As is being widely reported, a student documentary claims that a pattern exists of virulent anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bias by professors offering courses in Columbia University`s Mideast studies department and in other departments, both as part of the courses and in their extra-curricular writings and speeches. And students who object are allegedly subjected to harassment and intimidation. Indeed, a recent follow-up investigation and report by the New York Daily News was an eye-opener.
It is no secret that Columbia has been the recipient of significant funding for its Middle East-related programs and projects from Arab donors directly and from enterprises, like law firms, that have represented and continue to represent them. So the anti-Jewish, anti-Israel hijacking of a major university may be well underway. Yet not one of the New York elected officials with the capacity to pursue all of this has evinced any interest in doing so.
According to the News, Columbia`s Middle East department chairman, Hamid Dabashi, has declared in various forums that supporters of Israel are "warmongers" and "Gestapo apparatchiks." Israel is "nothing more than a military base for the rising predatory empire of the United States." It`s a "ghastly state of racism and apartheid" — and it must be dismantled."
One student told the News that she asked Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics, if Israel gives warnings before bombing certain buildings so residents could flee. In response, Massad "exploded," she said. "He told me if I was going to `deny the atrocities` committed against the Palestinians, I could get out of his class." Another student told the News that, "Students are being bullied because of their identities, ideologies, religions and national origins." Still another said, "Debate is being stifled. Students are being silenced in their own classrooms."
Columbia President Lee Bollinger has appointed the university`s provost, Alan Brinkley, to investigate. Unfortunately, he has become part of the problem. At the outset he seems already to have formed an opinion: "Is the climate hostile to free expression? I don`t think it is, but we`re investigating to find out." He also opined that, "If a professor taught the `Earth was flat or there was no Holocaust,` Columbia might intervene in the classroom. But we don`t tell faculty they can`t express strong, or even offensive opinions."
And that`s the rub. Recent studies of the Columbia faculty have revealed that there is a significant representation of professors with reputations for having been politically active and outspoken in their extreme disdain for Israel and the United States. Indeed, it appears to us that their very selection may have had something to do with their notoriety in this regard. So time-honored notions of academic freedom may now be beside the point in this case.
Which brings us back to the question of why the governor, mayor and attorney general have not seen fit to examine the troubling dimensions of the Columbia controversy.
A situation similar, in certain respects, to the Columbia matter took center stage in Florida in the course of a U.S. Senate this year in which former HUD secretary Mel Martinez defeated former University of South Florida president Betty Castor.
Readers may recall that in 1994 reports circulated about how a computer science professor and Muslim activist named Sami Al-Arian had set up a think tank at USF — World and Islam Studies Enterprises — that was being investigated as a possible fund-raising front for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Some months later, an instructor whom Al-Arian had helped get a job at USF suddenly left and surfaced in Syria as the new leader of a notorious terror group.
Both of these developments occurred while Ms. Castor was the president of USF, yet at the time she did not take any steps to fire Al-Arian or to even publicly criticize him. According to Daniel Pipes, she merely ordered a review of his resume and only in 1996 placed him on non-disciplinary administrative leave with full pay. When the U.S. government failed to indict him by 1998, Castor reinstated Al-Arian in his old teaching job and a year later she left USF. However, in February of 2003, after the passage of the much maligned Patriot Act, which for the first time gave law enforcement officials access to intelligence agency information, Al-Arian and seven other men were indicted on terrorism charges arising out of their alleged use of the think tank as fronts to raise money for Islamic Jihad.
As a sign of the volatility of the terrorism issue with voters, late in the Martinez-Castor race, the Palm Beach Post called the Al-Arian episode "almost the only topic" and one that is "playing a pivotal" role in the campaign. According to a Mason-Dixon poll at the time, Castor`s treatment of Al-Arian ranked as her "chief weakness."
To be sure, there is no evidence of terrorist links with respect to the Columbia professors, but Pipes`s conclusion nonetheless seems relevant to our friends in office:
As Islamist terrorism grows in menace and capabilities, how American politicians deal with it is becoming more central to their attractiveness as candidates and their stature as leaders. The U.S. voter rewards a tough policy toward those suspected of ties to terrorism.
To which we might add, apropos of Columbia University, the New York voter — certainly the New York Jewish voter — will be watching to see how seriously our elected officials treat the growing problem of academics who use our institutions of higher learning as anti-U.S., anti-Israel propaganda mills.