Students mill around on a red-cobbled promenade, silhouetted against the rays of a setting sun. Behind them, neoclassical columns rise up to a list of the academic greats: Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle. The camera pans up the length of a flagpole to the flickering cloth at the top: a white crown on a pale blue flag, the symbol of Columbia University in Manhattan's Morningside Heights.
It could be an advertisement or a university admissions video. Instead, it's the opening sequence of a new documentary, Columbia Unbecoming – produced by LionPAC, Columbia's pro-Israel student organization, and the David Project, a Boston-based Israel advocacy group – that presents an indictment of the political atmosphere on campus and in particular, at MEALAC: the department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia's center for study of the Middle East.
Columbia Unbecoming publicizes a set of criticisms that pro-Israel students and activists are launching at Middle East Studies departments, not only at Columbia but across the country. To them, pro-Palestinian professors, using the authority of their position as scholars, have hijacked the Middle East Studies curriculum – intimidating students who are pro-Israel and indoctrinating those who are not. They feel that without intervention, universities will damage students' perceptions of Israel – who, when they graduate and filter into newsrooms, board rooms, and elected office, will in turn damage Israel itself. These advocates promote a variety of solutions: Rachel Fish, New York Director of the David Project, hopes for reform in Middle East Studies departments themselves, while Mitchell Bard of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise suggests balancing Middle East Studies professors with pro-Israel counterparts. LionPAC seeks strengthened university complaint procedures, while others have called for professors who intimidate students to simply be dismissed.
Students and advocates are worried that if these efforts fail, Israel is on the line. But if they succeed, they threaten something else: academic freedom, the basis for the authority of teaching and the authenticity of scholarship.
Area studies departments were born in the post-war era, and came into vogue with the advent of the Cold War. Study of specific parts of the world – then, the Soviet Union – was considered a national security imperative at the time. In the nineties, that mandate rendered moot, departments began to broaden their scope, becoming more interdisciplinary and working increasingly with professional schools. When 9/11 arrived with its accompanying new national-security concerns, area studies became a hot topic again, with nothing hotter than scholarship of the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Israel advocates' critiques of the field stretch back at least three decades. Middle East Studies – and MESA, the Middle East Studies Association, the field's primary professional organization -– have been lambasted frequently, most often for accepting endowments from Middle Eastern governments, for sympathy to the Palestinian cause, and for hostility to Israel and the United States.
When the second Intifada began in the fall of 2000, campus debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heated up. So did criticism of Middle East Studies. In 2001, Israel advocate and journalist Martin Kramer published Ivory Towers On Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America, a scathing attack on what he considered to be an academic field laden with poor and biased scholarship. Around the same time, New York Sun columnist Daniel Pipes founded Campus Watch, a web site that critiques Middle East studies professors, seeking, in Pipes' words, to correct "inaccuracies, failures of analysis, apologetics," and other inadequacies that he sees in the field. Campus Watch asks students to write in with incidents of bias or poor teaching they have observed.
2002 saw the birth of the David Project, a campus-oriented Israel advocacy group. The following year, Rachel Fish, director of its fledgling New York office, arrived on Columbia's campus to find out how best she could support pro-Israel students there. She met with leaders of LionPAC, who spoke warmly of the vibrant Jewish population and of their active Hillel. But when talk turned to MEALAC, student after student spoke of hostility and intellectual intimidation. The staff of the David Project listened. Then they suggested the students testify on film.
Columbia Unbecoming, first screened for a student audience on November 3, 2004, has already had wide repercussions. Columbia President Lee Bollinger released a statement promising to investigate questions of intellectual intimidation and to examine Columbia's complaint procedure. New York Representative Anthony Weiner, joined by the editorial staff of the New York Sun, has called for the dismissal of Joseph Massad, an assistant professor in MEALAC whom the film critiques particularly harshly. And the reverberations may have only begun: Fish reports that the film has also prompted several students, previously too afraid to come forward, to speak up about their own incidents of intimidation.
