A web site devoted to monitoring professors who allegedly promote anti-Israeli views has opened a new front in the heated war of words over Middle Eastern politics. Two Columbia professors, Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad, are featured on campuswatch.org in what Dabashi terms "a horrid form of cyber-McCarthyism."
Prof. Dabashi said he received a slew of "obscene, racist, and threatening" phone messages and e-mails after being listed on the site.
A project of The Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank, Campus Watch has posted the writings of and interviews with professors at 22 U.S. universities, aiming to expose what it describes as a widespread bias against the United States and its allies among leading academics. The site has drawn criticism from academics who charge that the site is an inflammatory infringement on academic freedom.
According to a statement posted on its web site, Campus Watch aims to "gather information on professors who fan the flames of disinformation, incitement and ignorance." It states that specialists in Middle Eastern affairs "seem generally to dislike their own country and think even less of American allies abroad" and attributes their views, in part, to the high number of Middle Eastern Arabs who specialize in Middle Eastern affairs.
Daniel Pipes, director of The Middle East forum, said the site uses the views of professors like Dabashi and Massad as "prominent cases" of a wider trend.
"We would like to see an improvement in the performance of scholarship in Middle Eastern affairs--less apologetic, less extremism, less abuse of power in the classroom," Pipes said. He attributed the professors' opinions to "an adversarial relationship with the U.S. government and a sympathy with Arabs who are hostile to the U.S."
Dabashi, chair of the Middle East Asian Languages and Cultures department, vehemently disputed the site's portrayal of his views and criticized its methods.
"[Campus Watch] selectively and maliciously picks and chooses statements by me and about me that they think incriminate me as anti-American, anti-Israeli, and pro-terrorist," he said. "I am none of those."
Pipes said that professors listed on his site should be less sensitive to criticism.
"These are public figures who have to take the lumps of being a public figure," he said. "I've been criticized on web sites for years, and I don't bellyache about this type of stuff."
Both professors said their e-mail accounts were full of threatening and offensive e-mails. Massad claimed that "cyber-terrorists" had hacked into professors' computers, assumed their identity and sent out "racist e-mails to hundreds of people ostensibly sent by us."
Dabashi said records of the threatening phone messages and e-mails he had received have been given to Columbia security officials and the New York Police Department for investigation. Dabashi and Massad both pointed to Campus Watch as encouraging the e-mail campaign against them, an allegation Pipes denied.
"This is a campaign of terror and intimidation," Dabashi said. "First maliciously misrepresenting the totality of our views and thus identifying us as anti-Americans and then sending their lunatics allies our way to harass us are Gestapo tactics once used against German Jewish intellectuals. I am honored to have joined their rank."
Pipes countered Dabashi's charges with the accusation that the professors are trying to stifle debate.
"The charge of McCarthyism is really an attempt to shut us down," he said. "It's a sign of how intolerant they really are." Pipes also disputed accusations that Campus Watch is intended to limit academic freedom.
"We are engaging in our own academic freedom," he said. "Infringing on academic freedom would be to arrest them. We're not doing that. We're criticizing them. What else are we supposed to do if we don't like what they're saying?"
Massad criticized Pipes and Martin Cramer, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, a publication of the Middle East Forum, for asking students to report instances of anti-Semitic activity at their schools. "What these two thought-policemen did is to intimidate anyone who professes views that oppose Israeli racism and atrocities, calling on our own students to become informants and report to them--similar to what happened in totalitarian countries--and defaming us publicly," he said.
Nevertheless, both professors expressed confidence in Columbia's ability to maintain an environment that accepts their ideas.
"I have felt no pressure whatsoever here at Columbia," Dabashi said. "Quite to the contrary. All I have seen is moral support from higher administration, from my colleagues, and most importantly from my students."
Massad, who is on sabbatical this term, put Campus Watch's creation in the context of a months-long controversy over his political and academic beliefs. He said that a campaign was launched to prevent him from giving a lecture at Oxford University in February, and that others targeted him at Columbia.
He said that a small number of students in one of his classes during the spring term harassed him by interrupting his class and attempted to circulate a petition demanding his firing. Other activists wrote letters to the Spectator accusing Massad of anti-Semitism.
Massad also accused Spectator of "unprofessionalism and defamation" in mis-quoting his remarks at an anti-Israeli rally held last spring. Spectator later ran a correction, but Massad said that Campus Watch has continued to publish the remarks originally printed in the Spectator.
Dabashi painted the web site as part of a larger struggle over scholars' freedom to advocate political dissent.
"This is a war between principles of academic freedom for the cultivation of critical judgment at the service of responsible citizenship on one side, and a useless band of illiterate charlatans on the other," he said.