I have had a strange privilege here at Columbia. Though I'm in anthropology and not in MEALAC, for the last two fall semesters, I was assigned as a TA for the MEALAC course "Topics in Asian Civilizations," co-taught by Joseph Massad and Janaki Bakhle. In the spring in between, however, I was appointed for another MEALAC course taught by Dan Miron, "Zionism: A Cultural Perspective." (With due apology to Professor Miron, I left the classroom, as did the majority of TAs on campus, when the still-unrecognized TA Union went on strike. But that's another story.)
I believe this wild swing in the micro-politics of my teaching assignments has had to do with the fact that I happen to be from Turkey, which—recent neo-con propaganda pieces in the press aside—is a country with no substantial history of anti-Semitism. Then again, everything can and in fact does get to be charged with anti-Semitism nowadays, doesn't it? Which is precisely what forces me to begin with this biographical slant—or pathetic apology—which should have remained utterly irrelevant, if not for the current cornucopia of ad-hominem attacks parading as calls for liberty and humanity or whatever else you name it. In other words: I'm no anti-Semite, dear y'all, I swear on my mother! Some of my best friends are, indeed, Jewish.
That being out of the way, let me now tell you what prompted me to speak: As unfair as it might sound to the great minds Columbia ordinarily produces, the night of March 9 was the first time in the eight years I've been a graduate student here that I viscerally felt honored to be a part of this community—something I owe to the three undergraduates from the "anti-war coalition" who spoke at the Columbia Unbecoming debate. I wholeheartedly applaud them for exemplifying what young individuals becoming of Columbia ought to be about. Not just for the courage and passion with which they put themselves out there in defense of something so dear to all of us—our collective identity as Columbians—but also for the precision with which they managed to say, in such a short time, close to all there was to say, "Do not fool yourselves about your capacities for fooling others!" Their words amounted to, "You cannot outsmart this community!"
This gave me partial relief for the first time since this controversy was unleashed. Partial, I say, because, as should already be clear to the thinking public, this storm is certainly not about truth or arguments; it's about power and trying to get certain things done. Yet, as long as there are such sharp and daring students out there, Columbia will always stand tall and never yield to blatant attacks from outside. Unless physically deported from campus, Columbians worthy of the name will always prevail by the rivers of Manhattan.
Those feelings with which I went to bed that night, however, took a different turn the next morning, when I read Spectator's reporting on the debate. I must say that I was very concerned to see how the reporter, unless exercising bad faith, had already internalized the superficiality of the recent calls for balance. Columbia is an institution built on merit, not on averaging up of whatever passes as ideas. Never mind that the event was a debate, which usually has winners and losers. To the majority of the audience present that night—not a partisan mob, but Columbia students—it was very clear who was who.
Where in that reporting was the substance of the arguments the debaters offered? Where was the point-by-point criticism which the audience asked the Columbians for Academic Freedom to respond to—the criticism of their misuse of "intimidation" and "academic freedom"; of their conscious manipulation of outside forces; of their relation to organizations far right even of mainstream Zionism; of their willful instrumentality in the ugly show of power we witnessed on campus, on Sunday, March 6? And where was any mention of their failure to convince the audience by providing little more than the repeated "We can't be responsible for what others have said or done!"—"others" being those who funded their movie; those in the right-wing media, to whom they ran and merrily reported their personal "suffocation" vis-à-vis the critical endeavor we call the "classroom"; those whom they recently catered into our campus for displays of power. Those, to paraphrase a speaker at the debate, whose goal—for the sake of silencing any criticism of Israel—is nothing short of "disgracing us all!"
"You had no right to bring this terror into campus!" exclaimed an elderly lady, relating her resentment of the metal detectors at the so-called conference on March 6, organized by the so-called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and sponsored, by the Columbians for Academic Freedom, among others. Though a regular follower of campus events for 20 years, she said, she's never witnessed anything so appalling. Another person recounted how, upon his protest following the screening of Columbia Unbecoming during the "conference," he was approached by a "bald man" who told him that under different circumstances he would be "shot in the head."
Though I can't vouch for the truth of the latter, such a serious claim, if fictional, would signify a serious need for institutionalization—which, in my judgment, was not the case. I certainly can vouch, on the other hand, for how utterly appalling the "check point" inside Uris Hall was. Actually, surveillance began even before the gate. Never in my life did I have to register for a conference—and on my own campus—for which I was required to provide my home address. And all I got was a confirmation number and a note that this did not guarantee my admission. Who would have guessed they were referring to the check point?
It was this "conference" that the audience of the debate dubbed "the terror on campus." And it was indeed utterly terrifying, not just for the day-long regularity of outbursts of hatred and racism, but also for the persistent language of "fighting" used by the speakers. From the lawyer who referred to respected academics simply as "those highlights and low-lifes," to the self-hating Christian Arab woman who single-handedly condemned all Arab nations and went ahead to call Israel the "most diverse, multi-racial state I've ever seen," to the video of Alan Dershowitz's Feb. 7 speech—again on our campus—where he declared it a violation of the human rights of Israeli soldiers that they were sent onto Palestinians "without air support"—i.e., without bombs—one simply lost track of where the metaphors of "war" ended and where literality began. The audience was repeatedly told in this carnival of self-congratulation to "keep up the fight" and to "let them know we came here [to Columbia? To Palestine? Where?] to stay," and so on.
That Sunday, Uris Hall was occupied territory. And the Columbians for Academic Freedom, who dare to hijack the name of all of us—as if the rest of us are Columbians Against Academic Freedom—are responsible for bringing this ugly power game onto our campus.
One can go on about many things. But I remain "partially relieved" and indeed convinced that one need not. Columbians worthy of the name are already capable of seeing that a rhetoric of intimidation is being used precisely to intimidate; that a so-called conference on campus "integrity" was a precise attempt to breach that integrity; that "academic freedom" is a call for censoring any criticism of Israel; that claims of speaking truth to power are precisely in the service of power; that peace is abducted as a nickname for Zionist militarism; that human rights simply mean Israel should have bombed Palestinians!
What lies behind this cloud of deception should be crystal clear to anyone capable of putting his or her humanity before any other cultural or religious affiliation. And that very capacity is precisely what's becoming of Columbia—attempting to "balance" our critical faculties with the intellectual mediocrity of self-serving power politics is most certainly not!