Meanwhile, in 2003, the Israel on Campus Coalition – the major umbrella for pro-Israel campus groups – was looking for more information about what was still needed in campus Israel advocacy. They asked Mitchell Bard – a journalist, analyst, and lifelong Israel advocate – to investigate. When he did, Bard isolated one key barrier to progress in Israel's standing on campus. It is the same one that the David Project, LionPAC, and Daniel Pipes see: the prevalence and influence of anti-Israel faculty. But while Bard agrees with them on the problem, he has a different, and possibly more radical, solution. In May of 2003 he wrote an editorial in the Forward previewing his plan: "The community's top priority," he said, "should be to endow chairs and establish centers for the study of Israel." The following May, Bard published a report entitled "Tenured or Tenuous: The Role of Faculty in Supporting Israel on Campus," outlining step-by-step instructions on how activists and philanthropists can make Israel Studies flourish.
Members of the Jewish community have welcomed Bard's suggestions. In 2002, the University of California at Berkeley received an endowment to fund a visiting Israel scholar's position. In 2003, NYU opened the doors of its brand-new Taub Center for Israel Studies. In 2004, Brandeis established the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and appointed Israeli academic Shai Feldman as its head. And currently, Columbia is raising funds for both a full Israel Studies chair and a visiting Israeli scholar's position.
These efforts have been lauded in the Jewish press. In January, 2004, Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, published an editorial in the Forward calling for more Israel Studies professors and highlighting the Chicago Federation's efforts toward that goal. In March of 2004, New York Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt also argued for the value of Israel Studies professors in remedying the problems of Middle East Studies on campus.
Even Israel scholars themselves are filling in the perceived gaps in their field. This summer, Ilan Troen, Israel Studies chair at Brandeis University, ran a program for professors who specialize in any other aspect of Jewish studies, from the Babylonian exile to Holocaust literature. Seventeen professors from across the country came to Waltham to learn to teach one course in modern Israeli history. Troen believes that his program – and one like it run by Ken Stein, Israel Studies Chair at Emory University – is an important stopgap measure to insert Israel-related courses where they are most needed. "Today there's a crisis because the community feels that Israel is misrepresented on campus," says Troen. "When you go across American campuses, even the people who can speak intelligently about Israel don't do it in an academic way and they don't do it in the classroom. Who are the authorities on campuses? It can't be the Hillel rabbi who will be assumed to be biased. It can't be the chemist for whom Israel is a hobby."
The organized Jewish community is indeed convinced that there is a crisis – that Israel is on the line. Because of this perceived emergency, these advocates' efforts have gained considerable sympathy – and support, to the tune of positive press and multi-million dollar endowments – from the Jewish community. But the relationship of the indictments to those leveling them has yet to be explored. All of those making claims against Middle East Studies are themselves advocates of Israel, and they make no secret of the fact that their quest for academic reform ultimately serves their own political goals: "The fear," explains Bard, "is that if we have a new generation of decision-makers coming out of university who only learn from an anti-Israel perspective, that can affect the media and the policy [toward Israel]." The indictments and proposed remedies, then, must be seen in light of this struggle – not to safeguard academic integrity so much as to safeguard Israel.
The most prevalent accusation launched at Middle East Studies departments is that they are hostile toward Israel. Noah Liben, a senior at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary and a past president of LionPAC, confirms this about MEALAC. "A lot of the Middle East classes have an anti-Israel slant," he says. "There are a few that are on the more neutral side, but in terms of the political issues – does Israel have a right to exist, refugees, borders, the so-called Intifada – anything with these political issues almost always has an anti-Israel slant." Because of this bias, pro-Israel students feel, their point of view is unwelcome in their own classes.
Even worse, to them, their perspective is neglected on Columbia's campus – and, other advocates attest, on campuses across the country. There is a shortage of teaching on the subject, and particularly from a neutral or Israel-friendly point of view. "Students who simply want to learn about the history of Israel from more than one perspective," explains Daniella Kahane, a senior at Barnard College and a leader in LionPAC, "do not have a place to go."
