Profile: Tensions Over Middle East Politics on the Campus of Columbia University

Weekend Edition Sunday: March 6, 2005

Middle East Balance, Perception at Issue at Columbia


Disagreements in academia are nothing new, but at Columbia University, arguments have reached a boiling point over Middle East politics. On one side are allegations that pro-Palestinian professors have intimidated and harassed students who hold pro-Israeli views. On the other side, charges that outside political pressure is threatening academic freedom on the Ivy League campus. Anthony Brooks reports.


This controversy at Columbia dates back years and it provokes intense feelings on all sides. This is how Hamid Dabashi, a professor in Columbia's Middle East studies department, sees it.

Professor HAMID DABASHI (Columbia University): Our university is now haunted. There is an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. That's the problem.

BROOKS: At issue are allegations by a small group of pro-Israel students against Columbia's department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture, which is known by the acronym MEALAC. The students say a handful of MEALAC professors, including Dabashi, push a one-sided anti-Israel agenda on campus, and they charge them with stifling debate and silencing students who disagree with them.


BROOKS: The controversy has burst into public view lately because of this film entitled "Columbia Unbecoming." The film was produced by a pro-Israel student group called Columbians for Academic Freedom. It's a 30-minute collection of testimonials from students, only six of whom identify themselves, about alleged abuses by MEALAC professors; among them, Columbia graduate Lindsey Shrier. In the film, Shrier says that during a debate outside the classroom, Professor George Saliba pushed the argument beyond academic bounds.


Ms. LINDSEY SHRIER (Student, Columbia University): And he looked right into my eyes and he said, `See, you have green eyes. You're not a Semite.' He said, `You have no claim to the land of Israel,' as if I'm not really a Jew because I have green eyes. I was stunned and never approached him after that, and that's exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to intimidate me and keep me quiet.

BROOKS: Professor Saliba declined to be interviewed for this report, but a written statement on his Web site says he doesn't recall the encounter, and if it did take place, he says, Shrier might have misunderstood him. Another allegation comes from Tomy Schoenfeld, an Israeli student. Schoenfeld says he attended a public campus lecture by Professor Joseph Massad on Middle East politics. Afterward, he tried to question the professor, but he says Massad refused to answer and instead demanded to know if the student had served in the Israeli army.

Mr. TOMY SCHOENFELD (Student, Columbia University): I said, `Yes.' So his next question was, `How many Palestinians have you killed?' I was shocked, and he said, `No, it's relevant and I demand that you answer. How many Palestinians have you killed.'

Mr. ARIEL BEERY (Student, Columbia University): If students aren't respected, if they're outright harassed because of who they are, what they look like and what they believe in, that's not OK.

BROOKS: That's Ariel Beery, a political science major and a member of Columbians for Academic Freedom. Beery says over the years, he's heard similar complaints from some two dozen students, but he says most of them won't speak publicly.

Mr. BEERY: You know, these students are still afraid. I mean, to be called a Zionist here is basically your resignation notice to be cool at Columbia and you don't need that. I was a peace activist in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and yet I'm called the voice of the right here just because I believe the state of Israel has a right to exist. That's how crazy things have gotten and that's the problem.

BROOKS: For his part, Professor Joseph Massad, a Jordanian-born Palestinian, denies that he ever asked a student how many Palestinians he killed.

Professor JOSEPH MASSAD (Columbia University): I don't know who this person is. He has never taken any classes with me. He is not my student.

BROOKS: And you don't recall actually saying that to anyone in a classroom setting?

Prof. MASSAD: Never.

BROOKS: And he doesn't recall saying that to anyone outside the classroom either. Massad doesn't deny that he espouses a pro-Palestinian position. He says that's one way he prods his students to think critically about the Middle East, but he says the allegations against him are part of what he calls a McCarthyite campaign.

Prof. MASSAD: I think I'm simply part of a witch-hunt targeting a large number of professors across universities and campuses in the country that do not espouse a kind of party line on American foreign policy and more specifically about Israeli policies. It is really about suppressing academic freedom.

BROOKS: Massad is troubled that the film "Columbia Unbecoming" was funded by an outside Boston-based pro-Israel political group, the David Project. So was Andrew Nathan, who chairs Columbia's political science department.

Mr. ANDREW NATHAN (Columbia University): You can't hold faculty to the standard of not making students feel intimidated because students, first of all, how they feel is the product of a lot of different things other than how the faculty person behaves, and I don't think it allows academic freedom and allows good classroom interchange when professors are being scrutinized by forces outside of the faculty governance process.

BROOKS: But Charles Jacobs says that process isn't working at Columbia. Jacobs is the president of the David Project and says he became involved at the behest of Columbia students, and for good reason.

Mr. CHARLES JACOBS (President, David Project): Columbia University is a private institution, and if it wishes to have an anti-Zionist Middle East studies department, it certainly has the right to do so. It doesn't have the right to say, `This is liberal arts education where all views are balanced and with an open mind.' They don't have that in the MEALAC department at Columbia. What they have is partisan. So if they want to have that, they should say that.

BROOKS: Critics of Columbia's Middle East studies department say out of 21 full-time professors, just three are regarded as sympathetic to the Israeli perspective. On the other hand, their complaints focus on just three pro-Palestinian professors. Among the difficult questions here are: Is political balance an academic value? And how do you balance student sensitivity with a professor's right to academic freedom? Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, says he will not permit outside pressure to influence scholarship, but he also says the student complaints are serious and will be investigated.

Mr. LEE BOLLINGER (President, Columbia University): What we cannot have is behavior that cuts off the participation of students because of a particular viewpoint. That really cuts to the core of a university's values. So you really must take them very seriously, and I do.

BROOKS: The controversy has gone well beyond the campus walls. It prompted the Israeli ambassador to the US to cancel an appearance at Columbia and a US congressman to demand that Professor Joseph Massad be fired. Massad says he has stopped teaching his course on Palestinian-Israeli politics because of harassment. And Professor Hamid Dabashi, also a critic of Israel, has stopped speaking publicly because of a rash of threatening phone calls that go way beyond academic arguments.

Unidentified Woman: (From phone) You have 64 old messages.

Unidentified Man: Mr. Dabashi, I read about you in today's New York Post. You stinking terrorist Muslim pig. I hope the CIA is studying you so it can kick you out of this country back to some filthy Arab country where you belong, you terrorist bastard.

Prof. DABASHI: This is not the US that I immigrated to.

BROOKS: Professor Hamid Dabashi.

Prof. DABASHI: There is something happening in this country so visceral, so ugly, so vicious that is simply unrecognizable.

BROOKS: Columbia has set up a faculty committee to investigate and report on the students' complaints by the end of March, but it seems that nobody is satisfied. The pro-Israel students say the committee is tainted because its members are too close to the Middle East studies department, while the professors under scrutiny accuse the university of caving in to outside pressure. For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks.

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