Mideast Tensions Are Getting Personal on Campus at Columbia

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

N. R. KLEINFIELD | The New York Times | 18 January 2005

As students resume classes at Columbia University today after their winter break, they will face the telltale summonses of college life: Go to class, surf the Internet, sleep, pursue romance, sleep.
And a new one: Testify about the alleged misconduct of their professors.
Every Monday and Friday until its work is done, a novel faculty panel will make itself available to hear narratives from students and faculty members in the hope of sorting out a virulent dispute that has rattled the university for months. If anything is clear in this very unclear quarrel, ostensibly over supposed intimidation of Jewish students by pro-Palestinian professors in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, it is that it has already produced some unbecoming fallout.
It has led one professor, who denounces the whole matter as a “witch hunt,” to abandon one of his signature courses. It has prompted a faculty member in the medical school, not at all directly involved, to send an e-mail message to an implicated professor that he is a “pathetic typical Arab liar” and should leave the country. There have been death threats. Students have been labeled as “ignorant” and “liars” by teachers. Perhaps it is not surprising that one professor caught in the whirlpool came down with shingles.
Academic squabbles often go this way, packed with more crass melodrama than the worst reality shows. Clashes in the inherently ungentle halls of academia inevitably touch raw nerves when the context is the tinderbox of the Middle East, when personal identity can be at stake. For some members of the Columbia community on the sidelines, this is gripping theater. As one professor blithely put it, “This is blood sport for me, and I love it.”
Determining the boundaries of this dispute is a slippery exercise. At root it is about some Jewish students and recent graduates, who could number several dozen, contending that in recent years they felt mocked and marginalized by pro-Palestinian professors. They have not, however, pointed to any grade retribution. Complaints of this sort have buzzed around campus for some time, but the issue flared into international news in late October, when the news media was shown a film, “Columbia Unbecoming,” which had been made at the behest of unhappy Jewish students at Columbia by a pro-Israel group in Boston called the David Project.
The quarrel has also become about whether the department in question, known by the acronym Mealac, is heavily unbalanced in favor of Palestinian sympathizers, not that anyone entirely agrees what “balance” means in academia and whether it is even warranted. And the whole matter has come to be wrapped in the broader cloth of academic freedom.
In no small way, it has also evolved into a test for Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, himself a target of considerable criticism over his handling of the matter.
The dispute has led to abstruse questions being posed, like, “Can a professor officially intimidate a student who is not his student?”
The Columbia contretemps is perhaps the most public expression of a polarization that also festers at other campuses. Indeed, the David Project intends to do films elsewhere, and said that early interviews have already been shot. A somewhat similar dispute happened in 2002 at the University of Chicago, though its provost, Richard P. Saller, said the allegations were more vague and largely judged untrue – one professor had the very good alibi of being in Mongolia at the time of an alleged incident – and the resolution reasonably tidy.
Some Columbia accusations are quite specific, though hard to evaluate stripped of fuller context, but several faculty members say they feel something is there. Dan Miron, a pro-Israel professor in the Mealac department, said that for five years dozens of Jewish students have told him of “rude” and “snotty” treatment by colleagues. “These students didn’t look like disturbed people who would invent these things,” he said.