Columbia University must take a stand

From the archive (legacy material)

Editorial | Daily News | 21 October 2004

[Comment by site editor, Mona Baker: Don’t believe the typical Zionist lies expressed in this Editorial. Joseph Massad is an 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?]
Students at Columbia University have given troubling accounts of classroom instruction that is at the least anti-Israel and anti-American and at the worst anti-Semitic. And they describe an atmosphere that suppresses all but single-minded fealty to the notion that Israel is, in a word, evil.
The locus for this poison, according to interviews filmed by an activist group, is Columbia’s Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures. No surprise there. The outfit has steadily built a reputation for having a faculty that enforces some rather distasteful views under the guise of academic freedom.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger told this page in May that a campus free-speech commission had found no evidence of academic bullying. “They have said to me they have not found claims of bias or intimidation,” Bollinger said then.
Well, President Bollinger, it’s time for another look, and a serious one, according to the film by The David Project, which battles what it sees as a growing ideological assault on Israel. Its contents were reported in The New York Sun. The anecdotes were truly appalling.
Students described a professor citing a student’s green eyes to mock her belief she had ancestral ties to Israel; a professor asking an Israeli student, a military veteran, how many Palestinians he had killed and refusing to field the student’s question; a student being singled out and accused of responsibility for Palestinian deaths.
Some students felt grades would suffer if they expressed a pro-Israeli position. One noted that while much classroom time is given to the view that the very existence of Israel is a crime against humanity, there’s little discussion of the human rights violations, oppression of women and Christians, tyranny and slavery that are rife in the 23 Arab countries. Spotlighted in the film was Prof. Joseph Massad, the teacher who asked the student how many Palestinians he had killed. In the past, Massad has likened Israel to Nazi Germany.
As a world-class university, Columbia must do better. Academic freedom and freedom of expression belong to all on campus. Columbia has shown itself to be hospitable to a professor who said last year that he hoped the U.S. had “a million Mogadishus” in Iraq, a reference to the mutilation of American soldiers in Somalia. And it felt comfortable accepting $200,000 from the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, to endow a chair named for the late Prof. Edward Said, a Palestinian anti-Israeli activist.
The same respect must be shown to others with saner viewpoints – and anti-Semitism must never be tolerated. Broadening the courses offered by the Middle Eastern studies department should be a first step. It now covers a range of scholarship on Arab topics but is exceedingly thin on contemporary Israeli studies. Bollinger is raising money to endow two professorships, one a chair in Israeli studies and the other for visiting professors from Israel. That effort has gone on for months. Clearly, faster action is needed. And Bollinger would be wise to to sit down with the students who have told of being intimidated, and then take appropriate action.