Engulfed in a public relations crisis, Columbia University has decided to investigate student claims that some professors are prejudiced against Israel and stifle opposing views in the classroom.
Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, said in a statement yesterday that he was "troubled" by student accusations against professors featured in a new documentary film, "Columbia Unbecoming," produced by a pro-Israel group in Boston.
Calling the student accounts "disturbing," Mr. Bollinger said Columbia "does not condone the intimidation of students or discrimination of any kind."
In an unusual move, Mr. Bollinger tapped his provost, American history scholar Alan Brinkley, to investigate the students' complaints "to ensure that the University is upholding its commitment to foster a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect within the community."
The 25-minute film, which yesterday was shown to journalists for the first time, consists of a series of interviews with current and former students who describe examples of Columbia professors displaying a strong bias against Israel and treating pro-Israel students in a hostile manner.
Reports of the film, which first appeared in The New York Sun, prompted Rep. Anthony Weiner last week to publicly urge Columbia to "fire" Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics and one of the main targets of the film.
Mr. Massad did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
In one scene in the film, a Columbia student, Noah Liben, recalls a class he had with Mr. Massad in spring 2001 during which the professor, while making the argument that Zionism is a male-dominated movement, told students that the Hebrew word zion means "penis." Zion actually means a "designated area or sign post," which sounds similar to zayin, which means a weapon or penis, according to Rabbi Charles Sheer, the former Jewish chaplain at Columbia.
At another point while teaching the same course, Palestinian-Israeli Politics and Societies, Mr. Massad told students that Jews in Nazi Germany were not physically abused or harassed until Kristallnacht in November 1938, Mr. Liben told the Sun.
In the film, Mr. Liben also recounts a lecture a year later given by Mr. Mas sad, who was discussing Israel's 2002 incursion into Jenin in the West Bank.
"He was teaching the class about the Jenin incidents and a girl raised her hand and tried to bring up an alternative point of view," he said in the film. "And before she could get her point across he quickly demanded and shouted at her, 'I will not have anyone sit through this class and deny Israeli atrocities.' "
At another point in the film, a Columbia student who graduated in 2003, Lindsay Shrier, recalls an incident in 2001 when one of her professors, George Saliba of the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, told her in a private conversation after class that because of her green eyes she couldn't possibly have any claim to the land of Israel.
Ms. Shrier, who is Jewish, said she was "stunned" by the conversation and "never approached him after that."
Mr. Saliba, a professor of Arabic and Islamic science, told the Sun after reading a transcript of the film that he had no recollection of such a conversation with Ms. Shrier.
"I do sometimes use the metaphor that inheriting a religion or converting to one is not the same as inheriting the color of one's eyes from one's parents ... and most certainly it does not come with a deed to a specific lot of real estate," said Mr. Saliba, who called Mr. Massad an "extremely bright" scholar with an "international reputation."
A petition backing Mr. Massad started by a University of Texas professor, Neville Hoad, and publicized by Mona Baker, a British scholar who believes Israelis should not be hired in academia, was sent to Messrs. Bollinger and Brinkley on Tuesday. It contained more than 700 signatures from scholars around the world.
Mr. Massad, a nontenured professor, is one of the most outspoken opponents of Israel among scholars at American universities and has argued in his writing that Israel is a racist state that does not have a right to exist. He has written that Israel does not represent the Jews and called for a "one-state solution" to the Middle East conflict.
Palestinians have lost international support, he wrote in 2003, not because Palestinian groups have committed terrorism but because Yasser Arafat has made too many concessions to Israel and has tried to suppress the intifada.
Mr. Massad co-teaches "Introduction to Major Topics in Asian Civilizations: The Middle East and India," one of the two courses that students majoring in Middle East and Asian languages and cultures are required to take. The only book primarily about Israel in the reading list for the course is "Israel: a Colonial Settler State?" by Maxime Rodinson.
Yesterday's action was Mr. Bollinger's first public response to the film, which has thrown the issue of anti-Israel sentiment on Columbia's campus into the public spotlight and has captured the attention of Jewish leaders and alumni.
The film was produced by the Boston-based David Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for Israel.
His comments suggest that Mr. Bollinger's focus is not on whether professors at Columbia who study the Middle East have an anti-Israel bias but whether students who feel academically threatened have a clear way to express their grievances.
Mr. Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar who became president of Columbia in 2002, said the school "is committed to the core principle of academic freedom in teaching and research. But that principle is not unlimited. It must be viewed within the context of the University's other values. It does not, for example, extend to protecting behavior in the classroom that threatens or intimidates students who express their viewpoints."
Mr. Bollinger formed a committee last year that looked into the possibility of the school marking stricter boundaries between academic expression and political advocacy. Mr. Bollinger said the committee did not find any claims or evidence of bias or intimidation in the classroom.
Jewish students interviewed for the documentary say evidence of bias is not hard to find and complain that they have had trouble lodging complaints to school officials, who recommend that they bring their complaints to department heads.
The students with complaints about courses in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department said they have been directed to the chairman of the department, Hamid Dabashi. Mr. Dabashi was one of the 700 academics who signed the petition in support of Mr. Massad and in 2002 signed a petition demanding that Columbia divest from companies that sell arms to Israel.