, in American public life. We need scholars who take their skills and apply them. One finds, for example, a willingness to take American governmental money, but an unwillingness to provide the quid pro quo, which is to be of some service to the American government, the American tax payer and the American people.
Liel Leibovitz, journalist for the ‘Jewish Week', believes debate in America has already been truncated.
LIEL LEIBOVITZ: I'm ninth-generation Israeli, I'm a lieutenant in reserve in the Israeli army. And when I came here to the United States about 6 years ago, I was surprised to find that positions or arguments that were considered almost mainstream in Israel were here sort of anathema.
For example, Liel says in Israel, advocating a secular state with both Jewish and Palestinian citizens is an acceptable, if not widely popular, part of the debate.
LIEL LEIBOVITZ: If you make it here, whether you're Jewish or not Jewish, it does not go over well. It is perceived as an attack on Israel's very right to exist. The tragedy is not that the discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become so contentious, the tragedy is that the discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become impossible.