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Scapegoated at Columbia

New York City

An investigation into alleged anti-Semitism in an academic department at New York’s Columbia University has rejected bogus charges made by pro-Israel students–but made a scapegoat of left-wing professor Joseph Massad.

The report, released March 31, clears faculty in the Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) Department of charges of anti-Semitism and finds that there has been no systematic intimidation of Jewish students–a conclusion that unbiased outside observers could have reached months ago. However, the report singles out Massad–despite weak and contradictory evidence–for allegedly making a hostile statement to a Jewish student.

The investigation was prompted by the documentary film Columbia Unbecoming–produced by the David Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group–that alleges abuse of Jewish students by pro-Palestinian professors. University President Lee Bollinger gave legitimacy to these claims by publicly “assuming” that they were true–and set a dangerous precedent by creating a panel of professors to investigate the MEALAC Department.

From the beginning, the charges against the professors have amounted to a political inquisition. The report itself admits that the “majority of complaints focused on what a number of students perceived as a bias in the content of particular courses.”

But the committee’s report found one story “credible”–in which Massad was accused of telling a student that if she was going to deny Israeli atrocities, she should get out of his class. The report shows that two people corroborated the “main elements” of the story, only one of whom was actually registered for the class. But three people–including the two graduate student teaching assistants for the class and one undergraduate–have no recollection of the incident. The committee’s report fails to address the fact that the student, Deena Shanker, gave three different versions of the incident.

Without any hard evidence, only racist assumptions about Massad, a Palestinian professor, could allow the committee to accept the testimony of the student as “credible.”

The committee asserts that Massad “became angered… and responded heatedly,” to the student in his class. But later on in the same report, the committee portrays Massad as accommodating towards differences of opinion–and as a teacher who went out of his way to engage with students inside and outside the classroom.

A second allegation against Massad and another against Professor George Saliba were considered questionable by the committee and were largely dismissed in the report. But Massad was made the scapegoat overall. “The Columbia committee report might absolve the university of the charge of anti-Semitism; they have done this by singling out Joseph Massad as the problem,” said Yogesh Chandrani, a member of Stop McCarthyism at Columbia (SMAC),

Bollinger has remained silent in the face of death threats and racist e-mails sent to MEALAC professors, the subsequent canceling of Massad’s class due to intimidation, and calls from politicians and the New York media for Massad’s firing. Bollinger never met with Massad–though he met with the accusing students.

As he told students at a university dinner, “I’m not going to talk about whether the accusations are true or not. Let’s just assume they’re true.” The committee followed Bollinger’s lead in considering Massad guilty until proven innocent.

In Massad’s testimony to the committee, he closely details Bollinger’s damaging role in the investigation. According to Massad, Bollinger’s actions “emboldened those engaged in the campaign to intimidate me and would confirm to the public that the allegations against me are in fact true, at least, as far as he was concerned. That the Columbia University administration acted as a collaborator with the witch-hunters instead of defending me and offering itself as a refuge from right-wing McCarthyism has been a cause of grave personal and professional disappointment to me.

“I am utterly disillusioned with a university administration that treats its faculty with such contempt and am hoping against hope that the faculty will rise to the task before them and force President Bollinger to reverse this perilous course on which he has taken Columbia’s faculty and students. The major goal of the witch-hunters is to destroy the institution of the university in general. I am merely the entry point for their political project.”

There is a concerted campaign to get Massad fired by a number of defenders of Israel, who are threatened by his scholarship and his support for a one-state solution. Bollinger’s actions–and the findings of the investigation–give ammunition to the campaign to fire Massad. “This is a part of a nationwide campaign to chill any kind of discourse that interrupts American foreign policy, including Israel and Palestine,” Nader Uthman, a teaching assistant who testified to the investigative committee on Massad’s behalf, said in a radio interview. “And we’re seeing this all over the country.”

According to Chandrani of SMAC, the next steps for those who support academic freedom should be to “defend Joseph Massad, defend the right to criticize U.S. and Israeli policies. And above all, defend the right to support the Palestinian cause.”

Click here to sign a petition in support of Professor Massad. Complaints about President Bollinger’s role in persecuting Massad should be sent to:

Columbia University Office of the President, 535 West 116th Street, 202 Low Library, Mail Code 4309, New York, NY 10027.

Phone: 212-854-9970; fax: 212.854.9973; e-mail: bollinger@columbia.edu.

MONIQUE DOLS writes for the Socialist Worker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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