While Saidist professors like Shahid Alam and Mark LeVine continue to dominate Middle East Studies departments on American campuses, at Columbia University they have run up against a formidable foe: the indomitable Charles Jacobs of the David Project. From the Chicago Tribune, “Politics of Middle East play out in class fracas,” with thanks to Doc Washburn:
NEW YORK — The Upper West Side of Manhattan may be half a world away from the Middle East, but a bitter war of words has turned the narrow campus of Columbia University into a miniature Gaza Strip, riven by divisions between supporters of the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
Jewish students charge that three professors in the university’s Middle East & Jewish Studies department have ridiculed and intimidated them for making pro-Israel remarks, violating their rights as students to express opinions contrary to those of their professors.
The allegations reflect the growing scrutiny that Middle East studies departments across the country are facing from pro-Israel groups that claim Arab or Islamic professors are slanting their courses to favor the Palestinian side, sometimes to the point of challenging Israel’s right to exist.
But nowhere is that scrutiny more public–or more heated–than on the one-block-wide quadrangle of Columbia’s main campus.
“They’re trying to create a hegemony of ideas,” said senior Ariel Beery, 25, referring to the professors at the center of the debate. “They’re not allowing students to debate them or to disagree with some of their premises without attacking them in a personal manner.”
The university’s Middle East & Jewish Studies department was the subject of a highly critical documentary this fall by a Boston-based pro-Israel group, and university President Lee Bollinger named a committee of Columbia academics in December to investigate the students’ charges and decide whether the three professors should be disciplined….
Far from being treated as colleagues, some students of professor Joseph Massad, one of the faculty members under scrutiny, say he berates and humiliates those who challenge him.
A female student who asked him whether Israeli authorities warned Palestinians before destroying the residences of suspected terrorists said he cut her off and told her that he would not allow her to deny Israeli “atrocities” in his class.
Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics, reportedly asked another student who identified himself as a former Israeli soldier how many Palestinians he had killed.
Another faculty member at the center of the controversy is professor George Saliba, a specialist in the history of Arabic and Islamic science, who reportedly told a student that her opinion about Israel was not valid because she had green eyes and was not a “true Semite.”
And professor Hamid Dabashi, the former chairman of Columbia’s Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, reportedly has said that Israel is a “ghastly state of racism and apartheid” that “must be dismantled.”
These accounts of the three professors’ actions and beliefs are included in “Columbia Unbecoming,” a 20-minute documentary produced by the David Project, a Boston-based group that says its mission is to make sure the Israeli position is fairly represented in college classes.
Professors rebut claims
The professors deny the students’ accusations.
“I have been maliciously slandered,” Dabashi said in an e-mail message, adding that his relationship with his students has always been “one of mutual respect, irrespective of their gender, nationality, or religious identity.”
As for his comments about dismantling Israel, Dabashi said the quotes were taken out of context and that he opposes “any sort of religious state,” including a “Christian empire,” Islamic republic or Jewish state.
A Christian empire, eh? Yes, that’s a real threat today. Anyway, note the ever-present last resort of scoundrels: his words were “taken out of context.”
Saliba wrote a rebuttal in the student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, in which he said he did not remember making a remark about the student’s eye color disqualifying her from having a valid opinion about Israel.
“What seems to have happened is probably a misquotation of an argument I sometimes make,” wrote Saliba, who was unavailable for an interview. “The gist of it would be to say that being born in a specific religion, or converting to one, is not the same as inheriting the color of one’s eyes from one’s parents and thus does not produce evidence of land ownership of a specific real estate.”
In responding to a request for an interview, Massad referred to a statement on his faculty Web site, where he calls the controversy “a witch hunt.”
“The aim of the David Project propaganda film is to undermine our academic freedom, our freedom of speech, and Columbia’s tradition of openness and pluralism,” he says on the Web site.
Evidently Massad equates openness and pluralism with agreeing with him, and thinks disagreement with him is a threat to academic freedom. This self-indulgent solipsism, unfortunately, is pandemic in Middle East Studies departments today.