Playwright Tony Kushner yesterday said Schools Chancellor Joel Klein caved in to pressure from "right-wing smear artists" when he dropped a Columbia University Middle Eastern studies professor as a lecturer in a teacher-training program.
Standing by the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the headquarters of the New York City Department of Education, the Pulitzer Prize winner suggested that racial bigotry played a role in the city's decision to bar Columbia scholar Rashid Khalidi, an Arab-American, from a professional development program for city teachers.
"The chancellor should rescind it and apologize to Professor Khalidi, a respected scholar whose views absolutely should be included in any intelligent discussion of the situation in the Mideast," Mr. Kushner said in a statement he handed out to press.
Mr. Kushner cast Mr. Klein's decision as McCarthyism that is increasingly taking root in American culture. The chancellor's decision, he said, "suggests that the censoriousness, fear-mongering, bigotry, and irrationality so much in evidence in American political and civic life these days is making inroads in the New York City, which ought to provide a bulwark against anti-American trends."
He was joined by leaders of the New York Civil Liberties Union and representatives from several Arab-American groups, who have written letters to Mr. Klein demanding that he take back Mr. Khalidi.
Mr. Kushner said that by not adequately explaining why he fired Mr. Khalidi from the program, Mr. Klein has "left open the possibility that ethnicity played a role."
A Columbia University graduate who won the Pulitzer Prize for "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," Mr. Kushner has spoken out forcefully for left-wing causes. He mocks first lady Laura Bush and the White House leadership in his play "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," which has yet to be produced.
The executive director of the Nyclu, Donna Lieberman, also suggested that discrimination against Arab-Americans was a factor in Mr. Khalidi's removal. She said his removal "could very well be prompted by hostility based on ethnicity," saying that Mr. Klein's decision was influenced by the press's "caricatures" of the professor's views.
The New York Sun last month reported that Mr. Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies in Columbia's history department, was advising city teachers on how to teach students about Middle East politics and history. The program was sponsored by Columbia's Middle East Institute, which Mr. Khalidi has directed since the fall of 2003.
Mr. Khalidi, 56, who came to Columbia from the University of Chicago, has blamed Israel for carrying out "racist" policies and argued that Palestinian armed "resistance" to Israeli soldiers serving in the West Bank is legitimate. He also labeled Western coverage of Palestinian suicide bomber attacks as "hysteria." In recent months, he has come to the defense of professors in the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures who have been accused of intimidating Jewish students.
Mr. Khalidi did not return a call for comment.
Mr. Klein removed Mr. Khalidi as a lecturer the day after the Sun article appeared. A spokesman for the Department of Education, Jerry Russo, told the Sun in an interview after the decision that Mr. Khalidi should not have been included in the program "considering his past statements."
Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, cut off the Middle East Institute's participation in the training program after Mr. Klein refused to take back Mr. Khalidi. Mr. Bollinger accused Mr. Klein of violating "First Amendment principles."
Ms. Lieberman also accused Mr. Klein of violating Mr. Khalidi's academic freedom and said her organization is considering legal action against the Department of Education.
The chancellor's office has argued that the question of Mr. Khalidi's involvement in the program is not a matter of academic freedom or First Amendment rights but a "matter of providing professional development for teachers who are instructing our children," Mr. Russo said.
Also protesting yesterday was Monica Tarazi of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who accused Mr. Klein of attempting to "silence criticism of Israel."
Mr. Khalidi, author most recently of "Resurrecting Empire," is perhaps the most prominent critic of Israel teaching at Columbia. While he has supported a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians, he has recently taken a more pessimistic position closer to that of his intellectual role model, the late Edward Said. Mr. Khalidi has argued that Israel's policies are making it impossible for the Palestinians to establish a state.