Columbia Students Say Firestorm Blurs Campus Reality

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 11, 2005, issue of February 11, 2005.
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Even as Columbia University faces a torrent of allegations of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bias, the Jewish students at the center of the controversy say their cause has been misunderstood.

In a recent meeting with the Forward, several students involved in making and distributing the documentary film “Columbia Unbecoming,” which triggered the media firestorm engulfing the university, said that newspaper coverage misleadingly has blurred their accusations into a wholesale drubbing of the university. The students said that the press, along with outside Jewish organizations and activists, transformed what was meant to be a call for professors to adopt a more open approach to debate into an attack on the political opinions of pro-Palestinian professors.

The latest such outside portrayal came at a screening of the film in Jerusalem on February 3, when Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky introduced the movie by declaring: “There are islands of antisemitism, and these islands are student campuses.”

Aharon Horowitz, who testifies in the film and is one of the co-founders of Columbians for Academic Freedom, which is screening the film on campus, said: “We tried really hard to never say the word antisemitism. This is a universal problem about a student being able to say what you want and think what you want in a university classroom.”

An interesting case study in the confusion that has sprung from the film is Rashid Khalidi, a history professor and now the school’s most famous advocate of the Palestinian cause following the September 25, 2003, death of Edward Said.

Khalidi’s anti-Israel politics have become a focus of public controversy in recent months. Several students involved in making and distributing “Columbia Unbecoming,” said, however, that Khalidi actually is a model of the engaging, respectful professor they would like to see more of in Columbia’s Middle East studies courses.

“We are not concerned about what a professor says, but how he or she says it,” said Ariel Beery, a senior in the School of General Studies and a co-founder of Columbians for Academic Freedom.

Beery and the other Columbians for Academic Freedom stand by the charges of intimidation, and say that the courses of the Middle Eastern studies department have come to lack balance. But they, and a much broader swath of the Columbia Jewish community, say that the controversy has, in effect, created an alternate Columbia –– one called by a pro-Israel commentator, “Bir Zeit-on-Hudson,” in reference to the Palestinian university.

The other Columbia is the one seen during a visit to the Manhattan campus, at which 25% of the undergraduates are Jewish and the pro-Israel programming is enough to fill up even the most ambitious student’s extra-curricular calendar.

While few people have questioned the accuracy of the student accounts in “Columbia Unbecoming,” many on campus, like biology professor Robert Pollack, have been left wondering how one of the best-funded, most vibrant Jewish communities on any campus in America has become the symbol of all that is wrong for Jewish students at American universities.

“As the first Jewish dean of an Ivy league school, in 1982, and as the president of the board that built this Hillel” Pollack said, referring to the six-story center for Jewish students, “I can tell you this is not an antisemitic place.”

Pollack added: “The question is, why am I not believed? Why do people pick the weak film over the strong reality of the place itself?”

For an answer, it is helpful to turn first to the film, which depicts a dozen or so students accusing a few professors in the Middle Eastern Languages and Culture Department of intimidating students who defended Israel. The film was produced by a Boston-based pro-Israel group called The David Project, and has been screened far beyond the campus, most recently in Jerusalem.

The most discussed scenes from the film involve Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics. He is accused of responding to a student’s question by saying, “I will not have anyone sit through this class and deny Israeli atrocities,” — an incident Massad has denied.

Groups from outside the campus have focused less on the pedagogical problems and more on the politics of the professors evident behind such comments.

Rachel Fish, New York leader of The David Project, said, “We need to intellectually diversify the Middle Eastern studies on these campuses.”

The most vocal members in the fight to change the political composition of Middle Eastern studies departments have been pro-Israel scholars Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer — the man who gave Columbia the “Bir Zeit-on-Hudson” label. The latest outsider to offer his views on Columbia is Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who gave a fiery speech at Columbia on Monday, deriding the university for “a failure to teach facts, a failure to give two sides of an issue.”

Whatever the balance of professors at Columbia, the university has not helped its own case in the current dispute. The students say that before they released the film, they brought their concerns to university administrators a number of times. Since the movie was released, the university has formed a five-member ad-hoc committee to take the students’ testimony. But there are widespread complaints that two of the members of the committee have personal relationships with Massad, the main professor under fire.

Even professors like Robert Pollack, who say that the problem at Columbia is smaller than it appears, believe that the university has handled the students’ complaints improperly.

But Pollack says that with all the furor about the Columbia campus, the most important thing is for the outside Jewish community to have a clearer understanding of the situation for Jewish students on campus.

The day-to-day life of Jewish students was visible across campus Sunday night. The Kraft Center for Jewish Life was hosting a Super Bowl party on the second of its six floors. Students of all synagogue denominations were packed in front of a big-screen television, munching away happily on kosher french fries and chicken wings donated by Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, and the benefactor of the Columbia Hillel.

