With the eye of the world on Iraq, debate over the United States's role in the Middle East has raged across the airwaves, cyberspace, and College Walk.
Some members of Columbia's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures have never been hesitant to express their views. But now their opinions, as well as the entire department, are gaining more attention than ever.
With three particularly vocal anti-war and pro-Palestinian professors--Hamid Dabashi, Joseph Massad, and George Saliba--MEALAC has received criticism for everything ranging from unprofessionalism to anti-Americanism to overall bias within the department.
Many students and scholars outside the University consider MEALAC one of the leading departments of Middle East studies in America. This past February,The Harvard Crimson published a staff editorial calling for Harvard's classicized Middle East program to follow the "recent steps taken by Columbia University and New York University to strengthen and modernize their departments."
But over the past year several members of the Columbia community, including John Corigliano, CC '59, and Columbia/Barnard Hillel Rabbi Charles Sheer, have denounced MEALAC for not offering students an accurate representation of Middle East politics. When Professor Nicholas De Genova made his now-infamous remarks at a March teach-in, critics seized the opportunity and pointed to his comments as proof of the Columbia's academic biases in Middle Eastern studies.
The MEALAC debate, like the debate over war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, has been fueled largely by emotion. As a result, critics and defenders have engaged in a back-and-forth that members of both sides admit has been unproductive.
MEALAC Chair Hamid Dabashi put it best when he said, "We are covering some of the most troubling and contested areas of the world. ... Whatever we do is bound to anger some people and please some other people."
However, the question of a department's duty in dealing with such sensitive areas still stands.
A Language of Extremism
Too often the figures of MEALAC and their critics portray each other as arrogant, extreme fanatics. For example Campus Watch, a web site run by the conservative think tank Middle East Forum, has been particularly critical of MEALAC. The site claims to address five main problems in the world of Middle East studies: "analytical failures, the mixing of politics with scholarship, intolerance of alternative views, apologetics, and the abuse of power over students."
After De Genova made his remarks at the anti-war teach-in, Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes and Jonathan Colt Harris wrote an article for the April 1 issue of the New York Post that listed six Columbia professors who "share De Genova's venomous feelings for the United States" along with inflammatory fragments of quotes from each professor. Of these six professors, only two are part of MEALAC; one of the remaining four, Rashid Khalidi, will direct the Middle East Institute next year, and another is English Professor Edward Said, whose scholarship on Orientalism has shaped the course of Middle East studies for the last 25 years. By painting the professors in such extreme terms, Pipes makes them particularly easy targets.
Referring to Campus Watch's portrayal of professors, Dabashi said in September, "[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. I am none of those."
Extreme accusations of MEALAC have often elicited extreme responses from targets. In an article for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly, Massad fired back, accusing Pipes and frequent collaborator Martin Kramer of "bombarding all enemies of Israel with defamatory accusations. It is not Merkava tanks, Uzi submachine guns, or Apache helicopters that are used in this bombardment, but rather newspaper gossip columns and secret police-style dossiers to name the preferred methods." In reaction to Campus Watch's attacks, Dabashi said in October, "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."
This language, while no more extreme than that of the opposition, does not fit Dabashi's--or anyone's--conception of a "sane and productive language of debate and conversation."
The Scope of the Israeli-Palestinian Question
Whether they know it or not, both Sheer and Dabashi agree that the Israeli-Palestinian debate overshadows the other areas of Middle Eastern studies to the detriment of the department. However, while Dabashi says that MEALAC's critics are amplifying the issue, those same critics believe MEALAC is responsible for the exaggeration.
Dabashi said he believes that rather than focusing on the larger spectrum of MEALAC courses--which include language and literature courses--his opponents choose to harp on the department's treatment of that relatively small disputed region. He denies that MEALAC puts any undue emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, though the media may portray it that way.
"There are certain people who are sensitive," Dabashi said. "Their antenna picks up only aspects of what we do. It would be far more responsible ... to look at the diversity of courses that we offer." He pointed to the fact that both Dan Miron's Zionism: A Cultural Perspective and Joseph Massad's Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Society have been taught on the same floor as an example of MEALAC's impartiality. In addition, the department offers several Israeli literature and culture classes along with classes dealing with the Arab world.
