Columbia University is approaching a decision that will test its fealty to civilized thought and rigorous scholarship. The issue is whether the university will continue to welcome as a professor a man who espouses deeply offensive views about Jews.
To Joseph Massad, who teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history, Israeli Jews are infected with a kind of mass psychosis that drives them to oppress Palestinians and, bizarrely, to hold Holocaust survivors in contempt. He argues those positions forcefully in the current issue of an academic journal called Cultural Critique.
Such thought, purporting to diagnose a psychological deficiency in an entire people, falls far beyond the bounds of acceptable teaching. In this case, the target is Jews, but similarly pernicious logic can be applied to any group - blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, men, women, children. The argument boils down to the following: I'll tell you why they behave so miserably, it's because they ....
Massad is an assistant professor in Columbia's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, or Mealac, where students have charged that some instructors enforced anti-Israel views through classroom intimidation. Massad is among those teachers. Citing a "witch hunt," he has denied the charges, which are being probed by a university committee. He declined an interview.
Massad is also undergoing what's known as a fifth-year review of his standing on Columbia's faculty. Academic committees will decide whether his scholarship is of sufficient quality to warrant keeping him on a track toward tenure. Before the university takes such a step, reviewers and Columbia President Lee Bollinger must read Massad's article, "The Persistence of the Palestinian Question."
A passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause, Massad traces the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians to Zionism, the movement for a Jewish homeland that gained force because of European anti-Semitism in the 19th century. He sees Zionism as the root of evil and uses it throughout his article as a proxy for Jews.
His argument is built on the poisonous, and astonishing, premise that Jews of the day so admired Christian society that they emulated even its worst qualities. The society hated Jews, so Jews hated themselves. The society was anti-Semitic, so Jews, in a remarkable transformation, became anti-Semitic toward others. Those others were the Palestinians, who, just as remarkably, were then transformed into a loathed and downtrodden being, "the Jew."
To argue that such an entity exists is repugnant, but Massad believes deeply in it. In one of many references, he writes that Zionism's "persistence in oppressing the Palestinians is precisely its persistence in suppressing the Jew within." He also asserts that Zionist Jews view Holocaust survivors as "passive weaklings" worthy of "contempt." Finally, he contends that Israelis are so gripped by this century-old pathology that they take cues from the Nazis.
"The more recent practice of writing numbers on the arms of the thousands of Palestinians that have been crammed into Israeli detention camps since February 2002 further demonstrates that the Nazi precedent acts, not as a deterrent, but rather as a pedagogical model for the Israeli Army," he wrote, about a practice that outraged Israelis quickly stopped.
This is not scholarship. It is an expression of belief that Jews are all but programmed to victimize others because they are flawed to their essence. The idea has no place at Columbia. Or anywhere else.