Indeed, that letter, also published in the Spectator, came from Dabashi, who has never underreacted when faced with the slings and arrows of the opposition. Back in September, after receiving an angry e-mail about his Al-Ahram story from an Israeli grad student, Dabashi wrote to the provost, requesting extra campus-police protection because the student had served in the military. (“I see nothing threatening about the message,” the provost wrote back.)
Recently, a professor of Hebrew literature and an old lion of the MEALAC department, Dan Miron, has also stepped forward and said that the video’s allegations could very well be true. “I am the wailing wall of the Jewish students here,” he says. “They come and tell me that when they dared, in class, to take issue with the professors’ views of Israel, they’d be humiliated, laughed at, dealt with in a brutal way. We’re talking about dozens of students.”
But the film has also earned plenty of critics. A student named Eric Posner is perhaps the most vocal—when the film was first screened on campus, he showed up wearing a sign that read I SERVED IN THE ISRAELI ARMY & I LOVE JOSEPH MASSAD—and he’s outraged that neither he nor any other MEALAC majors were invited to appear in it. He says Ariel Beery, a student prominently featured in the film and the student-body president, approached him about participating but lost interest when Posner informed him he’d never experienced any anti-Semitism in the department. “Yeah,” Posner says he told him, “they keep three Cossacks in a storage closet and take them out on a weekly basis to rape and beat the Jews.”
Beery, who at 19 elected to make aliyah—the Hebrew term for choosing to adopt Israel as one’s home—remembers nothing of the sort, saying their exchange was brief and harmless. He also doesn’t understand why Posner has made this film his bête noire. “We’ve said this every time we’ve screened the film: If this weren’t so complex a situation, it would have been caught a long time ago,” Beery says. “It would have been a categorical issue. But it isn’t.”
The participants in Columbia Unbecoming argue that their film is about academic intimidation, nothing more. But is it really? In the context of the Mideast conflict, it is hard to separate the question of intimidation from the question of academic bias: bias in the way Mideast studies is taught, bias in the way certain professors think, bias in campus sentiment about Israel.
“Columbia Unbecoming is not a very professionally made film,” concedes Miron. He’s sitting in his office, another shadow box of books and papers. “It’s not even a very useful piece of propaganda,” he adds. “They were slim on facts and gave much too much space to emotional reactions. But since the issue is there, it erupted.” The phone rings, and he takes it, speaking in a mellow Hebrew. He hangs up, then looks at me. “But I see [classroom conduct] as the minor problem,” he continues. “The major problem—and the one which, quite frankly, I don’t know how to deal with—is the intellectual content of what is being said in the classroom. Israel is being delegitimized. Students are learning that Zionism, as an ideology, is racism.” This is, in fact, precisely what Massad has written, in both scholarly and journalistic outlets. It’s this premise that has created a flurry of Israel-divestment petitions across the country, including at Columbia. Over 100 members of the faculty have signed it.
Before the Second World War, departments of Middle East studies devoted themselves to the study of language, history, literature, and philology. There was nothing especially contemporary about their approach. But during the Cold War, the United States urgently needed scholars who understood the culture, politics, and dynamics of the region in the effort to keep communism and radical nationalism at bay. “Area studies” emerged as an academic genre—people became specialists in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East—and Middle East institutes began cropping up at prestigious universities, funded in part by government money. Then came the rise of the New Left and Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Professors became radicalized. And at Columbia University, Lionel Trilling, a liberal academic in the English department who also happened to be a Jew, hired Edward Said.
Said made his reputation in the sixties by doing work on Joseph Conrad. It wasn’t until 1978 that he wrote Orientalism, an academic blockbuster whose basic claim was that the West had created a certain image of the Orient—meaning the fragmented remains of the Ottoman Empire—that in fact had little to do with what the region was actually like. The book had a profound effect on Middle East studies everywhere. Too much so, some would argue.
“Orientalism didn’t just propound a theory,” says Martin Kramer, author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It became a manifesto for affirmative action. If you were a dean or a provost or a department chairman, you had to ask yourself, How can I be sure I’m not appointing an Orientalist? At Columbia, Middle East studies became a rogue department, a friend-brings-a-friend department, and the guys who came in on Said’s coattails didn’t have his finesse. They were just garden-variety extremists.”
In Kramer’s view, the problem with Columbia’s Middle East studies department—and such departments generally—is the same problem that afflicts so much of the academy: insufficient intellectual diversity. “We usually assume that the university should provide a smorgasbord,” says Kramer. “But here, the tendency is to reinforce their ranks with like-minded people. Which may make the faculty meetings and sherry parties more pleasant. But the students lose.”
“The university should have looked at MEALAC five or ten years ago,” says Richard Bulliet, a historian and colleague of Khalidi’s. “It’s become locked into a postmodernist, postcolonialist point of view, one that wasn’t necessarily well adapted to giving students instruction about the Middle East.” He adds that politicizing a curriculum, or what some call “advocacy teaching,” isn’t always a bad thing. “We’ve had advocacy in the classroom for a long time,” he says. “But in the areas where it’s most visible, like black studies and women’s studies, the point of view tends to coincide with the outlook of the Columbia community—no one feels you have to give the slaveholder’s or male-chauvinist pig’s point of view.” He pauses for emphasis. “But here,” he concludes, “we have an area where no consensus exists. And that’s the problem.”