However, the question of bias may not be as black-and-white as having a "balanced" curriculum. In the minds of many, professors' politics outside the classroom factor into a department's leaning as well.
Those who determine MEALAC's bias like they would tally a scorecard would point out that the department has more vocal, public professors who support the Palestinian cause than Israeli advocates. Indeed, Miron may not support Israel as publicly or as stridently as Massad supports the Palestinians, nor even to the same extent. But to view this disparity as a source of departmental bias implies that pro-Israeli professors should adjust their views and make themselves public figures to match their Pro-Palestinian counterparts.
Dabashi does not see this as a solution. "I as Chair can't demand that every person be a public figure or that nobody should be a public figure and just teach their courses, go home and live as a private person," he said.
But it is still unclear whether Miron's matching Massad in publicity would remedy the situation. If a department is made up of professors with opposite but equally extreme views, does that make it academically responsible? In other words, would MEALAC's critics be satisfied if it hired a group of equally strident pro-Israel professors to "neutralize" the Massad-Dabashi-Saliba triumvirate?
"That's not the issue at all," Sheer said. "That's to miss the point."
Sheer instead called for "a kind of openness that is endemic to anything that considers itself a scholarly institution." This openness, Sheer said, depends on each professor's willingness to entertain the views of students whether or not they agree with his or her own views.
However, the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is such that facts--often assertions that a particular event occurred--come under dispute. In a discourse where even the facts come into question, it seems nearly impossible to present an academic picture without harboring bias.
Of course, this point raises the larger issue that teaching is inherently biased simply by virtue of a professor's vocabulary, personal background, and mood on any given day. This argument--humans are biased; professors are human; therefore professors are biased--may sound simple-minded, but it leads to an important question: What separates a professor's bias based on personal characteristics from his or her bias based on political views?
Many academics believe the line lies somewhere between the inherent bias of humans, all of whom possess a set of beliefs, and "advocacy teaching."
Professor of History Richard Bulliet, formerly director of the Middle East Institute, is one such academic. Last fall Bulliet began teaching America and the Muslim World, his most popular course.
While Bulliet recognizes the impossibility of teaching with complete neutrality, he feels he has a responsibility to keep personal beliefs out of the classroom. "I am not comfortable with advocacy teaching of any sort," he said.
Bulliet asserted that, because of the "coercive structure" of any classroom setting, a professor's "power brings a measure of responsibility." Since a professor presumably wields knowledge, experience, and control over students' grades, the classroom can be an intimidating setting even without a professor imposing his or her views on the students.
Politics in the Classroom
In the debate over academic objectivity, Professor Joseph Massad's name appears frequently. He is a favorite target of not only Campus Watch, whose constituents he referred to in his Al-Ahram article as "thought policemen," but he also receives criticism from students and professors on-campus. Although Massad declined to comment for this article, he is usually vocal in expressing his views and does not deny their role in his class.
Students say that on the first day of his Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Society class, Massad warns his students not to expect an even-handed analysis of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, Massad says he does not seek to intimidate students. "My policy is always to have students, whatever their political coloring, to feel comfortable to express their views freely in class," Massad said in an interview with the Electronic Intifada in September 2002.
While Massad's self-admitted bias bothers many students, some find value in his teaching style, subjective as it is. One student reviewer for the Columbia Underground Listing of Professor Ability, himself half-Israeli, acknowledges that "although it was perhaps the most difficult class to sit through at times, Massad's class is a necessary fixture in the mealac dept. [sic]"
Another student writes that although "I agree with Massad's stance, ... the lack of zionist [sic] voices in the ... reading list and the strict guidelines on paper topics (they steer you towards making Massad's own points) make this class not as thought-provoking as it should be."
Whether students approve of his style or not, no student of his seems oblivious to the fact that Massad offers only one perspective on a complex issue.
However, the question of its academic value remains. Bulliet believes that incorporation of one's own politics into the classroom, however self-aware or unavoidable, is inappropriate. "I don't think it serves a desirable pedagogical role," he said.
