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Columbia’s Own Middle East War

A new documentary accusing Arab professors of intimidating Jewish students has touched off a fierce war—of words—on the Upper West Side. Where does free speech end and bullying begin?

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Illustration by Christopher Sleboda   

Of all the political documentaries that have ignited controversy in the past year, Columbia Unbecoming is by far the shortest, sparest, and lowest-budget. Still, it quickly attracted an illustrious audience. It was first screened in March to a handful of university alumni. Then it was shown to a trustee, then to a high-level administrator, and then eventually to the university provost, Alan Brinkley. By October, Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, had seen it, as had the Columbia University president, Lee Bollinger; Judith Shapiro, the president of Barnard College, had seen it too, and she mentioned the film in a speech one day at a national women’s conference. That was when the press demanded to see it. It did. A bonfire of ugly headlines about anti-Semitism ensued. The university’s public-affairs department spent the final month of the fall semester at the university gates, braced with a fire hose.

Columbia Unbecoming is a 40-minute reel of testimony from fourteen students and recent graduates who describe, among other things, moments of feeling cowed by professors for expressing pro-Israel sentiment in the classroom. The startling thing about the video, made by a group called the David Project, isn’t just that these students showed their faces. It’s that they dared to name names, and that all of the professors are in the university’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, known around campus as MEALAC. One student, an Israeli and a former soldier, says a professor named Joseph Massad demanded to know how many Palestinians he’d killed; another woman recounts how George Saliba, one of the country’s foremost scholars on Islamic sciences, told her she had no claim to the land of Israel, because—unlike him—she had green eyes, and therefore was “not a Semite.” At one moment, the video simply shows a block of text, pulled from an article in the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly: “Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people,” it says, referring to Israeli Jews. “The way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture.” The passage was written by Hamid Dabashi, the former chairman of MEALAC.

Of course, there is more than one side to every story. In a gracious editorial in the Columbia Spectator, Saliba said he didn’t remember ever having that conversation about green eyes, but assumes the student—who got a high mark in his class—misquoted “an argument I sometimes make . . . that being born in a specific religion, or converting to one, is not the same as inheriting the color of one’s eyes from one’s parents and thus does not produce evidence of land ownership of a specific real estate.”

Massad, meanwhile, wrote a scathing piece in Al-Ahram, calling Columbia Unbecoming “the latest salvo in a campaign of intimidation of Jewish and non-Jewish professors who criticise Israel.” The New York Civil Liberties Union decried what it saw as a witch hunt aborning on campus, and many Columbia students and faculty members seemed to agree: A petition went around on Massad’s behalf; students organized press conferences and rallies; the faculty quickly convened panels on academic freedom, sensing its scholarship was imperiled. On October 29, The Jewish Week reported that Massad was getting hate mail, including a note that said: “Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic, typical Arab liar.”

Nestled in the middle of the country’s largest and most diverse city, Columbia University has for a long time lived in fluctuating, ambivalent relation to the world outside—sometimes insulating its students from it, sometimes absorbing all of its wild rhythms and tensions. Whenever the campus does the latter, as it is doing today, it makes headlines. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has weighed in, praising the university for taking the allegations seriously. Anthony Weiner, a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn who happens to want Bloomberg’s job, has called on Columbia to fire Massad, who is up for tenure this year. (Neither Massad nor his two tenured colleagues, Saliba and Dabashi, would return New York’s calls for this story.)

All of which puts president Bollinger in an extremely delicate, even unwinnable, position, forcing him to walk a line between protecting his students and defending the scholarly prerogatives of his faculty. “We can say universities should never take up, in scholarship or in teaching, really contemporary controversial issues,” he says in a conversation just a few days before the new year. “But I think that would be a huge mistake. Universities have a major role to play in addressing some of the most difficult, seemingly intractable questions of our time, and in ways that differ from how they’re addressed on the outside.

“It’s very, very difficult,” he concedes. “And Columbia, of all the places in the world, is probably the most difficult place to do it. But it’s probably the most important place to do it. And we have to make it possible to do.”

What that means, though, remains to be answered. This could be the beginning of a very long academic war.

One incident that disturbed me and made me feel personally uncomfortable—practically for the rest of the semester—occurred to me in one of my early Arabic classes.” This is Aharon Horowitz speaking. He’s kippah-clad and round-faced, looking directly into the camera. It’s one of Columbia Unbecoming’s more memorable moments. “The professor used the word man a na, which means ‘to prevent’ in Arabic,” he continues. “I asked him how to use the verb. And he wrote on the board: ‘Israel prevents ambulances from going into refugee camps.’ ” Here, Horowitz pauses, then points to his scalp. “I have to say, I really don’t think he would have said that had I not been wearing this on my head.”

Columbia Unbecoming contains a number of such moments—most of which, as it turns out, took place in 2002 and 2003, during and after Israeli incursions into the West Bank and the building of the security wall. Students describe professors who became “red in the face and shouting” when discussing the Mideast conflict; they recount how professors Saliba and Dabashi abruptly canceled classes in order to attend a pro-Palestinian rally. But even assuming these incidents happened as described, do they really constitute intimidation? Or do they merely constitute, say, obnoxiousness? Or gratuitous political speechifying? Is a professor allowed to have politics in his classroom? With the exception of the most unambiguous cases—and the film contains few—intimidation is a subjective notion, a devil without contours. What one student finds intimidating, another may find provocative, even intoxicating.

“I’m sure you’ve had conversations where things grew increasingly heated and you said things you wish, in retrospect, you hadn’t,” says Zachary Lockman, chairman of the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies department at New York University. “So okay, that happens. But as a student, you can say, ‘Okay, the guy’s a schmuck.’ And then you can move on.” He emphasizes that he hasn’t seen Columbia Unbecoming and that he himself wouldn’t choose to say some of the things the professors are alleged to have said. “That’s not grounds for firing somebody,” he says. “And in part, there may be an effort here to take advantage of the American culture of victimization, right? To frame this in terms of harassment. It gives you some kind of leverage. There’s also a piece of this that suggests students are really stupid. But they’re not. They have a capacity to filter things and to figure out where their professors are coming from.”


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