Rebutting a "Misguided Political Project"

From the archive (legacy material)

George Saliba | The Columbia Spectator | 3 November 2004

As one of the faculty members of MILACA who has been recently slandered in a film that was screened behind closed doors, I feel a statement rebutting those slanderous charges is in order.
After receiving the transcript of the film through the courtesy of The New York Sun, I read the statements of a Ms. Lindsay Shrier, in which she refers to a 45-minute conversation she claims I had with her outside of class, on College Walk, a few years back. Since I must have talked to hundreds of students since then, I can assure you that I have no memory of the student in question nor of the conversation that she claims took place.
The statements that she attributes to me in the transcript, marked between quotations, are blatantly false, and I can say in good conscience, and categorically, that I would not have used such phrases. At the same time, I do not accuse the student of fabricating this conversation, either, since I have checked my records and realize that I had thought very highly of this student when she took my course in the fall of 2001, and both my TA and I have graded her accordingly without any prejudice whatsoever. I think Ms. Shrier knows that, and she can publish the grade if she thinks it was prejudicial. I only think that quoting an argument from memory, going back a few years, may have fogged the mind of that student, and now under ideological pressures she could no longer remember correctly what words and phrases were used. After all, I myself forgot the whole argument altogether.
What seems to have happened is probably a misquotation of an argument I sometimes make and may have made then. The gist of it would be to say that being born in a specific religion, or converting to one, is not the same as inheriting the color of one’s eyes from one’s parents and thus does not produce evidence of land ownership of a specific real estate. I may have added that if I converted to Catholicism tomorrow I would not expect the Pope to grant me a piece of the Vatican real estate.
On the issue of the Biblical claim to land ownership in Palestine, it is possible that I said that my own great ancestors, the Canaanites, were the original inhabitants of the land before it was promised away to the Patriarch Abraham, and they had more legal claim to that same land than any descendant from Abraham. After all, Abraham was a “stranger and a sojourner” in my neighborhood, as the Bible says, and was decent enough to buy the grave lot for his wife instead of taking it by force. That decency may have earned him the good points with Melkizedek, another ancestor of mine, I presume. I may have also said that we should not forget the claims of Ishmael, the first born of Abraham, who was not treated fairly by our modern-day standards–nor was his poor mother Hagar.
I may have used this argument in order to demonstrate to the student the futility of looking back for justification to land ownership based on religious claims instead of looking at the real political problems in the present Middle East that can be resolved if we stop romanticizing them in terms of whose God was more generous with land grants than the other.
As for intimidating students and holding any grudges against them on account of their religion, race, or the color of their eyes, I think the time spent with that student after class-the whole 45 minutes as she claims-and the grade she earned in the course speak for themselves. They even demand an apology from Ms. Shrier. She obviously took a lot of my time yet still managed to misunderstand the argument I probably made then and may still make to like-minded students who base such real estate claims on their choice of religion. I am sorry to say that she obviously did not get it.
I have nothing but full respect for a student who has taken my class, and although I no longer remember her name or face, I forgive her and wish I could have taught her a little more, so that next time she would at least get the argument right. She may continue to read her Bible as she pleases and continue to disagree with me for the rest of her life, and that is fine with me as well. I do want her to know, however, that her misguided political project has already earned me some hate mail that I could have lived without.
The author is a professor in the department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures.