One month after the controversial release of Columbia Unbecoming, pro-Israel students aren't the only ones claiming they are being harassed and intimidated.
A group of approximately 50 students, faculty, community members, and alumni held a press conference yesterday in Earl Hall to protest what they called the stifling of voices critical of Israel. The group, which called itself the Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Academic Freedom at Columbia, accused the University of failing to protect freedom of speech and attacked the Columbia Unbecoming film and its supporters for misrepresenting facts.
The film, a 25-minute documentary produced by the Boston-based Zionist group The David Project, contains interviews with Columbia students who say they have faced harassment and anti-Semitism from certain professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. Since its public release last month, the film has prompted a formal investigation of the charges by Provost Alan Brinkley, a proposal to examine the issue from City Councilman Michael Nelson, and editorials in the New York Daily News and The New York Sun condemning the MEALAC department.
Yesterday's press conference was the first organized, high-profile response to the film by its opponents. In speeches, members of the committee said the film was lying and blamed the University for investigating professors for holding critical viewpoints.
Columbia Unbecoming is "deliberately misleading ... portraying as intimidation something that is legitimate," said Leeam Azulay-Yagev, GS '05, a member of the committee and an Israeli citizen and former soldier who took a class with MEALAC Professor Joseph Massad. The film singles out Massad for allegedly harassing Israeli students.
"According to my experience at this University with those professors, these accusations are not true," Azulay-Yagev said.
Monique Dols, GS '05 and a member of the committee, condemned the "unprecedented and secret investigation into the professors" that Columbia Unbecoming charges with harassment. "At a time when Arab dissenters are disappearing into deportation centers, President Bollinger should be doing a lot more than holding a symposium on civil liberties—he should be protecting them."
Dols, who took a course with Massad in the spring of 2001, also said that the only person in the film who actually took one of Massad's courses was Noah Liben, GS '05. In the film, Liben accuses Massad of stifling pro-Israel views and intimidating students who disagreed with him.
Dols delivered a statement that supported Massad and denied Liben's accusations. "Given Noah's often racist and pro-colonialist views on the role Israel plays in the world, I'm suspicious of his revisionist views of the class," Dols said, echoing a statement by Massad on his Web site.
Liben called Dols's statement "a flat-out lie" and said he was "shocked and pained."
Former School of General Studies student Tomy Shoenfeld, who served in the Israeli airforce, says in the film that Massad asked him, "How many Palestinians have you killed?" and would not let Schoenfeld speak after he declined to answer.
Massad, however, said he has never met Schoenfeld.
The committee, echoing Massad's statement, also said yesterday that MEALAC's bias is actually pro-Israel, not anti-Israel as Columbia Unbecoming claims. Speakers said that Israel has a population of six million people, the Arab world 300 million, and South Asia approximately one billion, yet MEALAC has three full-time professors of Israel and Hebrew, four that specialize in the Arab world, and only two who study South Asia.
Some people at the press conference disagreed with the committee.
Ariel Beery, GS '05, was interviewed in the film and objected to what he saw as the committee's automatic rejection of students' grievances.
"To say that a student who brings a charge is lying is like saying a woman who brings a sexual assault charge is lying," he said.
Speakers at the press conference also criticized a national climate they say stifles debate and criticism. Audience members held signs with slogans like "Down with the Zionist Witchhunt!"
"In the context of the political discourse of this country, criticism of Israel is considered off-limits," said Saif Ammous, a Palestinian graduate student in the School of International and Public Affairs. He said that the stifling of critical voices is "the real intimidation that goes on in Columbia and the outside media and is what needs to be stopped."
Madiha Tahir, CC '03, said the film is part of a larger national denial of civil liberties that attempts "to shut down dissent about Middle East and U.S. policy in general."
While the speakers at the press conference connected what was going on at Columbia to a national context, some audience members connected the controversy with even more general issues.
"It's clearly a tool of the ruling class," said Quincy Lehr, a sixth year Ph.D. candidate in history.
While members of the committee didn't agree with Lehr's interpretation, they too condemned The David Project's allegations as politically motivated.
Azulay-Yagev said Columbia Unbecoming is trying to silence professors who tried to engage in legitimate debate. "They resorted to a discussion about the discussion," she said.