Rep. Weiner asks Columbia to fire anti-Israel prof

From the archive (legacy material)

Jacob Gershman | The New York Sun | 22 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?]
A congressman from New York City is calling for the dismissal of a Columbia University professor he accuses of “displays of anti-Semitism.”
Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat of Brooklyn and Queens, has written a letter to Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, urging him to “fire” Joseph Massad, an assistant professor of Arab politics and one of the harshest critics of Israel on campus.
In his letter, Mr. Weiner said Columbia cannot ignore instances like a public speech in which Mr. Massad is said to have likened Zionism to Nazism. The professor, in a published article, has also denied Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
“By simply casting aside these claims and not holding its faculty accountable, Columbia enhances the public perception that it condones anti-Semitism,” Mr. Weiner wrote.
Mr. Massad did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Mr. Weiner was reacting to a report that appeared in Wednesday’s issue of The New York Sun on a new underground documentary film in which current and former Columbia students speak about what they say is political intimidation and hostility toward Israel among faculty members. The David Project, the pro-Israel advocacy group that produced the short film, has not released it to the public but has screened it for top Columbia and Barnard College officials. The group has also sent a copy to the head of the Hillel chapter of Columbia and Barnard, Simon Klarfeld, who said he plans to screen it for the organization’s board of directors next month.
“Due to its very sensitive nature, this will be a closed meeting – open only to the Hillel board of directors, so that we can review the materials, have a serious facilitated policy discussion and make the necessary decisions for next steps as an organization,” Mr. Klarfeld wrote in an e-mail. He did not return a call for comment.
According to people who have seen the film, it contains a scene in which a former undergraduate, Tomer Schoenfeld, talks about attending a lecture in the spring of 2001 delivered by Mr. Massad on the subject of the Middle East conflict.
According to Mr. Schoenfeld, he tried asking the professor a question after the lecture, informing the professor that he was Israeli. Mr. Schoenfeld said Mr. Massad demanded to know if the student had served in the Israeli military, to which the student replied that he had.
Mr. Schoenfeld, who served in the Israeli Air Force between 1996 and 1999, said that Mr. Massad asked him how many Palestinians he had killed, and that the professor wouldn’t allow him to speak until he answered the question.
The film also features an interview with a student who says a professor told her in the middle of class that she could not have ancestral ties to Israel because her eyes were green, according to those who have watched it.
The David Project is circulating the film at a time when a number of Jewish members of Columbia’s community have expressed concern over what they say is strong anti-Israel bias among many of those who teach Middle East courses at the school. For example, more than a third of full-time faculty members in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department signed a 2002 petition calling on Columbia to get rid of its investments in companies that sell arms and military hardware to Israel.
Columbia has also refused to return $200,000 it received from the United Arab Emirates to endow a professorship in Arab studies named after Edward Said, the late Columbia professor of literature and Palestinian Arab advocate.
Mr. Massad was also the focus of a January 2004 e-mail that the head of Columbia’s Hillel, Rabbi Charles Sheer, sent to Jewish students. Rabbi Sheer wrote that last October he attended a lecture given by Mr. Massad, titled, “The Persistence of the Palestinian Question.”
“Massad’s thesis was: Zionism is a European colonial system based upon racist principles; its primary goals are the eradication of Palestine – as a country and a culture, and the expulsion of the Palestinians,” Rabbi Sheer wrote. “Professor Massad has reversed the roles of all the players and redefined many of the historic events: The Zionists are the new Nazis; the Palestinians are oppressed victims and therefore the new Jews; the military conflict in Gaza has become the new Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”
Mr. Massad has also argued in his writings that Israel does not legitimately represent Jews and accused the state of Israel of expressing “anti-Semitism.”
In an interview with the Sun, Mr. Weiner said he supports academic freedom but said, “There has been a line that has been crossed here between the search of knowledge and the expression of hate.”
“Simply because you are a professor at a college doesn’t give you carte blanche to spew hate,” the congressman said. “And dressing it up as intellectual freedom doesn’t change it from what it is.”
Mr. Weiner, a former member of the City Council who has expressed interest in running for mayor next year, said he “speaks for a lot of New Yorkers,” who are concerned that Columbia’s reputation is being “sullied” by “anti-Semitic rantings of one of its own.”
It appears highly unlikely that Columbia will take any disciplinary actions against Mr. Massad, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures and will soon be up for tenure.
According to Columbia’s faculty handbook, all faculty members are “entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject,” and “freedom in research and in the publication of its results.”
The handbook says professors “may not be penalized by the University for expressions of opinion or associations in their private or civic capacity; but they should bear in mind the special obligations arising from their position in the academic community.”
It also states that a faculty affairs committee and a hearing committee make decisions about whether to dismiss faculty member for such reasons as “gross inefficiency, habitual and intentional neglect of duty, or serious personal misconduct.” Columbia’s board of trustees, however, has final say over personnel matters.
A spokeswoman for Columbia, Susan Brown, said the school takes “all letters from congressional members seriously regardless of the issues.”
She said anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses is an “issue that everyone needs to be concerned about” and said there a “variety of processes” for students concerned about the issue to lodge their complaints.
Mr. Bollinger formed a committee last year to explore the issue of academic freedom on campus. The committee, Mr. Bollinger wrote in May, “did not find any evidence of systematic bias in our classrooms.”