Academic Integrity Travestied at Columbia Middle East Studies Conference

From the archive (legacy material)

Terri Ginsberg | Zmag | 14 March 2005

On Sunday, March 6, Columbia University hosted a conference called “The Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus.” Despite its repeated and advertised calls for “balance” and “objectivity” in academic scholarship, the gathering exemplified nothing of academic integrity. The conference was sponsored by U.S. organizations which support the Israeli right wing, including Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Columbians for Academic Freedom, The David Project, Jewish Business Student Association, and Koleinu: Columbia Law Students for Israel, and all participants hailed solely from the political Right on the issue of Israel/Palestine. Each presentation expressed support for U.S. and Israeli military manipulation of the Middle East as well as for anti-Arab racism and legislation that would censor dissenting speech, deemed “oppressive” and “antisemitic,” in both the academic and public spheres.
The merging of a neoconservative agenda with the language of liberation is disconcerting, to say the least: it places a blatant bid to foster the idea that neoconservatives, who openly seek to mold the world into a mirror-image of an oligarchic U.S., are in fact “progressives.” The best and most incendiary example of this was the presentation by Phyllis Chesler, a recognized feminist best known for her 1972 book, “Women and Madness,” and more recently the author of the neoconservative “The New Anti-Semitism,” a book that charges all critics of Israel with being antisemites. Chesler starred at the “Academic Integrity” conference, emphasizing her feminism while decrying “multiculturalist” insistence on equality for Palestinian women. Insisting that she is feminist, anti-racist, and pro-gay, Chesler then declared herself (and the audience) victims of that purported majority of feminists, African Americans, and gays whose propensity to question her pro-Likud views belies as self-serving, she claimed, their status as alienated, struggling, and deserving of sympathy from the U.S. mainstream, and whose movements should now be monitored for undue influence. Chesler and subsequent speakers related this phenomenon to the situation of Palestinians, who were likewise accused of exploiting their status as occupied to wring unwarranted sympathy from Americans, while marginalizing Jews.
The inversion of victimhood became salient during the course of the conference, when Palestinian and Jewish objectors, whose opinions were apparently unwelcome at the “balanced and objective” event, challenged Chesler’s characterizations. In response, the audience shouted death threats at the objectors. In one instance, after a Palestinian-American man explained that he had been shot twice by Israeli soldiers, an audience member yelled, “If I had been one of those soldiers, you’d be dead”; in another, a Jewish objector was blocked from leaving the room and similarly threatened. In response to these audible pronouncements, conference attendees roundly applauded, and conference organizers took no action against them. A New York Times photographer who attempted to capture the incident was immediately prevented from doing so. Upset and shaken, she wondered aloud whether her work had been pre-empted because she “didn’t look Jewish.”
This travesty of academic discussion was convened to support a campaign of attacks on professors in Columbia University’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department (MEALAC). “Columbia Unbecoming,” a video funded by the David Project which makes claims about faculty intimidation of students in MEALAC courses, was screened at the conference. Much like the conference, “Columbia Unbecoming” presents a disingenuous cry of victimization. Nothing it alleges about professors’ conduct can rightly be considered “intimidating” or a violation of pedagogical decorum. In fact, “Columbia Unbecoming” makes not one credible argument: it comprises merely a loose patchwork of unsubstantiated interviews with ostensible MEALAC students, and decontextualized quotes from the targeted professors’ writings. No wonder that, although the video has sparked a firestorm of media coverage and accusations, it is closely guarded by its sponsors and remains unavailable for public consumption.
The events which transpired at the Columbia conference would be comical if they weren’t so foreboding. The David Project and its cohorts are working hard to squelch all criticism of Zionism and Israeli policy. In the name of “fighting antisemitism,” they even seek to silence the growing number of Jews at Columbia University and around the world who have come to oppose the israeli occupation of the West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Their campaign draws upon the general rise in discrimination against Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians and increasing attacks on civil liberties in the U.S. and elsewhere. Oppositional student voices at Columbia have started referring to the campaign as “the new McCarthyism.”
Enter U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner and neoconservative ideologue Martin Kramer, whose presentations at the conference revealed efforts underway to capture the real plum: reauthorization of Title IV in the U.S. Senate. Reminiscent of HUAC-era Hollywood, the likes of Kramer have been lobbying Congress for passage of new Title VI legislation that would establish independent monitoring of university courses on issues that “affect homeland security,” especially Middle East and international policy studies.
This proposed legislation would in effect remove all decision-making power over curriculum development and faculty hires and review from faculty and turn it over to outside appointees. Apropos of Kramer’s presentation, an International Educational Advisory Board would ideally serve to eliminate higher educational departments and programs involving international studies that are deemed “anti-American,” replacing them with private research institutes stocked with scholars situated firmly on the political Right. It would also review syllabi and course materials, including article footnotes, to check for and eliminate perspectives critical of Israeli and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The obvious unprofessionalism of the Columbia conference and the amateurish “Columbia Unbecoming” video are a façade of ineptitude obscuring a well-organized, deep-pocketed threat. At best, they constitute a subversive propaganda campaign aimed to dumb down the populace on many crucial foreign and domestic policy issues. Far worse, they represent a fierce attack on universities, on critical thinking, and on the study of political structures in our increasingly fragile and volatile world. Censorship, racism, and death threats to dissenters, cleverly disguised as resisting the “intimidation” of conservative students by “antisemitic” professors, are not merely signals being sent by the “The Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus” conference: they are directives issued straight from the top.
Terri Ginsberg was most recently Adjunct Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College.