Between hostile professors, Israel's absence from course catalogs, and pro-Palestinian student groups (at Columbia the clash between student activists has been particularly intense), these students say the campus has become a hostile environment. On film, they testify to this point, recalling such incidents as the Columbia divestment campaign, anti-Semitic graffiti on Israel Film Festival posters, and a fist-fight between one student and an inebriated classmate who had compared Sharon to Hitler. Pro-Israel students are uncomfortable, and in the classroom, they are often afraid even to voice their own perspectives.
It is not only the campus climate that makes students afraid. They also charge that professors in the MEALAC department harass, intellectually intimidate, and silence students with whom they do not agree. On film, one student recalls a friend being shouted down in class when she challenged a professor over historical facts. Another relates an incident in which a faculty member informed her that she had no right to speak on behalf of Israel or the Jewish people: she was not Semitic, he said, because she had green eyes.
To Rachel Fish, publicizing these problems is a way to prompt much-needed reform. "I think Middle East Studies need to have the curriculum reexamined," she says. "I think if you looked at what these departments teach, you would find overwhelmingly that their courses have to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How many of those courses study the lack of civil society in the Arab world, or gender apartheid in the Arab world? Rather, they use Israel as a weapon of mass distraction." She hopes that through making administrators, the public, and the Jewish community aware of the problems faced by pro-Israel students, the David Project can trigger an overhaul of Middle East Studies.
Mitchell Bard considers this plan ideal, but too idealistic. "The only way to change departments to make them less hostile is to hire new faculty," he says. "But it's the hostile faculty who do the hiring." Therefore, Bard says, one-sided departments must be balanced out by hiring Israel Studies faculty. In "Tenured or Tenuous," he discusses strategies for achieving this goal that include maximizing donors' control over who is hired on their dollar.
Alongside these efforts at reform, some believe the answer is simply to more effectively eliminate the problem. LionPAC suggests that Columbia's complaint system be overhauled: the current process, they say, is confusing and exposes the complainer to academic career risks by not offering anonymity. And then there are those who favor firing Massad and others like him. They believe that the only real way to solve the problem is to eliminate its perpetrators.
These indictments have proceeded far enough to threaten one professor's career and entire departments with potential reform imposed from without. They have garnered enough support to convince Jewish philanthropists, journalists, and activists that their duty lies in creating a cadre of pro-Israel scholarship. Yet on closer examination, what the indictments show most clearly are the beliefs of the accusers themselves.
All of those levying charges believe that MEALAC and other Middle East Studies departments are biased against Israel. "You name [the campus], they have a problem with faculty," says Fish. But all of the people and organizations making accusations are themselves Israel advocates, equally biased in their beliefs – only in favor of Israel. "Jewish students definitely perceive a bias against Israel," says Frances Kreimer, a junior at Columbia, "but I don't know how much of what they're perceiving is just facts that they don't want to hear." Rashid Khalidi echoes her sentiment, explaining that many students arrive in his classroom with preconceived notions of which they are loath to let go. "What faculty members say about many issues is new and surprising to many students," he says. "They don't know about it and they find it at variance with what they've heard before. I think that interchange of differing viewpoints is what the university should be all about."
Whether or not these professors' views favor one perspective, their right to express those views is intrinsic to their roles as scholars. Donald Downs, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the forthcoming Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, clarifies the role of controversy in the classroom: "When professors say controversial things they have a responsibility that goes along with that, and that is to be tolerant of students who disagree with them," he explains. "That said, professors also have an academic freedom claim to express their honest views. That is part of the profession."
