"Columbia Unbecoming," our film about intimidation of students with pro-Israel views, sparked interest and support. It also generated attacks on us and the students in it, which prompts us to respond.
The David Project was founded two years ago in response to the ideological assault on Israel and its supporters on North America's campuses. This hostility sometimes led to violence, as we saw at San Francisco State, Berkeley, and Concordia Universities. Animus toward Israel on campus is part of a well-planned campaign that includes the national divestment movement as well as individual professors who use their positions to promote a political agenda. This campaign includes legitimate criticism of Israeli and American policy, but uses the language of human rights, national liberation, and academic freedom to demonize Israel, Israelis, and their supporters.
We believe that the Middle East conflict has resulted in profound suffering for both Arabs and Israelis, and that there is a moral imperative to alleviate this suffering. We do not have a solution, but we believe the path to peace begins with a fair and honest understanding of the conflict. We believe that the values of tolerance, pluralism, and civil society are prerequisites for achieving genuine peace. We do not endorse a political agenda beyond Israel's right to exist peacefully among its neighbors. We believe in Jewish political self-determination in the Middle East, and are proud to be called Zionists. We also believe in the Palestinians' right to self-determination.
We had never heard of Professor Joseph Massad before we were invited last October to hear students' concerns. These students love Columbia, but are troubled by certain professors who promote a biased education and deny dissenting views in class. We made the film to ensure that students' voices be heard, and thereby encourage Columbia's administration to take corrective actions. The documentary was completed in March 2004 and was released to the press in October. During this period we met with and sought the help of alumni, parents, donors, trustees, and the administration.
It is understandable that professors would be angry with a film documenting their alleged intimidation of students who questioned their politicized lessons. The professors' "response" included personal attacks on the students and on us, while they portrayed themselves as victims. Professor Massad has called the documentary part of a "racist witch-hunt" by a "private organization with huge funds" (we wish it were so: the professor has not done his homework) that is trying to "undermine our ... freedom of speech." He is simply accusing us of what he himself is guilty of: McCarthyism.
As one student featured in the documentary claims, Professor Massad would not answer a question by an Israeli student unless the student responded to Massad's taunt: "How many Palestinians did you kill?" Analogies are imperfect—Israelis do not aim to kill non-combatant Palestinian civilians—but if a professor at Columbia demanded of an Arab student from Sudan, "How many black slaves does your family own?" he would be reprimanded.
We are puzzled that some Columbia students who pride themselves in supporting the less powerful join professors to dismiss the students' testimony as propaganda. We are also struck by the handful of students who are eager to proclaim "I'm Jewish and I oppose the state of Israel"—as if that grants them moral superiority. The lure of universalism and rejection of particularism as a way of dealing with Jewishness is not new: universalism—whether Marxist or the newer "citizen of the world" variety—is a classic escape route from the difficulties of being Jewish; their hostility to fellow Jews who don't agree with them is inexcusable.
This debate should be about the facts and the need for diverse views in the classroom. It is not about moral posturing or some knee-jerk response to anyone who questions critics of Israel: being a critic of Israel does not immunize anyone from criticism.
Meanwhile, Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures Professor Dan Miron, validating the students in our film, told the press that faculty abuse of students is a "long existing problem ... going on for years," and that students tell him—on a weekly basis—about being humiliated in class.
The students are asking for these basic rights that will benefit everyone:
A zero-tolerance policy toward intimidation and harassment in the classroom and a "user friendly" complaint process with "whistle-blower" protections (not unlike sexual or racial harassment complaint policies).
A single standard for all minorities at Columbia as it relates to a hostile environment. Jews are a large minority on campus, a tiny minority in the country, and some feel vulnerable given a perceived increase in anti-Semitism.
An intellectually diverse MEALAC department that deals with the major challenges in the Middle East, including the oppression of women, gays, and minorities, and the challenges of democracy, human rights, civil society, and modernity.
The authors are president and executive director, respectively, of The David Project.