Despite the controversy surrounding the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department following the contentious film Columbia Unbecoming, the number of students registering for MEALAC classes next semester appears to be largely unaffected.
Columbia Unbecoming, produced by the Boston-based Zionist group The David Project, charges that the MEALAC department harasses pro-Israel students. Media coverage in publications including New York Sun, Jewish Week, and the New York Daily News reported a campus-wide crisis around allegations of intimidation that many students feel don't reflect the reality.
Yesterday the Daily News ran a front page story on the MEALAC department with the headline "Poison Ivy: Climate of Hate Rocks Columbia University." The article claimed that "dozens of academics [at Columbia] are said to be promoting an I-hate-Israel agenda, embracing the ugliest of Arab propaganda, and teaching that Zionism is the root of all evil in the Mideast."
These allegations and the recent controversy have not diminished student desire to take MEALAC classes. Most students said that their primary reason for taking classes about the Middle East is a desire to better understand the region in the context of current international affairs.
One popular class is Contemporary Islamic Civilization, taught by Professor George Saliba, who was named in Columbia Unbecoming. According to the directory of classes, the class is filled to capacity with 150 students registered as of Saturday. Last semester, Saliba taught Introduction to Islamic Civilization, which was also full with over 200 students.
The professor most directly in the center of the conroversy is Joseph Massad. This semester he is co-teaching Topics in Asian Civilization: the Middle East and India with Professor Janaki Bakhle, which is a required class for MEALAC majors as well as a popular way to fulfill the list A major cultures requirement. 165 students are currently enrolled.
"The important thing about being in Massad's class is that you have to realize he represents one viewpoint and there are a lot more," Goutami Sanyal, CC ‘07, a student in the class who is a MEALAC major, said. "I don't think that makes him racist, I think it just means he has an opinion."
Sanyal said he felt that while the allegations are exaggerated, Massad's bias does compromise his teaching. "I think he's very pro-Islam to the point of not being historically accurate. The books that he assigns are also clearly biased, so once you recognize that, you just have to talk to other students to get the other side."
Bari Weiss, CC ‘07, is a pro-Israel student taking Massad and Bakhle's class to fulfill the major cultures requirement. "I feel like Massad is admittedly biased and controversial," said Weiss. "He's clearly very passionate about where he's coming from and has no qualms about being aggressive about it."
Weiss said that while she would not take another class with Massad, she does plan to take more MEALAC classes because of her interest in the Middle East. She also stressed that she did not feel intimidated by Massad's opinions, but simply felt a need to pay close attention so that she could refute the opinions with which she disagreed.
"I think people will continue to be interested [in MEALAC classes] because the Middle East is in the spotlight of the world," Weiss said.
Aside from Massad's lectures, Weiss criticized the one-sidedness of the assigned reading on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which consisted of a book titled Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? published in 1973. "It's just ridiculous," she said.
Anne Honart, CC ‘07, is also taking the class for major cultures, but unlike Weiss, Honart said she knew little about the Middle East before taking the class.
She commented that the diverse class has many Arab and Israeli students. "This creates a really interesting dynamic," Honart said. "There's one group in the class that is strongly supporting Massad through this whole controversy and there's another contingent in the class that's very pro-Israeli and disagree with him."
Honart also emphasized that she did not notice any evidence of intimidation. When she went to talk to Massad after class one day, she heard another student telling Massad that he disagreed with a statement he had made equating Israel to colonialism. Honart said that Massad urged the student to go to his office hours to further discuss the issue.
"From my experience in the class, I have not felt that my opinion would affect my grade or my ability to go to office hours and have a discussion and feel respected and comfortable," Honart said.