Beyond the question of bias is the issue of adequate representation. This seems more neutral – either Israel is taught sufficiently or it is not – but again, it seems to be a broader version of the bias argument. Fish herself complains that Middle East Studies departments focus too heavily on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than addressing other issues in the Arab world: the problem is perhaps not so much that there is too little taught on Israel, but that there is too little taught on Israel with which these advocates agree. Mark Tessler, director of the International Institute at the University of Michigan, has taught on three campuses and has served both as president of the Association for Israel Studies and on the steering committee of the Palestinian-American Research Center. "All of the places I've been," he says, "we've had programs on Israel, we've also brought in Israelis and Arabs together, there has been plenty of coverage and plenty of balanced coverage." And at Columbia itself, "there are five or six professors, full or endowed chairs of Jewish studies," says Khalidi. "I don't think there is any conceivable possibility that Jewish or Israeli studies is underrepresented at Columbia given that there are [only] 5 million Israelis." In a written response to Columbia Unbecoming, Massad points out that while Columbia has at least five professors teaching on Israel and Jewish history, there are only two covering all of South Asia, a population of approximately one billion people. "One need not do complicated mathematics to see who is overrepresented and who is not," he writes.
Columbia, despite the specter of a hostile campus climate, also boasts one of the most vibrant Jewish communities of any major university. Columbia does have many students and faculty members who are pro-Palestinian, but seeing this as a problem suggests that students should learn only from those with whom they already agree. Some students apparently do feel this way. "Being challenged intellectually," says Khalidi, "is taken to be, ‘I'm being made to feel uncomfortable.' Instead of reacting and examining, saying, ‘OK, I don't agree with that, let's look at it and see where it comes from,' people get offended." But not everyone gets offended: "I took a seminar with Rashid Khalidi," says Seth Anziska, a senior at Columbia and a former LionPAC board member. "I think Khalidi is a wonderful scholar and an amazing pedagogue. He's not someone who thinks Zionism shouldn't exist, he's critical of it but in a really constructive way." Further, the idea that a hostile environment warrants intervention suggests that Jewish students cannot meet intellectual challenges head-on, something students' own experiences contradict. "To me, it's fine if a professor posits views that are completely antithetical to those who have sympathy for Zionism and Israel," says Anziska, "and I would challenge the views I disagreed with."
"The problem," he continues, "is when professors won't engage in an academic discussion with those who offer different and legitimate perspectives. It is not okay when professors become polemics and shut students down." Academic intimidation is indeed a serious issue, to be confronted firmly. But it is not an issue of content. Professional misconduct is judged by the standards of appropriate faculty-student relations, not by the standards of teaching about the Middle East. It would seem logical that this be addressed on an individual basis – incident by incident – and directly, rather than through broad reform of the department, university, or field in which it occurred. Yet the Columbia administration confirms that no such complaint has been lodged against Massad or any other MEALAC faculty member. This may be because the real basis of the complaint is something else entirely.
For these pro-Israel students and advocates, the bottom line is that many professors are sympathetic to the Palestinian viewpoint – and not to theirs. If their solutions did not involve promoting Israel in the classroom, they would do nothing to remedy the problem they see. But if the efforts are to succeed, advocates will have influenced the university with political goals at heart – which in turn erodes the distinction between academia and advocacy.
Mitchell Bard brushes off the suggestion that he is seeking to insert a political agenda into the university. "Academia is politicized in an anti-Israel way already," he says. "The people who are saying [that our motives are political] are saying that it's fine that it's politicized and it's anti-Israel and it's anti-Semitic. There are some people who have this misperception that the academic world is some kind of pure ivory tower, and it's not. It's the only place where anti-Semitism is accepted. We're not talking about politicizing, we're talking about educating." But the David Project's request for curricular reform is just that – an Israel advocacy group asking professors to tailor their syllabi to the group's own standards. Middle East Studies departments have been accused of allegiance to foreign governments – the fact that the United Arab Emirates provided support for Khalidi's position caused considerable uproar – though there has been no evidence that any Arab funder has had a hand in choosing the scholars or curricula they have supported. Yet the advocates pushing for these reforms openly admit that their own allegiance is itself to a foreign nation: Israel.
Nevertheless, Bard also denies that in his efforts to establish Israel Studies faculty he would impose political requirements on hiring procedures. "We're not talking about people who have some narrow ideology," he says. "If they have impeccable academic credentials they're going to expose students to a variety of viewpoints. They can be right to left, the only real concern is that they be Zionists. You can have Labor or Likud people, Shinui or National Religious Party, all people who have different views of Israel, but all agree that Israel should be a state that exists in the Middle East." No matter how broad the acceptable spectrum of Zionist affiliation, though, requiring any affiliation creates a political litmus test for academics – something that in other eras has been known as a blacklist. Bard is indeed seeking excellent scholarship, but he is seeking excellent scholarship that coincides with support for Israel.
