"Taking Back" Middle East Studies: The Case of Columbia University's MEALAC

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VOL. 34

2004/05

No. 2
P. 70
Special Document File
"Taking Back" Middle East Studies: The Case of Columbia University's MEALAC
ABSTRACT

A. Rachel Pomerance, “Jewish Groups Coordinate Efforts to Help Students ‘Take Back Campus,’” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 28 August 2002 (excerpts) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71

B. Liel Leibovitz, “Controversial Film Roils Columbia,” Jewish Week, 29 October 2004 (excerpts). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 73

C. Joseph Massad, Statement in Response to the Intimidation of Columbia University, New York, 3 November 2004 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75

D. New York Civil Liberties Union, Letter to President of Columbia University Lee C. Bollinger on Academic Freedom and Intimidation at Columbia University, 20 December 2004 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78

American campuses as diverse as the University of Chicago, San Francisco State University, and Columbia University have witnessed a new form of activity over the past two years aimed at delegitimizing and intimidating voices—whether of faculty or student—that do not fall within a narrow range of prescribed speech about Israel and Palestine. In some cases it has appeared that any serious criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism; among other things, speakers are accused of “singling out” Israel, while ignoring a range of offenses in other Middle Eastern countries. The need for “balance” often is invoked to imply that there is a grave imbalance in Middle East offerings and programs.

Columbia University’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department has been one of the high-profile targets of extreme pro-Israel advocacy groups; among the most prominent of these groups is Campus Watch, set up in 2002 by Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum. Two of the eight original targets of Campus Watch’s campaign are professors in the MEALAC department: Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad (a member of JPS’s Editorial Committee). Rashid Khalidi, then at the University of Chicago, and now in the history department at Columbia (and editor of JPS), was also one of Campus Watch’s initial targets. MEALAC was also recently the subject of a film, Columbia Unbecoming, made by the David Project, a Boston-based pro-Israel advocacy group. In the film—so far only screened privately—some Columbia students allege anti-Israel bias, anti-Semitism, and student intimidation within MEALAC. Professor Massad—the only one of the accused without tenure, and hence the most vulnerable—was singled out in particular.

This activity at Columbia and on other campuses has several common features: students play a key role; outside nonstudent groups are involved in coordination, financing, and other aspects of the campaigns; and there is sophisticated manipulation of the press. These bursts of activity on several campuses since 2002 are not in fact random: several little noticed articles, including a 29 April 2002 article in Ha’Aretz by Yair Shelag and a 28 August 2002 piece by Rachel Pomerance in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (Document A below), call attention to the establishment of a new Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), which now comprises twenty-five member organizations across the country. The David Project is an affiliate member of the ICC.

The abovementioned case of Joseph Massad at Columbia is a good example of the kinds of tactics being used against professors whose views are offensive to some pro-Israel groups. Following reports about the David Project’s film and its focus on Massad, the New York Sun and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) called for Massad’s firing. A spate of highly charged articles in the New York Daily News and the New York Post that uncritically repeated the film’s accusations followed. Interestingly, New York’s Jewish Week published a news article (29 October 2004) critically examining the allegations and quoting a number of Massad’s Jewish students who spoke out in his defense; the article also provides a good overview of the case (see Document B). Massad’s own statement in response to these allegations and tactics is also included here (Document C), as well as the 20 December 2004 letter to the president of Columbia from the New York Civil Liberties Union (Document D). These latter two documents clearly demonstrate that the real issues are academic freedom and free speech.