In the spring of 2003, a student approached Professor George Saliba to discuss a film shown in class that the student felt did not present a balanced view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The student wanted to debate a number of points raised by the film but was told that she had "no voice in the debate" because of the color of her eyes. The media has fixated on the conversation, recounted in the film "Columbia Unbecoming," mostly because of the eye color comment.
Professor Saliba will no doubt counter that the student misrepresents a more nuanced and certainly less inflammatory argument that he made. But what should be more disturbing to the University community than the use of physical traits in academic debates is the mere assertion that a student, or anyone, has no voice in a given discourse.
The debate over the nature of the Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures department has been a nearly constant one during my three and a half years at this University, and "Columbia Unbecoming," The David Project's attempt to air student voices on the subject of Middle East studies, will no doubt add to it.
Already a petition in support of Professor Joseph Massad has been circulated. That petition calls "Columbia Unbecoming" an attempt to "frighten, and ultimately silence, the courageous voices of public intellectuals, and those of committed teachers and professors, who seek to publish and speak freely." Those involved in the "campaign," they argue, "threaten the very ideal of a university as a place of open and vigorous intellectual exchanges. They threaten the very ideals upheld by Professor Massad and by the faculty of Columbia University." This response is characteristic of how MEALAC and its allies have responded to attacks—calling any criticism of their ranks or methods an attack on academic freedom. Professor Massad, in an April 2003 article in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, complained about the "thought policemen" whose tactic "consists of a refusal to address any of the offending contentions made by scholars and instead relies on the use of policing methods of discrediting, intimidation, and character assassination. ... The overall purpose of this policing agenda is the destruction of academic freedom." In the Spring of 2003, MEALAC chair Hamid Dabashi responded to assertions of bias by a prominent alumnus by arguing that "such malicious misrepresentations of my department are a deliberate attempt at silencing voices of civilized dissent and civil discourse."
But who really needs to be protected in this contest of wills and narratives? The most striking thing about MEALAC is that so many people are afraid of it. There are, of course, the students featured in the film who attest that they felt as though they had no safe forum in which to complain about what they saw as tactics of intimidation and abuse in the classroom. But even faculty members have not been immune to the aura of intimidation surrounding members of the MEALAC faculty. Professors of various departments identified as pro-Israel who were approached by The David Project staff agreed to give off-the-record interviews but balked at being included in the film. They all agreed that the issue of departmental bias was a serious one, but those who had yet to receive tenure equated participating in the video with "career suicide," and those who were already tenured claimed that it would jeopardize their credibility as scholars.
The Orwellian McCarthyism, if you will, being practiced by MEALAC is where we should refocus the debate. The department avoids having to deal with criticism by calling it an infringement on its academic freedom—silencing its opponents by accusing them of trying to silence it. The real danger of MEALAC is not that there are professors who are pro-Palestinian, and it's not even that the department as a whole is biased. The real danger of MEALAC is that opposing points of view are dishonestly recast as attacks on academic freedoms. Such an attitude not only cultivates a generation of students of the Middle East with a skewed and hate-driven education but also creates an atmosphere in which anything can be criticized except criticism of Israel.
How Professor Massad can refuse to answer a student's in-class question—instead asking how many human beings that student had killed—and retain his credibility as a scholar is an issue in-and-of-itself. But the greater issue is how the University could cultivate a department that inspires such fear in both students and faculty alike.
A little over a year ago I received an e-mail from a Spectator colleague in response to a dissenting editorial written after the death of former University Professor Edward Said. "Just so you know," the e-mail read, "the entire MEALAC department has decided not to talk to Spec news reporters, because of the dissenting Said edit that ran on Monday. ... Let's please try to be very careful about how we deal with this department." The incident behind the e-mail highlights the way in which the tactic of silencing can be successful. The MEALAC department at Columbia wishes to speak its mind while denying others that same luxury, demanding respect while withholding it. Whether they are silent or outspoken, they don't listen, thereby doing a tremendous disservice to those they purport to serve.
Sara Sebrow is a Barnard College senior majoring in English. A Fish With a Bike runs on alternate Wednesdays.