In the fall of 2002, Bay Area philanthropist Helen Diller decided to contribute to the efforts that Bard later codified in "Tenured or Tenuous." She'd heard about the uproar over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at her alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, and by endowing a visiting Israeli scholar's position, she hoped she would alleviate some of those tensions. Within months, Berkeley's selection committee announced that Professor Oren Yiftachel, previously of Ben-Gurion University, would be the first to fill the spot. Yiftachel is a highly regarded Israeli academic. He is also a post-Zionist scholar and known for being highly critical of Israel. Accordingly, advocates seeking better representation for Israel in the university were outraged. Despite his many credentials, Yiftachel was an "unacceptable" choice, Rachel Fish explains, because "he's putting forth one side only. The search committee found a scholar who happened to be Israeli but who agreed with them."
Bard believes that Berkeley's faculty deliberately ignored Diller's intentions, and to avoid this problem in the future, he writes, "Any effort to create an endowed or visiting faculty position should involve careful and creative negotiations to maximize control over the appointment." To Bard, this is the only way to ensure that the Israel Studies initiatives achieve their goal. But these efforts would also allow funders, rather than scholarly committees, to staff the academy – putting curricula into the hands of philanthropists. Hiring decisions made under these circumstances would blur the line between scholarship and advocacy, undermining the authenticity that Bard hopes to harness.
Beyond hiring scholars who will toe the party line, these advocates have had some success in silencing those who do not. LionPAC has sought to address the problem through a reform of the current complaint procedures, so that they will be more "user-friendly" and prevent any backlash upon the complainer. Strict speech and conduct codes, though, can lead to "the death of academic freedom," says Downs. "Anyone who has a political disagreement with a professor can call it harassment, and stretching the concept so it includes uncomfortable or offensive speech has been used to politicize the university."
The result of the controversy remains to be seen. As this article goes to press, Columbia Unbecoming has been public for less than a week. But this year, Fish – buoyed by the movie's success – is embarking on similar projects with students at NYU, Pace, Fordham, Stanford, and Berkeley. This year, universities are cutting ribbons on centers and professorships for the study of Israel. And this year, though Joseph Massad has not yet been formally threatened with dismissal, an elected official and a publication have already called for that sanction. More importantly, this fall he is not offering his "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies" course, "under the duress of coercion and intimidation," Massad says. The campaign against him, whether this was the direct goal of all of its participants or not, has succeeded in silencing that with which it did not agree.
There's nothing wrong with working to create a healthy learning environment for all students. And there's no doubt that when professional misconduct occurs, it must be dealt with strictly. But that is not the same as reforming the curricula or faculty makeup of the department or university in question. To conflate these demands is only to undermine the credibility of legitimate complaints.
It's also clear that there is much to be gained from further academic attention to Israel. "If we have more people studying about Israel and the Israeli experience, that's good," says Mark Tessler. "I think if they create these institutions and look for the best people for them, we'll all be the richer for it." But he adds, "I don't view it as the solution to the problem of inadequate or biased coverage of Israel, because I don't believe that's a very real or widespread problem."
These campaigns rest on the theory that the current academic climate is putting Israel's future in jeopardy. But while universities' obligations toward Israel are dubious at best, their obligations toward academic integrity are unassailable. These advocates rightly see faculty members as the most effective proponents of any political point of view. But this is true precisely because as professors, they are not bound by their political points of view.
If the Jewish community supports these initiatives, if it allows academic freedom to be curtailed for the sake of politics, the community's own credibility – its reputation for prizing free thought, uninhibited inquiry, and diversity of perspectives – is undermined. Surely it is more important to safeguard these values than to micromanage syllabi; for without them, it is more than political support for Israel that will be lost.