After classes resumed for the winter semester this year at Columbia University, three Arab scholars in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC)—Joseph Massad, Hamid Dabashi and George Saliba—stood accused of imposing their politics onto their classroom and of verbally bullying Jewish students who did not tow the pro-Palestinian line. The high profile case emerged from interviews with dozens Jewish students (sometimes calling themselves the Columbians for Academic Freedom) in a film called Columbia Unbecoming, funded by the Boston-based David Project and in part led by a student named Ariel Beery. Versions of the film were shown to prominent journalists and academics. While many of the claims made about these professors turned out to be overblown, the way in which the administration dealt with the problem raises serious questions about free speech and students' abilities to hold professors accountable at one of America's most respected universities.
For weeks after Columbia Unbecoming became publicized, New York City's daily newspapers were abuzz with the news about abuse from Arab and Muslim teachers in the classrooms at Columbia. Pro-Israel pundits like Daniel Pipes added the accusations to his editorial canon fodder against pro-Palestinian professors at CampusWatch.org and in the New York Post. Congressmen, columnists, and activists demanded that President Lee Bollinger take immediate action against the department and the professors singled out in the film. But were the accusations true?
Many of the accusations—for instance, one professor telling a Jewish student to leave his class for defending Israel's incursion into the Jenin refugee camp—were certainly believable given their context. Since the Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted in Israel in September of 2000, tensions surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict on campuses have been high, and Jewish college students have had the right to look over their shoulders. Divestment from Israel campaigns have raged across American universities. Some students feel that this has been treating Israel to a double standard, as pro-Palestinian activists have ignored human rights abuses in Sudan and Saudi Arabia while singling out Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Anti-Jewish vandalism has occurred on campuses, even at student synagogues. A conference on divestment from Israel at the University of Michigan in 2002 featured Sami Al-Arian, who the US government accuses of funneling money to Palestinian terrorists, as a speaker. Clearly, the Jewish community has reasons to be on guard.
Columbia, of course, had its own tensions. Situated in Morningside Heights, in one of the most prominent Jewish neighborhoods in America, Columbia was for decades the intellectual home to the late Edward Said, perhaps the world's most influential Palestinian scholar.
Among many of Said's protégés, Joseph Massad (also a Palestinian), one of the professors accused in Columbia Unbecoming, stood out. Even from his early graduate school days, Said warned Massad that he had the tendency to be somewhat of a loose canon when it came to the subject of Israel.
The film refers to Massad as one of the university's "most dangerous intellectuals." Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice characterizes Massad, a fierce anti-Zionist, as "one of the more fervently biased professors in the Middle East studies department." Student Yael Bitton would later testify to the Columbia administration that Massad had told his class that Israel was responsible for the execution of several Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
The media had a field day with the accusations, and all of a sudden, Columbia was in the hot seat. But even in this context, Columbia Unbecoming wasn't winning allies at home. One graduate student, speaking anonymously, said simply, "The charges were not convincing." Josefa Steinhauer, a Jewish biology graduate student and a dues-paying member of the Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League, remarked, "The students [in the film] were being hysterical." Robert Pollack, a pro-Israeli professor of biological science, commented to the Nation, "It is a crazy, crazy exaggeration to claim that Jews are under attack at Columbia or that the faculty is anti-Semitic...It's innuendo and gossip." The Jewish Week reported that two established Jewish organizations on campus—Hillel and LionPac—felt that the students in Columbia Unbecoming, "reduced the entire spectrum of pro-Israel advocacy and activity on campus to a single issue, forcefully making support of their cause a litmus test for pro-Israel students."
Why weren't these whistle-blowers making more friends? Did people doubt the objectivity of the film because the David Project, which funded the film, has ties to partisan and neoconservative outfits? Did the students in the film do anything offensive themselves? Perhaps the greatest source of skepticism of the film is that the citations of anti-Semitic incidents in the classroom are suspect at best.
Columbia Unbecoming in fact misquotes an essay Dasbashi penned for an Egyptian periodical on the subject of Palestine. One version of the film (there are many) has him saying "Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left...its deep marks on the faces of the Israeli Jews, the way they talk, walk, the way they greet each other."
