BEIRUT: Pro-Israeli groups in New York have stepped-up a campaign against Columbia University's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, complaining of its alleged strong anti-Israeli bias. At the center of the controversy is Joseph Massad, a Jordanian-born Palestinian who teaches politics and intellectual history there.
The far-right Pro-Israeli newspaper The New York Sun broke a story on Oct. 20 that there existed an underground film in which university students and alumni complain that they felt their academic careers were threatened because they expressed pro-Israeli positions.
Produced by a two-year-old Israel-advocacy group calling itself the David Project, the film has yet to be distributed to the public. It seems a small audience of Columbia administrators - including Barnard College president, Judith Shapiro, and Columbia provost, Alan Brinkley - received a private screening. The Boston-based group has announced that it has sent a copy to Simon Klarfeld, head of the Hillel chapter of Columbia and Barnard, who plans to screen it for the organization's board of directors in November.
The article quoted one Columbia student, Ariel Beery, as remarking, "it is shocking to see blatant use of racial stereotypes by professors and intimidation tactics ... to push a distinct ideological line ..." Beery is a frequent contributor to Daniel Pipe's "Campus Watch," the neoconservative Web site dedicated to "monitoring Middle East studies on campus."
Based on its interviews with someone who claims to have seen the film, The Sun reported that Massad is one of its most-discussed scholars. The Sun accuses Massad - a tenure-track professor and one of the eight academics that inspired Campus Watch - is accused of likening Israel to Nazi Germany and saying Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state.
It seems the film quotes Columbia alumni and Israeli air force veteran Tom Schoenfeld recalling having attended a lecture by Massad and trying to ask the lecturer a question. Apparently, Schoenfeld told The Sun, he prefaced the remark by informing Massad that he was Israeli. He said Massad asked him if he'd served in the Israeli Army. He said Massad wouldn't allow him to ask the question until he told him how many Palestinians he'd killed.
The plot thickened when The Sun reported on Oct. 22 that New York State Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat representing Brooklyn and Queens, wrote a letter to Columbia president, Lee Bollinger, calling for Massad's dismissal.
Weiner, who is toying with running for mayor, told The Sun he supports academic freedom but said: "There has been a line ... crossed here between the search of knowledge and the expression of hate ... Dressing it up as intellectual freedom doesn't change it from what it is."
In 2003, in fact, Bollinger convened a committee of Columbia professors devoted to drawing a more distinct line between academic expression and political activism. He told the New York Daily News that the committee found no evidence, indeed no claims, of classroom bias or intimidation.
Columbia is currently raising money for an endowed professorship in Israeli studies to compensate for what Bollinger has called a lack of contemporary Israel scholarship at the school.
The university has been under harsh criticism recently for having accepted some $200,000 from the UAE, to help finance a chair named for the late literature professor and Palestinian activist Edward Said. The chair's donors also included some prominent Jewish philanthropists - The Hauser Foundation, for instance, and Jean Stein.