On Monday, when Columbia University granted tenure to Joseph Massad -- the professor of Modern Arab politics whose alleged intimidation of pro-Israeli students likely doomed his first tenure bid in 2005 -- the University jeopordized its long-standing commitment to cultivating and supporting its Jewish student population.
The University has long managed to balance the often-opposing beliefs of its famously pro-Palestinian Middle Eastern Studies department and its substantial Jewish population. The department is currently home to supporters of Palestine such as Rashid Khalidi, Hamid Dabashi, Nadia abu El-Haj, and George Saliba; Edward Said, one of the most prominent American scholars in support of Palestine, taught English and Comparative at Columbia from 1963 until his death in 2003.
The Middle Eastern Studies department thrives in the midst of a student body that Hillel deemed the sixth most Jewish of all those in American private universities. Located a mere four blocks from The Jewish Theological Seminary (where students can complete a double-degree and cross-register for courses), Columbia's Jewish community boasts a thriving Hillel, a Jewish literary journal, and an active chapter of AEPi, the Jewish fraternity. Cafeterias feature extensive kosher options, and it is not uncommon to see throngs of students donning kippahs migrating across campus.
The Jewish community of alumni and current students has previously exercised its will and sheer manpower to prevent anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli opinions from gaining University support. In 2006, Jewish students successfully prevented Ahmadinejad, the famously anti-Semetic Iranian dictator, from speaking, and in 2007, they again protested his visit. Many believe that alumni efforts to prevent the Palestinian anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj at Columbia affiliate Barnard College from receiving tenure caused the University to deny her bid (in her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, Abu El-Haj casts doubt on archaeological evidence used to legitimize Israel as the Jewish homeland).
Some believe that Massad previously failed to receive tenure due to his unflattering portrayal in the student film Columbia Unbecoming (2004), which "gives voice to students who have experienced incidents of academic abuse and intimidation at Columbia University" as a consequence of expressing pro-Israeli sentiment. In the film, Massad calls Israel a "Jewish and a racist state," and a student describes how he once demanded of an Israeli student, "How many Palestinians did you kill?" at a public lecture (the film's website notes that although Massad has publicly stated that he never taught or met the student in question, he also has never denied the claim). The film's fervor can only faintly forecast the outrage the Jewish community could exhibit come fall.
There can be little doubt that many at Columbia, Jewish and otherwise, will be incensed at the newest addition to the tenured faculty. The prospect of lending greater support to a professor who some claim bullied students -- although Massad claimed that he has "been the target of a political campaign by actors inside and outside the university" and successfully proved that "The Ad Hoc Grievance Committee Report suffers from major logical flaws, undefended conclusions, inconsistencies, and clear bias in favor of the witch-hunt that has targeted me for over three years" -- is nonetheless unsavory. Regardless of the legitimacy of the complaints lodged against Massad, the insensitivity exhibited in some of his scholarly work could create an irrevocable rift between him and the many Jews, Zionists, Israel supporters, and students who simply believe that Israelis do not deserve to be called anti-Semites, all of whom he is hired, in part, to educate.
Massad does not just critique Israeli policy in Palestine, or even question the legitimacy of Israel's right to exist. Rather, he attempts to redefine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by removing terms like anti-Semitic, Nazi, and Jew from their historical context. In his book, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question, and in various articles for publications like The Electronic Intifada and Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Massad argues that the Zionist movement betrays colonialist underpinnings that draw from anti-Semitic rhetoric. He claims that this influence, coupled with the Zionist urge to "transform European (and later other) Jews into European Christians culturally, while continuing to call them Jews", caused a "historical process by which it was to metamorphose Palestinian Arabs into Jews in a displaced geography of anti-Semitism" and to transform "the Jew into the anti-Semite". Massad similarly likens Israelis to their one-time oppressors by comparing Israeli actions in Gaza in 2009 to those of the Nazis during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, and by claiming that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was similar to Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.
As a student just entering my second year at Columbia, I have no means to evaluate the academic legitimacy of his argument. Clearly, Massad is a distinguished scholar. However, as a student just entering my second year at Columbia, I can evaluate the effect that his inflammatory claims could have on the student body.
By reassigning the term "Jew" to the very people who tirelessly fight to eradicate the world's only Jewish state -- putting aside questions Israel's right to statehood -- Massad flagrantly disregards the ethnic, cultural, and religious sensibilities embedded in that term. It is entirely possible that, in many instances, Palestinians are the victims of Israeli military action, but no amount of theorizing can make them Jews: .2% of the world's population who, despite Western prominence, have experienced inestimable persecution.
Similarly, by calling an Israeli an anti-Semite or a Nazi, Massad shows disrespect for the years of oppression the Jews suffered under the Nazi regime. Hypothetically, the Israelis could be racist or tyrannical, but to deem them anti-Semitic Nazis is to fail to appreciate the Holocaust's lasting impact both on Israel and on the wider Jewish community. These words cannot be simply re-appropriated, no matter what the cause; they connote long-lasting and painful memories.
Undoubtedly, Massad is well aware of his argument's implications both for Israel and the Jewish people. While his novel terminology may win him points in the academic world, he will not deliver his lectures to an empty room. Students will fill those seats, and students do not come tabula rasa. Most have grown up hearing stories of oppression from parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents, be it in Vietnam, Lebanon, or Nazi Germany. For these students, a professor's disregard for historical memory transcends mere difference of opinion. On a simple, human level, I, and many others, may accept or appreciate Massad's point, but cannot respect the means with which he makes it -- outside, and according to some, inside the classroom. Such polarizing methodology creates an irrevocable divide between the professor and the students he educates.
At Columbia in particular, such disregard for a religious minority's past undermines the institution's longstanding commitment to diversity and tolerance. In sharp contrast to peer institutions like Princeton or Yale, Columbia lies in the heart of a gritty, vibrant, sometimes-violent city, and its student body reflects New York's diversity. One of the first universities to abolish quotas for Jewish students, Columbia currently boasts 50% students of color in its most recent incoming class.
By granting tenure to one professor -- admittedly a talented, accomplished professor -- Columbia will not erase that history. Its students, Jewish and otherwise, will simply have to remember that even in Manhattan, even at Columbia, Jews and liberals do not reign supreme. We must fight, just as Joseph Massad did, to retain our voices.