At the Center of an Academic Storm, a Lesson in Calm

From the archive (legacy material)

Robin Finn | New York Times | 8 April 2005

IF intimidation, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, Joseph A. Massad, the Columbia University professor implicated last week by a faculty panel investigating charges of intimidation of students by pro-Palestinian professors, is apparently on his best behavior as he sits on his spotless microsuede sofa a stone’s throw from the campus where his classroom conduct has been denounced as “inappropriate.” And where he has received hate e-mail, including this advice from a fellow faculty member: “Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. You are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar.”
Not a nice thing to say to a Christian fellow who began holding Seders as an undergraduate in Albuquerque (he had a Jewish roommate).
Who’s intimidating whom here? Or, to borrow the title of an article Professor Massad wrote for Al-Ahram Weekly as the campus brouhaha reached a boiling point, spurred by “Columbia Unbecoming,” a film produced in Boston by the pro-Israel David Project: “Semites and Anti-Semites, That Is the Question.” Sort of.
According to Professor Massad, any self-respecting scholar of Middle East studies knows that “Israel is the party most responsible for the oppression of the Palestinian people.” He has issues with the Palestinian national movement, too.
He seems, if anything, ingratiating, not intimidating. The perfect host, perfectly attired, right down to the opalescent links binding his French cuffs. The reading material on his coffee table is decorative propaganda, apolitical: “The World Atlas of Wine”; a pictorial of a favored destination, Amberley Castle in Sussex, England; and a catalog in which he excitedly points out the brass chandelier, a handmade reproduction of 18th-century Islamic/Egyptian design, he recently purchased in Cairo. What a novelty: a politically pugnacious professor – he insists he won’t stand for anti-Semitism or anti-Palestinianism in his classroom and packs scholarship to combat both – with a metrosexual gloss.
He maintains that he intimidated no students and is himself the target of a witch hunt with a Zionist agenda and an aversion to scholarship. He believes the Columbia administration “pre-judged” him and the faculty panel bowed to “McCarthyite accusations; the witch hunters are out there, and the committee threw them a morsel.”
“I feel chilled by this,” he adds. “I don’t know what to do in the classroom anymore. I can’t censor myself. And I will fight back. These are, in my opinion, forces of darkness, and I and the majority of the faculty will not let them take over.”
Along with academic freedom, he senses his tenure is in jeopardy. He counts the David Project, the Anti-Defamation League and Campus Watch among his ideological rivals and says his ties to his mentor, Edward W. Said, whom he calls “the biggest academic danger to the accepted line of thought of what Israel is about,” are a factor.
“I am simply an entry point for right-wing forces that want to destroy academic freedom,” says Professor Massad, his eyes telegraphing hurt and anger behind black-framed glasses. “My crime is not only that I’m Palestinian. What galls them most is that I’m a pro-Jewish Palestinian critic of Zionism.”
But he intends to stay on at the alma mater that hired him in 1999 as an assistant professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history (this semester he is teaching two seminars) and gain tenure in 2006-7. He is also seeking “protection” from the administration in order to reinstate his controversial course “Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies,” the one nicknamed “Israel Is Racist” by detractors and crashed by hecklers who, because Professor Massad is a fan of free speech, are allowed to have their say.
That was the 2002 class where Deena Shanker, a student he does not recall, says he threatened her with ejection after she asked him if Israeli troops issued warnings before bombing civilian areas, a claim the report found credible.
“I have never asked any student to leave a class; I never lose my cool,” he says. “I make it my business not to.”
He won’t deny that he is a politicized person. Galvanized by Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he junked his plan to study engineering and switched to political science at the University of New Mexico.
“That was a defining moment for me, because I sort of realized the danger to Palestinian life,” says Professor Massad, whose parents were displaced in 1948, met in Beirut and raised him in Amman, Jordan. His father was an administrator with the Italian Embassy and encouraged him to avoid politics and religion. In Jordan, he attended a French-run school – he is multilingual – and picked up Americanisms from television shows like “Dallas,” “Kojak,” “Columbo” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” He is moderately embarrassed about listing them.
HIS demibeard is neatly sculptured. His Continental accent is more soothing than strident. His elaborate freestanding Egyptian water pipe is stoked with apple-flavored tobacco as a weekend indulgence, accompanied by Cognac, after dinner parties. Only legal substances are imbibed.
“I’m quite wholesome in my old age,” says Professor Massad, 41, single and suffering from a herniated disk that is, he suspects, a result of internalizing the stress of the past few months: the intimidation ruckus and the ensuing testimony before the panel, his father’s death in Jordan in February, assorted slurs and threats.
Professor Massad knows about classroom intimidation firsthand: he was once kicked out of a seminar at the University of New Mexico, after angering the professor with an observation about the Pinochet regime, and “begged” his way back into class by agreeing not to speak unless called upon. He recalls receiving an A-.