A U.S. congressman has demanded that Columbia University fire a nontenured professor of Arab politics who has been an outspoken critic of Israel. The congressman, Anthony D. Weiner, a New York Democrat up for re-election on Tuesday, said that Joseph A. Massad had crossed a line "between vigorous debate and discussion, and hate."
Fellow academics have come to the professor's defense and have circulated a petition calling on Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia's president, to "issue a categorical statement in defense of Professor Massad and against this campaign of defamation."
The dispute comes at a time when the discipline of Middle East studies has come under fire from critics who have denounced the programs as anti-American and anti-Israel. At Columbia the controversy came to a head last week after editorials in the New York Sun and Daily News reported that in a yet-to-be released documentary, Columbia students complain of anti-Israel sentiment among faculty members. Professor Massad is reportedly mentioned in the film.
"Massad is alleged to have likened Israel to Nazi Germany, said that Israel doesn't have the right to exist as a Jewish state, and asked an Israeli student, 'How many Palestinians have you killed?' and then refused to allow the student to ask questions," Representative Weiner said last week in a statement in which he accused the professor of using his classroom to espouse anti-Semitic views.
In a letter he sent to Mr. Bollinger last week, the congressman wrote: "Recent events continue to suggest a disturbing trend in which Columbia's administration has not been sensitive to issues of race. By publicly rebuking anti-Semitic events on campus and terminating Professor Massad, Columbia would make a brave statement in support of tolerance and academic freedom."
"There's nothing wrong with having a debate about the Middle East or a debate about politics in general," Representative Weiner told The Chronicle. "But when you deal with students in the way this professor did, and make comments that this professor did, it's clear that's beyond debate. It has become harmful."
The lawmaker, who represents Brooklyn and Queens, said he was not aware of whether Mr. Massad had denied making the remarks. "So far the professor's defenders have just argued as a college professor you have the right to say any outrageous, hateful thing you want, and I disagree with that," he said.
Mr. Massad, an assistant professor in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, did not immediately respond to e-mail and telephone messages seeking comment.
"The university does not condone anti-Semitic behavior and expression of any kind," said Susan M. Brown, a spokeswoman for Columbia. "We take very seriously any concerns raised by a congressman and respond to them."
The allegations prompted Mr. Bollinger to release a statement last week on the university's policy on academic integrity and freedom of expression, saying that Columbia is committed to upholding both. "At the same time, we believe that the principle of academic freedom is not unlimited," he said. "It does not, for example, extend to protecting behavior in the classroom that threatens or intimidates students for expressing their viewpoints or that uses the classroom as a means of political indoctrination."
Mr. Bollinger said he asked Alan Brinkley, the university's provost, and Nicholas Dirks, vice president of arts and sciences, to work with Columbia's deans and chairmen to review the grievance processes in place for professors and students so that those "who feel they have experienced classroom threats or intimidation have a place where their complaints will be addressed."
More than 700 people, mainly faculty members from all over the world, have signed a petition that Neville Hoad, an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, circulated to support Mr. Massad. The two attended graduate school at Columbia together in the 1990s.
"Professor Massad has never been notified that any student in any of his classes has ever lodged a formal complaint about his teaching with the Columbia administration," Mr. Hoad wrote in an e-mail message to The Chronicle. He declined to be interviewed by phone, citing "the generally poisonous atmosphere around this issue."
What is happening to his colleague, he wrote, "strikes at the heart of academic freedom and university self-governance, and therefore it is crucial that the academic community at large respond."
Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, signed the petition. "Unsubstantiated accusations are being used for a witch hunt," he told The Chronicle. "You can't try somebody in the court of public opinion."
He said it was an academic matter that the university should deal with. "I would be very unhappy if students did feel they couldn't bring issues they have around these kinds of matters to a university forum," he said, "but I do worry about faculty being intimidated."
Mona Baker, a professor of translation studies at the University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology, posted the petition on her Web site (http://www.monabaker.com), and urged academics to sign. She wrote that Mr. Massad "is the target of a new and particularly vicious attack by the pro-Israel lobby in the States, aimed at getting him dismissed and destroying his highly promising career." She said that she knows him "personally" and called him "a man of dazzling scholarship, academic and personal integrity, and a tireless advocate for peace with justice in the Middle East."
Two years ago, Ms. Baker, who owns St. Jerome Publishing, an academic press specializing in translation studies, dismissed two Israeli scholars from the boards of academic journals published by her company, which is British. Ms. Baker said she dismissed them as part of an academic boycott of Israel.
Mr. Hoad sent the petition to Columbia's president Tuesday and said that he has never met Ms. Baker and has no affiliation with her but is "grateful" for her help in circulating the petition.
Ms. Brown said she didn't know whether Columbia officials had received the petition, but said that the university was "very appreciative of people taking the time to let us know their concerns. We do take them seriously."