Some suggest that a topic as emotional as the Palestinian-Israeli issue requires passionate teaching to match. From this perspective, advocacy teaching portrays the conflict in its true provocative form instead of sterilizing it with academic objectivity.
Conversely, the very fact of the issue's sensitivity demands special consideration from a professor, Bulliet said. He described his preference for an "even-handed stance because the issue is so passionate. There are a few inflammatory issues that necessitate real caution and circumspection when you address them."
Inside the Classroom and Out
"As a department we are principally in charge of two agendas: teaching and scholarship," Dabashi said.
In the debates over the responsibilities of teachers, the line between teaching and scholarship is too often blurred.
Those who portray MEALAC professors as extremists often draw quotes from the professors' written scholarship rather than from anything presented in the classroom. While calling for an even-handed approach to issues in class may uphold certain academic standards, accusing a professor of malpractice for doing the same in his or her writing could be interpreted as censorship.
"[Professors] don't have the same responsibility in writing as they do in a pedagogical role," Bulliet said, "because they may be targeting an off-campus audience." For example, he added, "Khalidi has probably written things that you would not hear him say in class."
Many academics, including Bulliet, believe that what a professor writes for the public or even for the academic world should be kept separate from what he or she teaches in class. Others give more leeway for the mixture of scholarship and pedagogy, saying that it may enter the classroom, but only with sensitivity to students who may disagree.
Accusations of faulty teaching based on what a professor writes for the public do not respect this separation of teaching and scholarship, which guarantees professors the right to say whatever they believe in print without regard for their students. Professors lose this guarantee when their practices outside the classroom are equated with those inside.
The Search for a Solution
No matter what their beliefs or affiliations, nearly every person, department or organization involved in the debate over Middle East studies at Columbia sees the need for discussion.
"The point is to create a sane and productive language of debate and conversation, instead of accusations and demonizations," Dabashi said.
So far, most attempts at creating dialogue have fizzled. The Palestinian Film Festival, for example, received both praise and criticism from different camps but ultimately failed to spark much desirable discourse.
"I'm sad and I'm sorry to say that I cannot think of any event that has been conducive to this kind of dialogue that I think should happen," Dabashi said. The problem, he said, is that dialogue has so far been "across disciplines, across political divides, across religious divides [and] that most of our student associations ... are sharply divided upon religious and ethnic and political lines."
Many students and faculty have seen the same set of problems as Dabashi. Few have done anything about it.
However, most people are beginning to realize that such a discussion will require emotional distance on all sides.
One new student group, Toward Reconciliation, was founded with the purpose of generating a discourse that looks beyond personal beliefs. Jonathan Reich, CC '04 and co-president of Toward Reconciliation, founded the group after witnessing the "polarizing spectre" that was the Israeli Independence Day demonstration last year, where his co-founder Dina Schorr, BC '03, had to break up a fist-fight that had broken out on College Walk between members of the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli camps.
"It's bad enough that we have conflict in the Middle East," Reich said. "Now we're importing it onto our campus as well."
When explaining the group's mission statement to potential supporters, Reich has encountered much disbelief that the project has no strings attached. "When you hear about something like this, if you're at all jaded, the immediate question is, 'What's the real agenda?'" Reich said.
This week the results of the group's first annual student essay contest will be announced. The contest solicits essays that address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on a small scale and propose ways to resolve the conflict from the bottom up. The contest's flyers read, "We're not asking for another Peace Process. Just one step toward reconciliation."
Although Reich sees Columbia students as the most important element of any meaningful discussion, he conceded that professors and the classroom setting will also play a large role.
"It's important that in the faculty-student relationship, especially within a department dealing with contentious issues, there's a certain level of academic honesty," Reich said. "This means stepping outside of personal beliefs."
Students and academics from all sides see the arrival of Rashid Khalidi as director of the Middle East Institute as a step in the right direction. Those familiar with Khalidi agree that Columbia's generally positive reception of Khalidi, which Pipes called "delirious," is well-founded.
"Khalidi is more balanced," Sheer said.
Although Toward Reconciliation has only addressed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the past year, it plans to expand its scope to address conflicts across the globe.
Perhaps it should begin with the MEALAC conflict.