Columbia Abuzz Over Underground Film

From the archive (legacy material)

JACOB GERSHMAN | The New York Sun | 20 October 2004

[Comment by site editor, Mona Baker: Don’t believe the typical Zionist lies expressed in this article. Joseph Massad is an extremely well educated, articulate defender of Palestinian rights. A man of dazzling scholarship, genuine commitment to peace with justice, and great integrity. A potential Edward Said in the making. What can possibly be worse for Zionist defenders of Israeli war crimes?]
At a history class, a professor mockingly tells a female Jewish student she cannot possibly have ancestral ties to Israel because her eyes are green.
During a lecture, a professor of Arab politics refuses to answer a question from an Israeli student and military veteran but instead asks the student, “How many Palestinians have you killed?”
At a student meeting on the topic of divestment from Israel, a Jewish student is singled out as responsible for death of Palestinian Arabs.
Those scenes are described by current and former students interviewed for an underground documentary that is causing a frisson of concern to ripple through the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University, where the incidents took place.
The film, about anti-Israel sentiment at the school, has not yet been released to the public, but it has been screened for a number of top officials of Columbia, and talk of its impact is spreading rapidly on a campus where some students have complained of anti-Israel bias among faculty members.
“The movie is shocking,” one Columbia senior, Ariel Beery, said.
“It is shocking to see blatant use of racial stereotypes by professors and intimidation tactics by professors in order to push a distinct ideological line on the curriculum,” Mr. Beery, who was interviewed for the film, said.
The film is the creation of the David Project, a 2-year-old group based in Boston that advocates for Israel and is led by the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Group, Charles Jacobs. The David Project, which is refusing to make the film public, has screened it for Barnard College’s president, Judith Shapiro, and Columbia’s provost, Alan Brinkley, according to sources.
Neither Ms. Shapiro nor Mr. Brinkley would return calls seeking comment about the film, though at a meeting in Washington this week with women active in Jewish charitable work the Barnard president is said to have spoken of how emotionally affected she was by the film.
With versions at 11 minutes and 25 minutes in playing time, the film consists of interviews with several students who contend that they have felt threatened academically for expressing a pro-Israel point of view in classrooms.
One of the scholars discussed most in the film, according to a person who has seen the film, is Joseph Massad, a non-tenured professor of modern Arab politics, who is teaching a course about Middle East nationalism this fall. Mr. Massad, a professor at Columbia’s department of Middle East and Asian languages and cultures, has likened Israel to Nazi Germany and has said Israel doesn’t have the right to exist as a Jewish state.
In the film, a former Columbia undergraduate, Tomy Schoenfeld, recalls attending a lecture about the Middle East conflict given by Mr. Massad in spring 2001. At the end of the lecture, Mr. Schoenfeld prefaced a question to the professor by informing Mr. Massad that he was Israeli, Mr. Schoenfeld told The New York Sun. “Before I could continue, he stopped me and said, ‘Did you serve in the military?'” Mr. Schoenfeld, who served in the Israeli Air Force between 1996 and 1999, recalled. He said that he told Mr. Massad he had served in the military and that Mr. Massad asked him how many Palestinians he had killed. When Mr. Schoenfeld refused to answer, Mr. Massad said he wouldn’t allow him to ask his question.
Mr. Massad did not return phone calls for comment yesterday. Mr. Schoenfeld told the Sun that his encounter with Mr. Massad was not representative of his dealings with Columbia professors and that the Middle East-Asian department is “usually balanced.”
Mr. Beery, the senior at the school, told the Sun that anti-Israel bias is prevalent in the department and said the documentary film demonstrates how many students at Columbia have been affected by it.
“You would be surprised,” Mr. Beery said, “to find the number of students who were willing to stand up and be counted as members of the student body who oppose the intimidation of students in the classroom, especially on topics related to the Middle East.”
In 2003, Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, convened a committee of six Columbia professors to investigate the possibility of the school’s declaring stricter boundaries between academic expression and political activism. But the credibility of the investigation came into doubt among those following the issue seriously when Mr. Bollinger told the New York Daily News that the committee found no claims or evidence of bias or intimidation in the classroom.
Mr. Beery said the committee did not look hard enough for bias and said Jewish students at Columbia have no avenue for pressing complaints about anti-Israel prejudice among faculty members.
“Because Jews are seen as this overrepresented ethnic group and not prone to protests, they sweep it under the rug,” he said.
Columbia is looking to raise money for an endowed professorship in Israeli studies to make up for what Mr. Bollinger has said is lack of contemporary Israel scholarship at the school.
That effort comes at a time when the university is under a cloud for having accepted money from the United Arab Emirates, one of the worst human rights violators in the Middle East and a country hostile to Jews and Israel, to help finance a chair named for the late professor Edward Said, who was a writer and anti-Israel Palestinian activist. Harvard University returned money from the UAE after complaints were raised about the propriety of taking money from that source.
The situation of Jewish students on anti-Israel campuses like Columbia is an issue that is coming into focus only slowly among a Jewish communal leadership whose attention has been elsewhere. The isolation of Jews on campuses has been recognized for decades.
One of the most famous letters ever written by a Jewish figure was penned in 1918 by the Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky and sent to a South African university student. Jabotinsky had heard that in the face of campus anti-Semitism the student was contemplating suicide. Jabotinsky advised him that it would be cowardly for the student to take his own life and that, instead, he should take heart from the Zionist stirrings, which were then just beginning.
The letter, which is reproduced in facsimile form in the “Encyclopedia Judaica,” says: “I think, in a very conservative estimate, that the next ten years will see the Jewish state of Palestine … a reality; probably less than ten.” He said it would be “foolish to forego all of this” because of anti-Semites at the university.
Jewish students interviewed by this reporter at Columbia suggest that they perceive their situation in a different light than the student to whom Jabotinsky wrote. The Columbia students do not charge that they are facing anti-Semitism on campus. They attach an importance to what they see as a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments.
“They teach everything in the context of one special, small struggle, when there are 23 countries out there where minorities are being oppressed, where women are bound to their homes, where homosexuals are being put in jail. They’re ignoring the rest of the Middle East in favor of a small dimension of it,” Mr. Beery said.