Controversial Film Roils Columbia

From the archive (legacy material)

Liel Leibovitz – Staff Writer | The Jewish Week | 29 October 2004

Documentary alleging anti-Israel bias by professors countered by many on campus. Where does open debate end and intimidation begin?
When news broke last week of the existence of a new film allegedly exposing anti-Israeli bias at Columbia University, the campus was thrown into turmoil yet again over the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
The unreleased film, produced by the David Project, a Boston-based organization devoted to promoting Israeli positions, is said to consist of interviews with Columbia students who speak of instances of intimidation and harassment from professors, particularly in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture department (MEALAC), a department long thought by some in the pro-Israel community to be slanted against the Jewish state.
Although only a few Columbia officials have seen the film, whose existence was first reported in the New York Sun, word of the project prompted Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn) to call for the firing of one professor, Joseph Massad, who the film alleged verbally abused Israeli students, and restructuring the department to be more balanced.
But in interviews with four of the seven students who appear in the film, and more than two dozen others — mostly Israeli or American Jewish students who attended MEALAC classes over the last five years — a much different picture emerges than the one seemingly portrayed on screen.
The students most familiar with the MEALAC department, while noting that some professors are highly critical of Israel and its policies, defended the teachers as well within the bounds of academic give-and-take.
Most of the complaints on campus appear to be from pro-Israel activist students not in the MEALAC program, raising questions of where anti-Israel bias — which clearly unsettles some students — ends and intimidation begins, and who can best assess the situation.
“The class was an incredible experience,” said Lia Mayer-Sommer,24 , referring to Massad’s class titled “Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies.”
Mayer-Sommer, an Israeli native, added that “it wasn’t fun to be the only Israeli in class, but I never felt intimidated. Passionate, emotional, but not intimidated.”
Shaina Greiff agreed. “I studied at MEALAC,” said the22 -year-old Texas native. “I am a Jewish student, and I never felt intimidated or bullied or otherwise.”
Speaking for the first time since the controversy over the film broke, Massad told The Jewish Week that while he believes Israel is a racist state, he calls the charges of intimidation “patently false.”
“I am dedicated to all my students, many of whom are Jewish,” Massad said in an interview.
He said that while many students may differ with his politics, he allows a free exchange in the classroom.
“This is exactly what teaching and learning are about,” Massad said.
Since news of the film was made public, Massad has received several pieces of hate mail, some of which he forwarded to The Jewish Week, including one from a fellow Columbia professor saying, “Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar.”
The allegations in the film are believed to include stories of students being intimidated by professors; Massad asking an Israeli student who served in the Israeli army how many Palestinians he had killed; professors using inflammatory language directed against Israel, such as equating the Jewish state with Nazism; and professors accusing Israeli students of violence.
While the film, which is believed to have an11 -minute version and a 22-minute version, was not made available prior to its scheduled screening at midweek, The Jewish Week saw a three-minute clip.
Tomy Schoenfeld,27 , was interviewed in the film describing an altercation with Massad that occurred after an off-campus lecture by the professor three years ago. When Schoenfeld approached Massad, the professor asked if he had served in the Israeli army. Massad then asked how many Palestinians Schoenfeld had killed.
“He trespassed good taste,” Schoenfeld said in an interview, adding that “some step could be taken; maybe postpone his tenure or something similar.” Schonfeld said he had not taken any of Massad’s classes but enjoyed the other MEALAC classes he had taken.
Schoenfeld said the department “is balanced,” adding that he was in a class with Professor Hamid Dabashi, the head of MEALAC, and “enjoyed it very much. I loved his class and thought he was great.”
Eric Posner,25 , who was raised both in Israel and the United States, has taken numerous classes with Massad and others in MEALAC.
“When I came to Columbia,” Posner said, “I heard absolute horror stories from my Israeli friends about Massad. They told me that he lies and that he’s provocative.”
Posner discovered, however, when he had Massad for a professor that he was “a brilliant lecturer. He is articulate, he is very challenging, he is very critical of the Israeli government and he’s very critical of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.”
Posner added that although he and Massad have had countless disagreements, he found the professor to be “approachable, stimulating and challenging.”
“If a professor doesn’t challenge me, if he doesn’t make me re-evaluate my positions or come up with better arguments, what’s the point of going to the classroom?” Posner asked.
Professor Philip Oldenburg, who taught a joint class with Massad four years ago, said Massad “not only taught with the highest standard of professionalism, his practice was invariably one of making a positive response to students. There was certainly no incident of intimidation or intolerance of a different opinion.”
Not everyone was sanguine, though. Another student in the film, Noah Liben,22 , said he had taken one of Massad’s classes hoping it would broaden his horizons.
During one exchange in class, when he defended Israel and asked if Massad understood his point, the professor “smirked and said that he didn’t,” which led to the whole class “erupting in laughter,” Liben said.
This, Liben said, is harassment, as “the university has the responsibility to create an atmosphere where everybody feels comfortable being a student.”
Ariel Beery,25 , president of the Columbia School of General Studies’ student body and a driving force behind the film, believes MEALAC professors have crossed the line into intimidation, though he was reluctant to offer specific examples.
Beery is not a MEALAC student and said he has not taken any of Massad’s classes.
“If there are students who feel they are being intimidated, then intimidation exists,” he said. “It’s very important that Columbia University be held to a higher standard, as it trains the next generation of leaders of the United States and the world. To hold itself to such a low standard that it’s willing to let such things pass, that’s pathetic.”
Beery said he was contacted by the David Project after writing articles for the Columbia student newspaper raising claims of intimidation.
Charles Jacobs, who heads the David Project, said: “We want to make a change at Columbia. We don’t want students to be harassed. We want the Middle Eastern studies department to be diverse. We want students to be able to make complaints and not feel harassed.”
No complaints have been filed, according to Susan Brown, Columbia’s assistant vice president for public affairs.
“To our knowledge, over the last few years there have been no formal complaints of political intimidation in the classroom that were initiated through any of the formal processes at the university for adjudicating such complaints,” she said.
Further, Columbia President Lee Bollinger convened an advisory committee in February to discuss the state of academic freedom on campus. Among other things, the committee touched on allegations of anti-Israeli pronouncements from professors in classes.
According to Brown, the committee assured Bollinger “that they found no claims of bias and intimidation in classrooms.”
A spokeswoman for the Columbia Hillel said she knew of no formal claims by students of intimidation by professors.
In The Jewish Week interview, Massad said he believed that “Israel is a racist state that discriminates against non-Jews in its laws and its practices.”
The real anti-Semites, he added, “were those, especially on the Christian evangelical right, who support Israel [but seek to convert Jews], but my critics never attack them. The David Project does not go after pro-Israel anti-Semites because it is not concerned with anti-Semitism but with anti-Israel criticism, which it conflates with anti-Semitism.”
Said Beery: “They key is that the department has become a mouthpiece for a certain political end. I would rather no course be taught about Israel, or that the course would focus on the atmosphere of tyranny and oppression that is prevalent throughout the region.”
Responding to the controversy caused by the film, Brown said that Bollinger “has asked the provost to look into the matter, and we’ll go from there.”
“What we need to do is to make sure that the fabric is as strong as it should be,” she said, “and that there are sufficient mechanisms highly visible for students to use if they feel uncomfortable.”