"THE UGLIEST of Arab propaganda." "Anti-Semitic bias." "Vile words of hate." These are the claims being leveled against a number of Columbia University professors following the release of Columbia Unbecoming, a documentary film produced by the David Project, a Boston-based pro-Israel think tank.
The deceptive movie targets the department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) for its alleged anti-Israel bias--and claims that Zionist students are routinely silenced and intimidated in Columbia classrooms.
The students behind the film claim they only want to defend academic integrity. But the ugly reality of intimidation of Columbia professors tells a different story.
The real targets of harassment at Columbia aren't pro-Israel students. They are students, and especially professors, who publicly criticize the United States and Israel.
The campaign against opponents of Israel runs all the way to the top. In the weeks since Columbia Unbecoming was released, university President Lee Bollinger launched an official investigation into the claims against MEALAC.
The New York City Council even jumped on the bandwagon, threatening that if the official inquiry "comes up dry," it will launch an investigation of its own.
MEALAC department professors, including Palestine supporters Joseph Massad and Hamid Dabashi, were the primary targets of the slander campaign. But today, the list of professors under attack has expanded to include others in the Comparative Literature and Anthropology departments.
The New York Daily News escalated the witch-hunt with a front-page article claiming that "a climate of hate rocks Columbia University." The article profiles a handful of outspoken professors as "Columbia's Firebrands." It quotes Nicholas DeGenova, a professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies, who argued at a teach-in after the invasion of Iraq that "U.S. patriotism is inseparable from imperial warfare and white supremacy."
The article also attacks Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor of anthropology, for "romanticizing" Birzeit University in the West Bank as a "liberal arts college dedicated to teaching and research in the same spirit as U.S. colleges." Asked about the role of Palestinian resistance fighters recruiting at Birzeit, Abu-Lughod replied, "The CIA has historically recruited at Columbia, but that's not the mission of Columbia. The mission of Birzeit is to educate students, and they're working under very difficult circumstances to do that."
This attempt to silence dissent at Columbia is connected to George Bush's wars abroad. U.S. universities have historically been the home of opposition movements against militarism. The slander campaign at Columbia is part of an attempt to change the political climate on American campuses. And this, in turn, is part of a wider assault on civil liberties--on campuses and in U.S. society as a whole--since the September 11 attacks.
As the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq in early 2003, the Department of Homeland Security rolled out the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which gathers personal information about international students. To this day, Columbia administrators--along with universities across the country--play an active role in rounding up information for SEVIS.
Rather than challenging the scapegoating of these students, the universities caved. They remained silent while students from Middle Eastern and South Asian countries were "visited" by the FBI, "un-enrolled" from classes and disappeared into detention and deportation centers. Because these non-immigrant visitors have no rights in the eyes of U.S. law, their disappearances have gone mostly unnoticed.
What's more, the proposed International Studies in Higher Education Act--legislation currently before the Senate--would open up academic departments and college curricula to government inspection--subject funding reviews to what is considered acceptable to Homeland Security.
Rather than continue to play an active role in the witch-hunt of international students and the silencing of dissent, the Columbia University administration should take a stand against the attacks on its own professors.
Already, the Columbia chapter of the Campus Antiwar Network has called a meeting that attracted 80 people and dozens of letters of solidarity from around the country and the world. And the Ad Hoc Committee for Academic Freedom at Columbia was formed recently by the Intercultural Resource Center.
A new McCarthyism is rearing its heads on the campuses of American universities. They want to send a message to professors of what will happen if they don't roll over. We can't let them get away with it.
To get involved in the Columbia defense campaign or to send a message of solidarity, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Call 212-854-9970 or e-mail email@example.com to contact Columbia President Lee Bollinger to express support for academic freedom.
The right-wingers pulling the strings
THE NAMES sound innocent enough. Since September 11, numerous so-called "watchdog" groups like Students for Academic Freedom, Campus Watch and The David Project have set up shop--in the name of "academic freedom."
But their real aim is to silence any left-wing voice of dissent on college campuses--from the antiwar movement to activism in solidarity with Palestine.
Not surprisingly, the figures behind the groups are some of the most vicious right-wingers around. David Horowitz, an ex-leftist-turned-poisonous-reactionary, founded Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) in June 2003--as part of his campaign to pressure colleges into combating liberalism and radicalism. According to Horowitz, U.S. colleges and universities are "indoctrination centers for the political left," and many college professors "hate America."
Yet the hypocrites at SAF denounce supposed liberal "bias" on campuses while proudly distributing articles with headlines like "Palestinian Terror on Campus" and "Intifada Against College Republicans."
Right-wing historian Daniel Pipes and the pro-Israel Middle East Forum (MEF) are the leading forces behind Campus Watch--a group that collects information on professors who are supposedly "hostile" to U.S. interests or critical of Israel.
The David Project--founded in 2002 in response to what it calls a "growing ideological assault on Israel"--claims that it promotes a "fair and honest understanding of the Middle East conflict" and "peaceful coexistence" between Israelis and Palestinians. Its Web site even underscores how "peaceful" they are by showing a picture of a dove.
But before the group produced Columbia Unbecoming, it campaigned against the funding of an Islamic Studies Chair at Harvard--because of the simple fact that $2.5 million of the funding came from the United Arab Emirates.
The group also regularly tours speakers like Tal Ben Shahar, an Israeli army veteran who specializes in defending Israel's right to so-called "self-defense." In 2002, Ben Shahar showed his desire to "peacefully coexist" with Palestinians by writing: "Palestinian refugees, and other Arabs who suffered as a result of the war against Israel, are, in the words of historian Richard Landes, ‘not innocent victims, but frustrated aggressors.' And aggressors--those who initiate force and disrespect the rights of others--do not deserve that their own rights be respected...Palestinians in the contested territories are deprived of some of their freedoms because they looted and murdered, and because there is nothing to suggest that they would change their ways were they given independence."
Are Israel backers "marginal"?
ARE PRO-ISRAEL voices on campus oppressed? That's the claim of right-wing and pro-Zionist groups. The David Project--which has spearheaded the drive against Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad--says that it is "working on campuses to counter the hostile environment for many students and faculty who challenge the dominant paradigm about the Middle East conflict."
Actually, the "dominant paradigm" regarding Israel is that it is an "island of democracy" amid a "terrorist" Middle East. Zionism is wholeheartedly endorsed by the vast majority of Washington's rulers, and it is represented in dozens of classes and student groups on college campuses throughout the U.S.
But to organizations like The David Project, any opposition to Zionism is equated with anti-Semitism.
That's why, for example, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke on U.S. college campuses last year, he was met by protesters from groups like the Zionist Organization of America. According to them, Tutu's "offensive" remarks include his comments that "I've been deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land that it reminded me so much of what happened to us Black people in South Africa"
And as for a "hostile environment" on college campuses, supporters of Palestinian rights know firsthand about that. Like Rutgers University student and Palestinian rights activist Charlotte Kates, who was targeted with threats of physical violence last year for her role in helping convene a conference of Palestinian solidarity activists. In the end, Rutgers kicked the Palestinian conference off campus--and gave the green light for a pro-Israel conference in its place.
More recently, the same voices screaming for the end of Joseph Massad's career were all but silent when Columbia associate clinical professor of medicine Moshe Rubin sent an e-mail to Massad that read, "Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar."
So we shouldn't be scared into silence by the hypocrites who claim that pro-Israel voices are "marginalized."