A few blocks away, five students were missing out on the party for a night of studying in their 10th-floor dorm room. On the wall was an enormous Israeli flag, and the kitchen was a jumble of the hotpots and colored dishes that are staples of both college dorms and Orthodox homes.

“This is the easiest place to be Jewish in America — unless you go to Yeshiva,” said Alan Rabinowitz, who is a junior studying engineering, along with his coursework at Yeshiva University.

At other campuses, particularly in California, there have been a number of recent incidents in which Jewish students felt threatened by aggressive student-led anti-Israel rallies. Another of the 10th-floor roommates knows this well. Adelia Malmuth, a senior at Barnard College, transferred from the University of California at San Diego because she wanted a “more supportive Jewish community.” At her old university, her pro-Israel group had one confrontation with the pro-Palestinian group that was so hostile, she and her fellow Jewish students decided to leave campus for the night.

As for Columbia, Malmuth said, “Jewishly, this is a paradise.” And Malmuth has not skirted controversy. She is studying in the controversial Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Culture department, known by its acronym Mealac (pronounced MEE-lack), and this semester is taking a 15-person seminar with Joseph Massad, the most maligned professor in the “Columbia Unbecoming” video. Malmuth, who calls herself right wing on Israel, said she has had a very different experience with Massad than the one relayed by students in the film. Last week she presented a paper that was harshly critical of the Arab governments after World War II, and she said it led to a good discussion.

On the first day of class with Massad, she said, she came home and told her father: “I pay $40,000 a year, and it’s worth it just for this class. The caliber of discussion is so high.”

Since arriving at Columbia, Malmuth has done hardly any of the Israel advocacy work that she did in San Diego, primarily because “it’s kind of a machine here — it runs itself.”

As is frequently the case, the strength of a community does not become clear until it faces some resistance. One such test came two years ago, when a petition was circulating that called for the university to divest from all Israeli companies. In the end, 572 people signed the petition, according to an article in the Columbia Spectator. A petition opposing divestment received 33,285 signatures.

Malmuth and other people who have had good experiences in the Mealac department, do not deny that the professors there, or in the Columbia faculty at large, are to the left of a majority of Americans on Israel and most other public-policy issues. Such liberal politics, they add, are not unusual for an Ivy League university. But Columbia is seen as occupying a unique place because it was the home of the late Edward Said, widely considered the intellectual father of the pro-Palestinian movement in this country, and a fierce opponent of a Jewish state. Many current faculty members are disciples or admirers of Said.

Pointing to this history, during his speech Monday, Dershowitz said: “This is the most unbalanced university that I have come across in its presentation of the Middle East.”

Recent events at Columbia have drawn more attention to the Middle East department’s politics. Last week, Massad and Khalidi took part in an event in which both agreed that a one-state solution — a formula that it is generally viewed as meaning the end of a Jewish state — was the only plausible future for Israel.

This week, the university’s humanities center is hosting poet Tom Paulin, who has called Israeli soldiers the “Zionist SS.” (In 2002, Harvard decided to keep its own invitation to Paulin open — at the urging of Dershowitz.)

But professors of Israel studies at Columbia and beyond, including Joel Migdal, the president of the Association of Israel Studies, say that focusing in on these events produces a distorted view of the pro-Israel offerings on campus and the academic environment at Columbia.

“Columbia has a lot of diversity in the professors teaching about the Middle East, even politically,” said Migdal, a professor at the University of Washington, whose son is a sophomore at Columbia. Migdal noted he was not speaking on behalf of the Association for Israel Studies.

In addition to the Israeli professors in the controversial Mealac department, Columbia has a separate Israel and Jewish studies department, and a number of classes on Israeli history and culture in other schools. In one journalism school class on Israel, all students take a weeklong trip to the country.

The campus might be at variance with the version put forward in newspapers. Some students, however, are expressing the fear that the controversy over the movie is slowly creating a new reality at the university and making it inhospitable for dialogue. A campus event with the Israeli ambassador to United States was called off two weeks ago, after the diplomat pulled out in response to criticism from the American Jewish community. And the event with Dershowitz ended with an antagonistic argument between Dershowitz and some pro-Palestinian audience members.

“The only thing that’s being challenged by this controversy is the ability to talk calmly about the Middle East,” said Moran Banai, a graduate student who helped organize an event February 3 at which a left-wing Israeli Knesset member and a Palestinian adviser talked genially. The program, co-sponsored by the Union of Progressive Zionists, was one of the few recent events that has drawn partisans from each side of the campus debate.

“When people get angry, they get defensive, and they stop talking to each other,” said David Shamoon, co-director of the Just Peace Project, which co-sponsored the February 3 event, along with a number of other groups, including Columbians for Academic Freedom.

As frequently happens at such times, the extremes from both sides are the only voices to emerge. But Shamoun said that despite appearances, he believes the vast majority of the students on campus “are moderates who want to keep talking.”






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