Columbia Panel Reports No Proof of Anti-Semitism

From the archive (legacy material)

KAREN W. ARENSON | The New York Times | 31 March 2005

An ad hoc faculty committee charged with investigating complaints that pro-Israel Jewish students were harassed by pro-Palestinian professors at Columbia University said it had found one instance in which a professor “exceeded commonly accepted bounds” of behavior when he became angry at a student who he believed was defending Israel’s conduct toward Palestinians.
But the report, obtained by The New York Times and scheduled for release today, said it had found “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.”
It did, however, describe a broader environment of incivility on campus, with pro-Israel students disrupting lectures on Middle Eastern studies and some faculty members feeling that they were being spied on.
It said that Columbia’s failure to address various student complaints quickly had had a “deeply negative impact” on the university as a whole, had led to an “acute erosion of trust between faculty and students,” and had left Columbia vulnerable to criticism from outside groups with their own agendas.
The committee was formed during the winter at the request of Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, after the release of a videotape in which Columbia and Barnard students said they had been intimidated by professors of Middle Eastern studies both in and out of class. The tape sparked widespread concern among Jewish groups, alumni, trustees and activists concerned about academic freedom.
Pro-Israel students said they made the video because they had been unable for several years to get administrators to take their complaints seriously. The film was backed by the David Project, a pro-Israel group based in Boston.
Mr. Bollinger called the report “thorough and comprehensive” and said that he endorsed its findings. He said that within the next few weeks he would announce the steps Columbia planned in response.
Many have already questioned the makeup of the ad hoc committee, pointing out that several members have expressed anti-Israel views. The committee included Farah Griffin and Jean E. Howard, professors of English and comparative literature; Lisa Anderson, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; Mark Mazower, a history professor; and Ira Katznelson, a professor of political science and history and the committee’s chairman.
Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment lawyer, was an adviser.
Some of the report’s harshest criticism was directed at Columbia itself, for not having clear processes that would have allowed earlier action on faculty and student complaints.
“As a result of these failures,” the report said, “outside advocacy groups devoted to purposes tangential to those of the university were able to intervene to take up complaints expressed by some students.”
The report (which is to be posted on Columbia’s Web site today) noted that although often combative exchanges occurred between pro-Palestinian professors and pro-Israel students, no students received lower grades because of their views.
But the committee said that after meeting with 62 students, faculty members, administrators and alumni, and reading written submissions from more than 60 others, they were most concerned with three alleged instances of intimidation, all from the 2001-02 school year before Mr. Bollinger took office.
The most credible, the committee found, was an incident involving Professor Joseph Massad, who was teaching a class on Palestinian and Israeli politics. According to the report, a student, Deena Shanker, recalled asking if it was true that Israel sometimes gave a warning before a bombing so that people would not be hurt. She said the professor blew up, telling her, “If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!”
The report said that the professor had “denied emphatically that this incident took place” and had told the committee that he would never ask a student to leave his class. And it said that others in the “particularly tense” class differed about whether the incident, which was never formally reported, had taken place.
But the committee said that in the end, it found the account “credible” and concluded that the professor’s “rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism.”
Reached last evening, Professor Massad said he had just finished reading the report and was still trying to figure out what it meant.
“I clearly disagree with their findings,” he said. “I deny the allegations. I do not know on what basis they found them credible. It was a he-said she-said thing. It is unclear on what basis they made the determination that one claim was more credible than the other.”
He added that there had been a lack of due process.
The committee said it could not reach similar determinations about two other troubling episodes.
One involved an Israeli student’s account of an off-campus lecture by Professor Massad. The student, Tomy Schoenfeld, told the committee that after he identified himself as a former Israeli soldier, the professor asked him twice how many Palestinians he had killed. According to the committee, Professor Massad said that he had no recollection of the event and that he had never met Mr. Schoenfeld. In the end, the committee concluded that the incident fell “into a challenging gray zone, neither in the classroom, where the reported behavior would not be acceptable, nor in an off-campus political event, where it might fit within a not unfamiliar range of give and take regarding charged issues.”
The final incident involved the course “Introduction to Islamic Civilization” taught by George Saliba. The report said that a student, Lindsay Shrier, claimed the professor told her after class that she was not a Semite because she had green eyes, and therefore had “no claim to the land of Israel.”
The professor told the committee that the student might have misunderstood an argument he often made about the absurdity of making historical claims for land based on religious premises. The committee concluded that “however regrettable a personal reference might have been, it is a good deal more likely to have been a statement that was integral to an argument about the uses of history and lineage than an act approaching intimidation.”
The committee recommended that Columbia institute accessible and transparent grievance procedures “geared to the speedy resolution of complaints and the appropriate protection of privacy.” It said the procedures should be well publicized. It also called on the university to improve its advising system, and stressed the responsibility of both faculty and students to maintain civil discourse.
“One major lesson for us,” Mr. Bollinger said, “is that if you do not have adequate grievance procedures, problems you could have dealt with cascade into bigger problems.” But a second lesson, he said, was that the conflict “was not only about the claims of intimidation, but also about the actual debate over the Middle East.”