A film produced by a Boston-based Zionist group alleges that Columbia professors discriminated against Israeli students or those who defended Israel's right to exist.
The David Project, a non-profit organization that aims to "promote a fair and honest understanding of the Middle East conflict," according to its president, created the film after meeting with students who said they had been intimidated by professors in Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. The film has reignited controversy surrounding professors of Middle East studies at Columbia, many of whom have long faced charges of voicing anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiments. Most recently, the University administration was widely criticized for accepting a $200,000 gift from the United Arab Emirates to fund the Edward Said chair in Middle East studies that professor Rashid Khalidi now holds.
The president of The David Project, Charles Jacobs, said the new film was intended to alert Columbia administrators to the issue of anti-Semitism on campus and was not meant to be shown to students or the media. But the group was forced to take the project public, Jacobs said, after Barnard College President Judith Shapiro mentioned it in a speech last week. Shapiro and University Provost Alan Brinkley had seen the film in a special screening by David Project leaders.
"I was astonished by the stories I heard from students," Jacobs said. "It was motivated in part because there was no clear way that students felt they could be protected if they spoke out." One professor featured in the film is assistant professor Joseph Massad, a Jordanian native whose characterization of Israel as a racist state has brought frequent allegations of anti-Semitism. Massad has repeatedly maintained that he is not anti-Semitic, writing in an Egyptian magazine in 2003 that "Israel is a racist state not because of Jewish nationalism but because of its legally institutionalised racism where only Jews (not Israelis) have rights and privileges based on their national belonging."
Massad was unavailable for comment yesterday, citing a full course load and an evening meeting.
In the David Project documentary, which was screened for interested students last night and is scheduled to be shown at a press conference this morning, students say they were belittled by Massad and other professors for expressing pro-Israel views. According to Jacobs, former School of General Studies student Tomy Schoenfeld says Massad refused to listen to him after learning he was an Israeli native and had served in the Israeli Air Force. Schoenfeld said Massad asked him "how many Palestinians have you killed?" and would not allow him to speak when he declined to answer.
University President Lee Bollinger, who has not seen the film, called a special deans' meeting Monday to discuss the issues raised by The David Project and the students alleging discrimination. Bollinger said that cases of intimidation would be fully investigated by Columbia administrators, but that to his knowledge no student had formally come forward to register a complaint about any of the professors featured in the film.
"I am very disturbed by these allegations, but I don't know that they are true," he said. "If they are true we take them very seriously."
But Ariel Beery, GS '05 and a student interviewed for the film, said students were unable to file complaints because of fears that they would be discriminated against by the department chair or other professors. Beery, who has not taken a class with Massad, said that several people told him about negative experiences with professors and said that they felt uncomfortable going to department chair Hamid Dabashi because his political beliefs align with those of other members of the department.
"There has to be an anonymous way to lodge a complaint," Beery said. "For example, you can't go to Hamid Dabashi with a complaint about [MEALAC professor] George Saliba."
Though few people affiliated with Columbia have seen the documentary, an series of articles condemning the department in conservative newspaper The New York Sun late last week alerted several people to the film. The Sun, which has championed Zionist causes since it was reborn in 2002, also called for Massad to be fired in an editorial.
On Monday, U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner (D-Queens) also called for University administrators to fire Massad. In a letter addressed to Bollinger, Weiner wrote that by not disciplining the professor, Columbia would "enhance the public perception that it is condones anti-Semitism."
Since The Sun began its campaign, Massad has received angry letters, including one from Columbia associate clinical professor of medicine Moshe Rubin. An e-mail from Rubin forwarded to Spectator by Massad read, "Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar."
This week, former colleagues of Massad from his Ph.D program at Columbia have created an online petition to support him, calling him a courageous public intellectual who has been unafraid to speak his mind after Sept. 11, 2001. As of last night the petition had 600 signatures, several of which were from other Columbia professors.