A leading scholar of Hebrew literature at Columbia University said yesterday that for years students have complained to him about anti-Israel bias in the classroom.
As Columbia University begins to investigate claims from students who say professors routinely promote hatred of Israel, the scholar, Dan Miron, a tenured professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, told The New York Sun that the school is awakening to a long-existing problem.
"It's been going on for years now," Mr. Miron said. Students who have come to his office, he said, complained that they "were humiliated."
"They were not allowed to ask questions," he said. "It's high time for this to be investigated."
Mr. Miron, a scholar of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature who came to Columbia 17 years ago from Hebrew University, said he is one of the department's few sympathizers of Israel.
"The department as a whole has been developing an ideology or agenda that is not particularly pro-Israel," he said. "There are some professors who question the legitimacy of Israel as it is."
The department has come under intense public scrutiny with the release of a documentary film, "Columbia Unbecoming," which alleges numerous cases of professors' displaying open hostility toward Jewish students who express support for Israel.
Lee Bollinger, who is in his third year as president on Morningside Heights, decided Wednesday to investigate allegations about professors' conduct. That was announced after reports of the film provoked a flurry of concerned reactions from Jewish leaders and alumni. In addition, Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat of Brooklyn and Queens, demanded that Columbia "fire" an assistant professor accused of intimidating Jewish students.
While avoiding the issue of faculty bias against Israel - a common complaint among Jewish students at the school - Mr. Bollinger has pledged Columbia will set up a "well-articulated process for airing grievances" against professors who exhibit intolerance toward students with opposing viewpoints.
Mayor Bloomberg praised Mr. Bollinger yesterday for "taking the allegations of intolerance on his campus so seriously."
Mr. Bollinger also met with the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman. After his visit to Columbia, Mr. Foxman said he was satisfied with Mr. Bollinger's handling of the student complaints.
"Under President Bollinger's leadership, Columbia University will put into place practices that will contribute to a bias-free academic atmosphere," Mr. Foxman told the Sun in a statement.
"Columbia Unbecoming," produced by a Boston-based group called the David Project, features testimonies from several students describing instances in which professors from the department have silenced pro-Israel views in courses on the Middle East.
One of those scholars - and the target of the Weiner complaint - is Joseph Massad, an assistant professor of modern Arab politics, who says Israel is a racist state that does not legitimately represent Jews. In a class discussion about Israel's 2002 incursion into Jenin in the West Bank, Mr. Massad reprimanded a student who defended Israel's actions, according to a student who was interviewed for the film, Noah Liben. "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,'" Mr. Liben, 22, said.
Mr. Miron, who saw the film, said he hears similar stories from students about once a week, often concerning professors' laughing at them or shouting them down. He said he hasn't passed the complaints to the administration because "it's not my role - if they want to go, it's their thing." He also said Columbia's response to the situation in general has been "very weak."
Mr. Miron said he has a cordial relationship with most professors in the department, which he says "handles itself amicably." And he spoke in glowing terms of the department's Hebrew language courses, which enroll about 150 students.
He said the department has grown increasingly hostile toward Israel and America, with more professors viewing global politics "as a clash between the colonized and colonizers." More than a third of the professors in the department signed a 2002 petition urging Columbia to divest its holdings from companies that sell arms to Israel.
Mr. Miron also said the anti-Israel atmosphere in the department has "anti-Jewish overtones."
"Israelis are put to a test that is not applied to anyone else," he said. "You will not hear a murmur about the people of Sudan, but you will hear that Israeli soldiers are raping Palestinians. Israel is singled out in a way that is racist."
He said, "The needs of Israel, the legitimate concerns of Israel, are never taken into account."
Mr. Miron said he decided to teach a course about the history of Zionism three years ago because he wanted students to learn about Zionism "from someone who is not branding it racism."
The chairman of the department, Hamid Dabashi, and Mr. Massad declined to speak to the Sun.
A number of Jewish students who have taken courses offered by the department said they were treated fairly by the professors.
"I haven't experienced anything that has made me personally uncomfortable," said Frances Kreimer, a junior majoring in Middle East and Asian languages and cultures and a member of Jews for Social Justice, a left-wing group on campus.
Those with the strongest complaints tended to be pro-Israel students saying they were offended by professors' hostility toward the country. Aharon Horwitz, a recent graduate who majored in political science and Arabic, told the Sun that when he asked a professor how to use an Arabic word meaning "prevents," the professor offered the example, "Israel prevents ambulances from going into refugee camps."