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Columbia’s Own Middle East War

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Columbia student Ariel Beery supports the film.   

Among the film’s allegations, none claims the professors punished the students with bad grades for their points of view. In fact, Noah Liben, an affable and handsome kid and the only interviewee in Columbia Unbecoming to have taken a course with Massad, told me in an interview he got an A-minus. (Though he added that he wrote a final paper based on an idea he didn’t really believe in.) In Al-Ahram, Massad points out that he and Liben exchanged e-mails all semester, which hardly suggests that Liben felt cowed by his behavior. Liben told me that this may be true, but he’s thick-skinned. Not all of his classmates, he says, were the same way.

Unfortunately, there are likely to be problems in any situation where people come to a place where they meet very different people with very different ideas,” says Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute. He is bearded, compact, powerfully charismatic; one of his colleagues, attempting to sum up his intellect, told me, “As smart as you think a person can be, he’s smarter.”

Khalidi is Columbia’s spiritual heir to Edward Said, the handsome, prolific, and flamboyantly controversial champion of the Palestinian cause who died of leukemia in September 2003. He has a $2.5 million endowed chair in Said’s name and is frequently called upon, as Said was, to explain the ways of the Arab and Muslim world to the West. (When Yasser Arafat died, Khalidi spoke to no less than 34 media outlets in a 24-hour period.) From 1991 to 1993, he served as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation in the Madrid and Washington peace negotiations; on a more problematic note, a rumor persists that he once also served as a spokesman for the PLO, thanks to a 1982 news story that identified him this way. Right now, it’s late December, and Khalidi is sitting in his corner office, a rumpus room of comfortable chairs and scholarly clutter, talking at roughly twice the rate of average human speech.

“Most kids who come to Columbia come from environments where almost everything they’ve ever thought was shared by everybody around them,” he says. “And this is not true, incidentally, of Arab-Americans, who know that the ideas spouted by the major newspapers, television stations, and politicians are completely at odds with everything they know to be true. Whereas kids from, I don’t know, Teaneck. Or Scarsdale. Or Levittown. Or Long Island City. Many of them have never been exposed to a dissonant idea, a different idea, as far as the Middle East is concerned. And so you have a situation where it’s going to be problematic.”

He swings around to his computer, starts surfing the university Website. “We’re not in an environment where Jewish students, as they were in the history of the Ivy League, are discriminated against,” he says. Indeed, the university Hillel estimates that roughly a quarter of Columbia’s undergraduates, or about 2,000 students, are Jewish. “Have you looked at the Hillel Website here?” Khalidi asks. “It blew my mind!” He finds it, starts to scroll. “Look at this. They have ten, twelve paid employees.” (Well, at least seven, and five rabbinic interns.)

“The field has been under attack for years, and this is a huge club in that attack.”

He looks back at me with intense blue eyes. “I’m not saying that professors should necessarily ever do certain things. I’m just saying that in a polarized environment, and in a situation where overall there’s no reason for a person who’s Jewish at Columbia to feel persecuted, well, whatever might have happened in the classroom in the hothouse atmosphere of 2002–2003 has to be put in that context.”

Indeed, in a post–September 11, post-security-wall, and post-Iraq-invasion world, it is bitterly challenging to have a calm conversation on the Middle East. These are times when our religions, nationalities, and even political opinions are as essential to our identities as our gender or the color of our skin. Given the intellectual and emotional connection that some professors of Mideast studies have to their subject matter, and given the intellectual and emotional connection some of their students have to that same subject matter, it’s startling, in a way, that these clashes don’t happen more often. In a way, it’s a miracle they don’t happen all the time.

The David Project is a grassroots, six-person organization based in Boston. Like Campus Watch, a Website devoted to monitoring departments of Middle East studies around the country for pro-Arab bias, the organization was born in the aftermath of September 11, when the moment seemed right to influence public discourse about Israel. And like Campus Watch, the David Project directs its efforts almost exclusively at universities, where, for the past 35 or so years, sympathy for the Palestinian cause has been easier to express than anywhere else in American public life—and where Israel is often considered politically incorrect to support. Last year, the organization assisted Rachel Fish, a graduate student, in her drive to force Harvard’s divinity school to return a $2.5 million gift from the leader of the United Arab Emirates. (Fish succeeded, and she is now the David Project’s New York representative.)

“We thought there was dishonest discussion and discourse about the Mideast on college campuses,” says Ralph Avi Goldwasser, the David Project’s executive director and executive producer of the film. “And we found that students who support Israel were not getting support from the Jewish community.” In the past two years, he and his colleagues have visited Harvard, Northeastern, and MIT, trying to assess the needs of Jewish students. But at no place did they find a problem more pronounced, he says, than at Columbia. “About 30 students showed up,” he says, describing his visit last year. “We were amazed. We thought, With all these organizations in New York, with a Yankees–Red Sox game on TV, why would 30 students listen to two unknown Jews from Boston?” As the students were describing their troubles, one of them, Daniella Kahane, proposed they make a video testimonial to show alumni. “The only time Columbia reacts,” explains Goldwasser, “is when donors or contributors say something. That’s the only reason they’re reacting now.”

The film is still a work-in-progress. The David Project keeps adding and cutting material; in the latest version, Rabbi Charles Sheer, who has served Hillel at Columbia University for 34 years, appears, recalling the bitter written responses he got from Dabashi and Saliba after he wrote an editorial in the Spectator. “One of them [the letters] said it was like I am starting the Spanish Inquisition and that no rabbi has a right to question the principles of academic freedom,” he says.


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