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Columbia’s Own Middle East War


But let’s suppose, for a moment, that many Middle East studies departments do lack the full seven-octave range of intellectual opinion. Let’s even assume that they skew in an Arabist direction. What NYU’s Lockman wants to know is this: Why is that such a scandal? “I think you can see this the other way,” he says. “That universities or these departments are very much in the minority in the larger American setting. What you get from the media or government officials on the Middle East, the whole way the debate is framed, is very different.”

And perhaps because Arabist voices are seldom heard in American life, Middle East studies departments have for a long time found themselves under scrutiny, which has only intensified in recent years. In the fall of 2003, the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for an independent advisory board to vet all area-studies programs for intellectual diversity before giving them government money. (It later died in the Senate.) When Columbia revealed that the United Arab Emirates had contributed 8 percent of the funding for Khalidi’s endowed chair, or $200,000, it created a big stir. (“Maybe the 8 percent solution is a dangerous proportion—a controlling interest for a regional superpower like the United Arab Emirates,” Khalidi says. Pause. “I hope my sarcasm came across just now.”)

A new generation of Israeli historians—Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim, and Benny Morris prominently among them—have also emerged in recent years, challenging the received wisdom about the foundations of their country. “There’s a very mysterious process that happens in the academy whereby, little by little, the center of controversy changes,” says Bruce Robbins, a Columbia comp-lit professor and co-author of an open letter from American Jews to the Bush administration that ran in the New York Times. “And therefore, the center around which ‘balance’ can be demanded changes. You can debate why the Palestinians were driven out of Israel in 1948. But most people would agree that they were driven out, whether they’re pro-Israel or not. So if you want to argue, you argue why. But you can’t say, as my mother would say, ‘There are no Palestinians.’ ”

I ask Robbins what he thinks of Dabashi’s essay in Al-Ahram, which referred to “the vulgarity of [the Israeli] character.” “But there’s a rational kernel under it, right?” asks Robbins. “It’s something that gets discussed all the time in Israel, what they call ‘checkpoint syndrome.’ You give 18-year-olds automatic weapons and godlike power, and there are measurable psychological effects. Occupying is not good for the occupier.”

From a quick glimpse at the university course catalogue, it’s clear that Columbia hardly deprives its students of opportunities to learn about the Mideast from a pro-Israeli, or at least ideologically neutral, point of view. In fact, says Bulliet, at one point during the eighties, a rabbi from Englewood taught a course on the conflict from an unquestionably Zionist point of view. Today, however, the course that’s focused most narrowly on the conflict—and is offered with the most regularity—is taught from an unquestionably Palestinian perspective, by Joseph Massad. He’s extremely frank about it. On day one, students say, he tells his class they shouldn’t expect “balance.” There’s even a disclaimer in his syllabus.

The most troubling incident described in Columbia Unbecoming—to me, anyway—involved Massad. It was the moment when Tomy Schoenfeld, a former Israeli soldier, says the professor demanded to know how many Palestinians he’d killed. “I asked, ‘What? How come it’s relevant to this discussion?’ ” he says in the video. “And he said, ‘No, it’s relevant to the discussion, and I demand an answer. How many Palestinians have you killed?’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to answer, but I’m going to ask you a question: How many members of your family celebrated on September 11, if we’re starting with stereotypes?’ ”

Later, in Al-Ahram, Massad said he’d never met Schoenfeld and had no record of Schoenfeld’s taking his class. Which is true, says Schoenfeld, in the strictly Clintonian sense. He never did take Massad’s class; he attended a lecture Massad gave at a Columbia sorority. And Schoenfeld says he didn’t formally “introduce” himself; he quickly identified himself by name and as an Israeli during the Q&A that followed. But he insists there was really no more context than that: no heated discussion beforehand, no glares. He simply raised his hand, and this was the abrupt response he got.

I ask Schoenfeld if Massad’s question happened to hit a nerve—whether, in fact, he did feel at all conflicted about his service in the Israel Defense Forces. His response contained worlds: how Massad may have bullied a potential ally; how any person in Massad’s circumstances, in an unguarded mood, might have done so. Massad is from Jordan, more than 60 percent of whose population is Palestinian. “I have no doubts about my service,” Schoenfeld answers. “Because at least when I was in the military, we had specific rules about how you can fire and who you can fire upon. The military in Israel is mostly very ethical.”

He stops here. “But it’s hard to be ethical when you’re conquering,” he says. “No matter how you slice it. The reality is that Israel controls 3 million people. And we’ve ruined their lives. The Palestinians have to go through checkpoints. Every family there has one kid who died. I mean, I’m No. 1 for security. But an Israeli soldier should not stand and have the dilemma about whether an ambulance should cross or not cross, because maybe they hide . . .” He trails off. “I’m not saying we should just give them everything they want. I think the occupation’s a necessity. But definitely we should understand it’s an occupation.”

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