Political tensions at Columbia University increased last night as a faction of faculty members gathered inside the cavernous rotunda of the campus's Low Library to denounce what they described as an attack on the university waged by right-wing forces.
In speeches averaging nearly 10 minutes, more than 20 faculty members defended their colleagues in Columbia's Middle Eastern studies department who have been accused of intimidating Jewish students in the classroom. Some of the faculty members spoke of what they described as powerful outside forces waging an ideological battle against Columbia in an attempt to prevent faculty members from criticizing Israel.
The event was organized by a loose coalition of anti-Israel student groups under the umbrella Stop McCarthyism at Columbia. It followed the release last week of a report by a panel of five faculty members convened to determine whether some professors of Middle Eastern studies abused their role as teachers. The panel concluded that there was no widespread intimidation against students but that in one instance an assistant professor, Joseph Massad, overstepped the bounds of proper academic conduct when he purportedly threatened to expel a Jewish undergraduate from his classroom. He has denied that he did it and has said the student who complained of the incident is a "liar."
Organizers by the entrance to the rotunda handed out fliers critical of the university's administration, with one flier saying the "current attack on academics critical of Israel is connected to international developments" such as the decreasing number of American teenagers visiting Israel since 2001.
One speaker, Bashir Abu-Manneh, an assistant professor of English at Barnard College, said the controversy at Columbia was started by a "small number of Zionist students" and said it was "mind-boggling that such a small number of students can achieve so much." After giving a brief rundown of what he described as Israel's military aggressions against Arab countries, he returned to the subject of the student complaints and said: "Beware the powerful who cry tears of victimhood."
A professor of anthropology who was recruited to Columbia from New York University, Robin Kelley, told the audience the university was facing a "right-wing onslaught."
An assistant professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, Noha Radwan, said: "If some faculty are going to be accused of anti-Zionism, let me be among them to say I am anti-Zionist."
One of the last to speak was Mr. Massad, who was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation. Mr. Massad told the audience he did not recognize the legitimacy of the committee that investigated his conduct. He gave the committee an extended statement last month.