Charges of anti-Semitism against professors in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) at Columbia University, are being made by a Zionist organization that claims to promote, “a fair and honest understanding of the Middle East Conflict.” The David Project, a Boston based organization created in 2002, “in response to the growing ideological assault on Israel,” is using a documentary film, “Columbia Unbecoming,” to argue that anti-Semitism on American college campuses is growing.
The film, originally shown only to administrators and slowly leaked to the press, including the conservative and rabidly pro-Israel New York Sun, has led to calls from Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn) and others, for the firing of one of the Departments junior non-tenured professors, Joseph Massad. Shortly after the allegations in the film were publicized, Massad received an email from Columbia associate clinical professor of medicine Moshe Rubin, telling him to, “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.”
Students in the film argue that they have been harassed and intimidated for having pro-Israel positions and claim that the department in general is unbalanced and biased. Yet, since the controversy has erupted, many Jewish students have come forward to support the professors under attack and the department in general, even if they do not agree with their politics.
The department, which encompasses the study of over one billion South Asians, over 300 million Arabs, tens of millions of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and six million Israelis, five million of whom are Jewish, has three full time professors covering Israel and Hebrew, four full time professors covering the Arab World, and two full-time professors, who cover South Asia. In addition, Columbia is home to the Center for Israel and Jewish Studies and has six endowed chairs in Jewish Studies. A seventh is being established after pro Israel groups launched a campaign against the only chair in modern Arab Studies established two years ago.
The president of the David Project, Charles Jacobs, in a letter to the New York Daily News, one day before the film alleging anti-Semitism made headlines in The New York Sun (Columbia Abuzz Over Underground Film), wrote, “Arabists, sometimes backed with money from Arab/Islamic states, have captured many Middle Eastern studies departments around the nation. Students who want to know about this vast, important region, will be trained in anti-Israelism and anti-Americanism, and will be taught the theory (“Orientalism”) of Edward Said that no Westerner can criticize anything Arab or Islamic.”
Mr. Jacobs should rest assured. Most American students are more astute than he is and can read Said”s book without coming to such an unfounded conclusion. I”ve always seen Said”s book as more of a meditation on the writing of history, the way that knowledge is employed, and how it intersects with politics and power. Perhaps Mr. Jacobs considers such ideas irrelevant, particularly when the question of Israel is on the table.
Mr. Jacobs”s sentiment is echoed in a New York Sun Staff editorial that excoriates MEALAC Department Chair Hamid Dabashi for his public condemnation of Ariel Sharon, and more broadly, for a divestment campaign on the part of students and faculty aimed at severing the universities ties to companies that sell arms and military hardware to Israel. The editorial concludes that, “these are the professors whose loathing of Israel, dismissal of Israel’s security concerns, and contempt of Israel’s democratic values cannot be explained or rationalized but are best understood as irrational expressions of anti-Semitism.” The editorial goes on to suggest awarding Ariel Sharon an honorary degree, firing Professor Massad, and disciplining Edward Said Chair of Arab Studies, Rashid Khalidi, for “errors in his book.”
Remarkably, not a single student featured in the film has filed a complaint with the dean of students, the provost, or the department chair. In an email statement (posted on his website ) Professor Massad writes that, “All this power of intimidation is being exercised not by a professor against students, but by political organizations who use students against a junior non-tenured faculty member.” Massad also notes that after four years of pressure, intimidation, and coercion he has decided not to teach his course on Palestinian and Israeli Politics this year. One might then ask, whose academic freedom is being compromised?
President Bollinger, in response to the film, has agreed to launch an investigation. But the David Project has already accomplished its primary goal, equating criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism and condemning professors who speak out against the Israeli occupation.
ADAM FEDERMAN can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org