Columbia University is the locus of a growing controversy over accusations that three professors in the university's Middle East and Asian language and culture department used their classes to brashly intimidate students that supported Israeli policy. These charges are presented in a short documentary by the pro-Israel group the David Project, titled "Columbia Unbecoming," and in a series of articles and editorials in the conservative New York Sun.
These are grave charges, but they should be viewed with skepticism. The recent spate of right-wing smear campaigns against academics who support opposing positions on foreign affairs, especially related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should give us pause in evaluating the accusations at Columbia. In fact, the available evidence lends itself to the supposition that it is the professors - and by extension other academics with similar political perspectives - who are the ones being subjected to intimidation.
The documentary - which aside from a few screenings to selective audiences has not been released to the public - is based on the anecdotal accounts of only six current and former Columbia students. According to people who have viewed the film, it references three professors, but the brunt of the condemnation falls on Joseph Massad, who teaches an elective course, "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies," that is "critical of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism." In the wake of the film, the Sun and U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-Brooklyn, have demanded that Massad be fired.
Of the handful of students who attack Massad in the film, only one has ever taken his class. Despite divergent opinions on Israeli state policy, Massad remembers having a "friendly rapport" with the student, including office-hour discussions and e-mail correspondence well after the class was over. These are hardly the signs of a student intimidated by his professor.
Another student in the film decribes an exchange he had with Massad after he approached the professor following an off-campus lecture to take issue with some of Massad's points. This is a poor way to initiate discussion without provocation, presuming that was even the student's motive. Even if the discussion was heated, an encounter outside of both the university and the particular event's forum can hardly be construed as a professor using his classroom authority to intimidate dissident students.
Before the film's emergence, Columbia officials had not received a single formal complaint about the alleged intimidation. Even the local Jewish periodical, Jewish Week, is highly skeptical of the claims, noting, "Most of the complaints on campus appear to be from pro-Israel activist students not in the [Middle Eastern studies] program," and concluding that, after independent interviews with four of the students in the film and other Israeli and American Jewish students in the department, "a much different picture emerges than the one seemingly portrayed on screen."
"This movie films half a dozen students who are interested in creating a paranoia of anti-Semitism on campus," said Eric Posner, a Columbia student and former Israeli soldier who, unlike all but one of the six students in the film, has actually taken class with Massad.
Posner said he found Massad "approachable, stimulating and challenging," despite their differing political views. "He is articulate, he is very challenging, he is very critical of the Israeli government and he's very critical of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority," Posner said, adding, "If a professor doesn't challenge me, if he doesn't make me re-evaluate my positions or come up with better arguments, what's the point of going to the classroom?"
Thus it seems that the real problem these six students have with Massad is that he crticizes Israel. It also seems that the David Project was only too willing to help them in this attack by financing a misrepresentative movie heavy on shock value. On a national scale, ideological groups like Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch have hoped to intimidate scholars critical of aspects of U.S. foreign policy by creating McCarthy-esque blacklists.
Professors draw conclusions in their work and often times those conclusions are "political." Professors are paid to teach what they know, political implications and all. Their job is not to oversee a political balancing act in the classroom, or to make sure that every view is presented equally.
It's interesting how only certain academic disciplines are attacked for being "unbalanced" - you wouldn't require a U.S. historian to present the "alternative view" on the good points of Southern slavery or a Stern professor to extol the benefits of worker-controlled factory collectives.
We realize this at NYU, and don't get worked up trying to fire every professor we don't agree with. We know that sometimes classes with professors we don't agree with can challenge us to think more critically. And if we really have a problem with a professor's view, we know the simple solution is to just not to take his or her class.
I'd expect that students at a place with a reputation like Columbia's would realize that too. But I'm not surprised. I always knew deep down that NYU students were smarter. •
Jason Rowe is a columnist for Washington Square News