Columbia report addresses anti-Semitism charges

By
Thursday, April 7, 2005

Following months of controversy and a nine-week investigation, an ad hoc faculty committee at Columbia University released a report Friday on student charges of intimidation in Middle Eastern studies classes. The grievance report found no proof of anti-Semitism but cited one instance of inappropriate behavior by a Middle Eastern studies professor.

The report also criticized Columbia’s inadequate grievance procedures.

The debate over students’ claims that they had been intimidated or harassed for defending Zionist positions began with the release of a film called “Columbia Unbecoming,” which was produced by the David Project, a pro-Israel group based in Boston. The film consisted of student testimonials about their experiences of intimidation by professors in the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures who disagreed with their positions. The film focused in particular on professors Joseph Massad, Hamid Dabashi and George Saliba.

Many students have voiced dissatisfaction with the report, claiming that it minimized the problem by finding only one credible incident of unacceptable behavior.

Bari Weiss, a pro-Israel sophomore at Columbia and co-founder of Columbians for Academic Freedom, said that by focusing on specific grievances, the report avoided addressing the crucial question of why the incidents had occurred to begin with. “These grievances didn’t happen in a vacuum,” she said in an interview with The Herald. “These students were intimidated because of their ideological positions, a fact that was willfully neglected in the report.”

The incidents described in the film were addressed in the ad hoc committee’s grievance report. One such incident involved an accusation lodged against Massad by a Barnard student, Deena Shanker, who took his class, “Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies,” in the spring of 2002. In her testimony, Shanker said she raised her hand to ask whether it was true that Israel sometimes gives warning before bombing certain areas to allow civilians to escape without injury. She claimed that Massad yelled in response, “If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against the Palestinian people then you can get out of my classroom!” The ad hoc committee found this account credible, though there are students who deny that the incident took place.

Many students were outraged by the transgressions described in the film. Others were put off by the way these students’ grievances were aired.

Sophomore Joseph Anzalone was so appalled he called into a local radio show Friday to express his opinion. “Many students at Columbia share the opinion that the film was an extreme and inappropriate way of getting these voices heard,” he told The Herald. “These students seemed to be trying to cause controversy rather than to solve problems.”

Eric Posner, an undergraduate from Jerusalem and a former member of the Israel Defense Forces, said he saw the film as the deliberate attempt of an angry minority to manipulate students. “These individuals are conjuring up notions of anti-Semitism to serve their narrow-minded and extremist political agenda,” he said. “I can’t understand for the life of me why Columbia hasn’t been tougher about dismissing this as a load of garbage.”

After the film’s release, Posner became the central figure in an effort to collect testimonies from students in support of the MEALAC department and its professors. He then submitted this material to the ad hoc committee, which was established by Columbia President Lee Bollinger in December.

Among the more than 20 students who gave testimonies, several defended the teaching methods of the three professors who have been most criticized. Students praised Massad for his “tone of critical scholarly inquiry,” his welcoming of diverse interpretations of the assigned material and his willingness to answer questions “calmly and thoroughly” even when it was clear that the questions were meant to provoke argument or call into question his credibility. One student said: “I am Jewish. I am not a Zionist. Joseph Massad is a man who understands the distinction and does not attempt to conflate the two around a vague connection with Israel.”

Weiss, the sophomore who is dissatisfied with the committee’s report, said she never had an incident with Massad when she took his class, but disagreed with the claim that he encourages diverse points of view. She cited his “inability to entertain other perspectives” as her biggest criticism of his course. “A student can leave his class without being able to articulate why a thinking, moral person might believe the Zionist state had a right to exist,” she said. Instead, Zionist students were “made to feel like pariahs.”

Though Weiss criticized “Columbia Unbecoming” for “conflating issues” and for making vague and often unfounded accusations, she said it should be seen for what it is: a group of testimonials by students who felt that they had gone unheard. “It’s not meant to be a documentary,” she said. Rather, it was a way for students to share grievances that had might have been ignored. “The David Project replaced what the University should have been doing,” she said.

For Weiss, the controversy is not only about the immediate issue of student intimidation but also about the larger one of academic freedom. As a co-founder of Columbians for Academic Freedom, she said she considered herself a strong defender of the right to voice dissent as well as a supporter of rigorous intellectual debate.

She cited critics of the David Project’s funding of “Columbia Unbecoming” as examples of those who wish to silence debate on heated issues. “When the NAACP or the (American Civil Liberties Union) steps in, no one bats an eyelash,” she said. “When the David Project gets involved, people get all up in arms.”

Weiss also criticized a faculty forum on academic freedom on Monday for presenting a single perspective and for shying away from debate. “There is a fear of true debate with people who have perspectives very different from their own.”

Posner and students who have supported the MEALAC department also believe that debate has been stifled, but in a somewhat different way. Posner said he was explaining the events on campus to a friend in Israel who interrupted him, confused about why this had become such a controversy. “What are you talking about?” his friend asked. “Half of my professors deny the legitimacy of the Zionist state.”

“In free countries this kind of debate is allowed,” Posner said.

Though he said he doesn’t reject the claims of students who feel they have been intimidated, Posner is frustrated by what he calls the “narrative of persecution among my people.” Posner, also a former student of Massad’s, said that the professor was a passionate lecturer but never found him to be offensive. “I was used to that level of intensity of debate,” Posner said. “Did I always agree with him? God, no.”

Nonetheless, Posner declared his major in the MEALAC department. “Being a Jew and an Israeli, I felt comfortable enough to declare my major in this department. I served in the army, my mother and sister live in Israel, but nobody calls me a baby killer when I go to office hours,” he said.

Posner said that he is not alone in this experience. The students from whom he collected testimony and many others, including many Jewish students who have taken classes with Massad, believe the accusations are unfounded, he said.

Along with holes in the testimonies of students against Massad and others, Posner emphasized the role of outside influences like the David Project in agitating students and encouraging them to play the “informant game” and to “tell us how they’ve been hurt, even if they’re not sure they’ve been hurt.”

“This was not a case of massive student dissatisfaction,” said Professor of English and Comparative Literature Bruce Robbins. “It was a case of outside organizations latching onto student complaints.”

According to Posner, these outside organizations had already identified the targets of their attacks a long time ago. He cited opinion pieces by Ariel Beery, president of the School of General Studies Student Council and a former member of the Israel Defense Forces, printed in the Columbia Spectator over the past two years as examples of prior attacks on the scholarship of professors like Massad.

“People have been gunning after these guys for years,” Posner said.

Like Weiss, Posner is dissatisfied with the committee’s report. “It’s such a fluid document. … Anyone could read anything they want into that document,” he said.

However, he said that the issue of student intimidation cannot be dismissed. Instead, he thinks a pervasive examination should be conducted to determine if student claims of intimidation are valid. “It’s hard to have a fact-finding mission on the word of five or six people,” Posner said.