Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has launched an investigation of claims by Jewish students and pro-Israel faculty of being threatened and intimidated by some pro-Palestinian professors in the famed university's Middle East studies department.
The investigation was announced Wednesday, shortly after a press screening of a new yet-to-be-released 25-minute documentary featuring students and alumni accusing several Middle East studies professors of making racist and anti-Israel statements in class.
About eight students spoke of abuse and an "environment of intimidation," and about their fear of coming forward because it could affect their grades and recommendations. Several students also charged that some university professors had confided that they feared publicly backing the students or expressing pro-Israel sentiments on campus because it would be "professional suicide" in a department dominated by pro-Palestinian scholars.
"Because of the disturbing and offensive nature of incidents described in the film, I've asked Provost Alan Brinkley to look into them," Bollinger said in a statement. It marks the second probe regarding claims of anti-Israel bias launched by the Columbia president in a year.
The previous examination was concluded quietly last May, with no public report being issued. Referring to the first investigation, Bollinger told the New York Daily News that the faculty investigators "said to me they have not found claims of bias or intimidation."
The new documentary, titled "Columbia Unbecoming" — a joint project of The David Project, a Boston-based Israel advocacy group, and LionPAC, Columbia's pro-Israel political action club — presents a litany of charges against scholars in the Middle East and Asian languages and culture department.
Many of the charges center on Joseph Massad, a nontenured professor of modern Arab politics.
Tomy Schoenfeld, an Israeli who attended Columbia and served in the Israeli military, recounted how during a lecture in 2001, he asked Massad a question.
"Before I could continue, [Massad] stopped me and said, 'Did you serve in the military?'" Schoenfeld recalled during a press conference Wednesday. "He asked me how many Palestinians I had killed. I was shocked. What did that have to do with anything?"
Columbia senior Ariel Beery quoted Massad telling students: "The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi" and "I will not have someone in this class who denies Israeli atrocities."
Senior Aharon Horowitz, who studied Arabic and wears a skullcap, revealed that when he asked a language professor how to use the verb "prevent" in Arabic, the teacher wrote on the board, "Israelis prevent ambulances from entering refugee camps."
In the documentary, Columbia alumnus Lindsay Shrier said that after a class several years ago, she engaged in a 45-minute debate with George Saliba, a Middle Eastern studies professor, regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said the conversation ended with him telling her: "You have no claim to the land of Israel. You have no voice in this debate. You have green eyes. You're not a Semite. I have brown eyes. I am a Semite."
"I was horrified and hurt and stunned," she said. "He wanted to intimidate me and keep me quiet, and he succeeded. I never approached him after that."
She said she is speaking out now "for the sake of future graduates, to let them know they are not alone."
Last week, U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Brooklyn Democrat, publicly urged Columbia to "fire" Massad.
Massad and Saliba were unavailable for comment.
Massad has written that Israel is a racist state with no right to exist, and he calls for a one-state solution to the Middle East conflict.
After reading a transcript of the film, Saliba, a professor of Arabic and Islamic science, told The New York Sun that he had no recollection of such a conversation with 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," he said.
He called Massad an "extremely bright" scholar with an "international reputation."
Other scholars around the country are also backing Massad. A petition launched by University of Texas professor Neville Hoad and containing 700 signatures of scholars from the around the world was being organized. Although the expectation was that it would be sent to Bollinger, but a Columbia spokesman said he had not yet received it.
Bollinger called the accusations in the documentary troubling.
"We take them very seriously," he said in a statement. "Columbia University does not condone the intimidation of students or discrimination of any kind.
"The University is committed to the core principle of academic freedom in teaching and research. But that principle is not unlimited. It does not, for example, extend to protecting behavior in the classroom that threatens or intimidates students who express their viewpoints."
While Bollinger said it is premature to discuss how the student charges will be evaluated, "we recognize that protecting and upholding academic freedom requires having a clear, consistent and well-articulated process for airing grievances."
At the press conference, the students demanded that Columbia set up a "protected whistleblower program" in which they could make complaints without fear of retribution from faculty or from administration.
One student, Elana Jaffe, told the Forward that she had gone to several administrative offices seeking to file a complaint, with no success. "There is no formal complaint system. It's a huge part of the problem."
David Project Executive Director Avi Goldwasser said that he was encouraged by Bollinger's action. "It is a necessary first step. Recognizing the problem is always the first step to solving it."
David Project officials said they intended to replicate the documentaries on other campuses around the United States where students have voiced similar complaints, including San Francisco State University, the University of California at Berkeley and Duke.
Goldwasser said that as of yet, no decision has been made to release the documentary to the public.