In actuality, the phrase "Israeli Jews" does not appear in Dabashi's article. In the essay he only refers to passer-bys during an incident at an Israeli airport; it is not a reflection on Israe, like the film suggests.
Indeed, as Pollack infers, many of the accusations that fly in the film are flimsy. Many of the interviewees' most damning anecdotes lack corroborating witnesses, for example.
Nevertheless, editorial boards and columnists in New York seemed to have taken Columbia Unbecoming's word as fact. However, even students involved in the making of the film felt the discourse surrounding the controversy had gotten out of hand. The New York-based Jewish newspaper the Forward reported that a group of them "said that the press, along with outside Jewish organizations and activists, transformed what was meant to be a call for professors to adopt a more open approach to debate into an attack on the political opinions of pro-Palestinian professors."
So to handle the alleged problem, President Lee Bollinger put together a faculty committee to investigate, and it released a report on the matter in April.
"The committee itself was biased," remarked Steinhauer, "The members were friends or acolytes of the people being accused." After hearing testimonies from students and faculty during the semester the committee released its report, but only after it showed it to the New York Times and Massad himself, so that he could comment, the New York Sun reported.
The report cited only three accusations of the many the committee heard from the participants in the film, and it barely reprimanded any faculty members. It even discouraged faculty members from helping students with their grievances. It reads, "We find it deeply disturbing that faculty were apparently prepared to encourage students to report to them on a fellow-professor's classroom statements. Such behavior undermines the standing of the professoriate as a whole, erodes the relationship of trust that ought to exist between a teacher and his students, and threatens to turn the latter into informers."
The committee's findings, expectedly, did not go over well publicly.
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League responded, "The report by the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee protects the faculty, gives little credibility to the students, and comes up with no solutions at all to deal with the concerns about intimidation...The issue is, and has always been the alleged intimidation of pro-Israel students by faculty members. That issue is inadequately addressed by the report"
Foxman added, "The report concludes that some professors in the Middle Eastern and Asian Language and Cultures Department crossed the line, but there are no recommendations for how the university should deal with that conduct, now or in the future."
And Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff lamented, "What particularly struck me in the 24-page exercise in whitewashing was this attack by the committee on whistle-blowers among the students and their faculty supporters." Indeed, the report gave reason for all Columbia students to doubt their freedom and the ability to hold teachers accountable. A faculty committee had, in effect, ruled that the faculty was not guilty and left concerned students powerless.
Forget for a moment that the accusations in Columbia Unbecoming were, in fact, highly suspect. Let us imagine that professors had lashed out at Jewish students for political disagreements. Not only would such acts be intellectual crimes, they would constitute institutional bigotry. Given Bollinger's initial decision to treat the accusations with a faculty panel filled with members having conflicts of interest in the case, it is clear that real issues of anti-Semitism, or other forms of racism for that matter, could never be dealt properly under Bollinger's watch. This was bad publicity for an Ivy League school like Columbia, but it was an especially big blow to Bollinger, who has made his academic and legal career by being a champion of the First Amendment and diversity.
So Bollinger changed course, and by the second week of April he had created the President's Council on Student Affairs, which would enable students like those in Columbia Unbecoming to officially voice their grievances. This establishment was "seen by many as a victory for the students," according to the Jewish Week.
"We additionally welcome the formation of a new President's Council on Student Affairs, which will give students another vehicle for advising the administration on matters of student interest and concern," Foxman said on the behalf of the Anti-Defamation League. The affair ended with a seemingly happy ending.
But what is the climate at Columbia like now that the student body and the faculty has had the summer to cool off from this drama? In one sense, fences have been mended, but there are other problems that need to be addressed. Steinhauer, now in her sixth year at Columbia, noted that while she didn't align herself with those in Columbia Unbecoming and that there was a strong Jewish community on campus, there was still anti-Semitism was in the air.
"I'm a liberal," she said, "the Palestinians deserve their own state," but noting that activists commonly held signs in the middle of campus saying, "Zionism equals Nazism," she says she often feels Jews are being singled out.
Knowing that this kind of activity exists on campus, it is likely Jewish students may want to voice their concerns to the university. But with many on campus feeling dissuaded from Columbia Unbecoming, will other students be receptive or will they feel it is like the boy who cried wolf? And when accusations do arise, they will surely test Bollinger's new council.