Intimidating Columbia University
- Intimidating Columbia University:
Joseph Massad, assistant professor at Columbia University and Al-
Ahram Weekly contributing writer, is the latest target in an ongoing
witch-hunt launched by pro-Israel groups within American academia.
Below is a statement he issued in response
The recent controversy elicited by the propaganda film Columbia
Unbecoming, a film funded and produced by a Boston-based pro- Israel
organisation, is the latest salvo in a campaign of intimidation of
Jewish and non-Jewish professors who criticise Israel. This witch-
hunt aims to stifle pluralism, academic freedom, and the freedom of
expression on university campuses in order to ensure that only one
opinion is permitted, that of uncritical support for the State of
Columbia University, the Department of Middle East and Asian
Languages and Cultures, and I personally, have been the target of
this intensified campaign for over three years. Pro-Israel groups
are pressuring the university to abandon proper academic procedure
in evaluating scholarship, and want to force the university to
silence all critical opinions. Such silencing, the university has
refused to do so far, despite mounting intimidation tactics by these
anti- democratic and anti-academic forces.
The major strategy that these pro-Israel groups use is one that
equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. But the claim that
criticism of Israel is an expression of anti-Semitism presupposes
that Israeli actions are "Jewish" actions and that all Jews, whether
Israelis or non-Israelis (and the majority of world Jews are not
Israelis), are responsible for all Israeli actions and that they all
have the same opinion of Israel.
But this is utter anti-Semitic nonsense. Jews, whether in America,
Europe, Israel, Russia, or Argentina, are, like all other groups,
not uniform in their political or social opinions. There are many
Israeli Jews who are critical of Israel just as there are American
Jews who criticise Israeli policy. I have always made a distinction
between Jews, Israelis, and Zionists in my writings and my lectures.
It is those who want to claim that Jews, Israelis, and Zionists are
one group (and that they think exactly alike) who are the anti-
Semites. Israel in fact has no legal, moral, or political basis to
represent world Jews (ten million strong) who never elected it to
that position and who refuse to move to that country.
Unlike the pro-Israel groups, I do not think that Israeli actions
are "Jewish" actions or that they reflect the will of the Jewish
people worldwide! All those pro-Israeli propagandists who want to
reduce the Jewish people to the State of Israel are the anti-Semites
who want to eliminate the existing pluralism among Jews. The
majority of Israel's supporters in the United States are, in fact,
not Jews but Christian fundamentalist anti-Semites who seek to
convert Jews. They constitute a quarter of the American electorate
and are the most powerful anti-Semitic group worldwide. The reason
why the pro-Israel groups do not fight them is because these anti-
Semites are pro-Israel. Therefore, it is not anti-Semitism that
offends pro- Israel groups; what offends them is anti-Israel
criticism. In fact, Israel and the US groups supporting it have long
received financial and political support from numerous anti-Semites.
This is not to say that some anti-Zionists may not also be anti-
Semitic. Some are, and I have denounced them in my writings and
lectures. But the test of their anti-Semitism is not whether they
like or hate Israel. The test of anti-Semitism is anti-Jewish
hatred, not anti-Israel criticism. In my forthcoming book, The
Persistence of the Palestinian Question, I link the Jewish Question
to the Palestinian Question and conclude that both questions persist
because anti-Semitism persists. To resolve the Palestinian and the
Jewish questions, our task is to fight anti-Semitism in any guise,
whether in its pro-Israel or anti-Israel guise, and not to defend
the reprehensible policies of the racist Israeli government.
I am now being targeted because of my public writings and statements
through the charge that I am allegedly intolerant in the classroom,
a charge based on statements made by people who were never my
students, except in one case which I will address momentarily. Let
me first state that I have intimidated no one. In fact, Tomy
Schoenfeld, the Israeli soldier who appears in the film and is cited
by the New York Sun, has never been my student and has never taken a
class with me, as he himself informed The Jewish Week. I have never
As for Noah Liben, who appears in the film according to newspaper
accounts (I have not seen the film), he was indeed a student in my
Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies course in the spring
of 2001. Noah seems to have forgotten the incident he cites. During
a lecture about Israeli state racism against Asian and African Jews,
Noah defended these practices on the basis that Asian and African
Jews were underdeveloped and lacked Jewish culture, which the
Ashkenazi State operatives were teaching them. When I explained to
him that, as the assigned readings clarified, these were racist
policies, he insisted that these Jews needed to be modernised and
the Ashkenazim were helping them by civilising them.
Many students gasped. He asked me if I understood his point. I
informed him that I did not. Noah seems not to have done his reading
during the week on gender and Zionism. One of the assigned readings
by Israeli scholar and feminist Simona Sharoni spoke of how in
Hebrew the word "zayin" means both penis and weapon in a discussion
of Israeli militarised masculinity. Noah, seemingly not having read
the assigned material, mistook the pronunciation of "zayin"
as "Zion", pronounced in Hebrew "tziyon". As for his spurious claim
that I said that "Jews in Nazi Germany were not physically abused or
harassed until Kristallnacht in November 1938", Noah must not have
been listening carefully.
During the discussion of Nazi Germany, we addressed the racist
ideology of Nazism, the Nuremberg Laws enacted in 1934, and the
institutionalised racism and violence against all facets of Jewish
life, all of which preceded the extermination of European Jews. This
information was also available to Noah in his readings, had he
chosen to consult them. Moreover, the lie that the film propagates
claiming that I would equate Israel with Nazi Germany is abhorrent.
I have never made such a reprehensible equation.
I remember having a friendly rapport with Noah (as I do with all my
students). He would drop off newspaper articles in my mailbox, come
to my office hours, and greet me on the street often. He never
informed me or acted in a way that showed intimidation. Indeed, he
would write me e-mails, even after he stopped being my student, to
argue with me about Israel. I have kept our correspondence.
On 10 March, 2002, a year after he took a class with me, Noah wrote
me an e-mail chastising me for having invited an Israeli speaker to
class the year before when he was in attendance. It turned out that
Noah's memory failed him again, as he mistook the speaker I had
invited for another Israeli scholar. After a long diatribe, Noah
excoriated me: "How can you bring such a phony to speak to your
I am not sure if his misplaced reproach was indicative of an
intimidated student or one who felt comfortable enough to rebuke his
I am dedicated to all my students, many of whom are Jewish. Neither
Columbia University nor I have ever received a complaint from any
student claiming intimidation or any such nonsense. Students at
Columbia have many venues of lodging complaints, whether with the
student deans and assistant deans, school deans and assistant deans,
department chairmen, departmental directors of undergraduate
studies, the ombudsman's office, the provost, the president, and the
professors themselves. No such complaint was ever filed.
Many of my Jewish and non-Jewish students (including my Arab
students) differ with me in all sorts of ways, whether on politics
or on philosophy or theory. This is exactly what teaching and
learning are about, how to articulate differences and understand
other perspectives while acquiring knowledge, how to analyse one's
own perspective and those of others, how to interrogate the basis of
Columbia University is home to the most prestigious centre for
Israel and Jewish studies in the country. Columbia has six endowed
chairs in Jewish studies (ranging from religion to Yiddish to Hebrew
literature, among others). In addition, a seventh chair in Israel
studies is now being established after pro-Israel groups launched a
vicious campaign against the only chair in modern Arab studies that
Columbia established two years ago, demanding "balance"!
Columbia does not have a centre for Arab studies, let alone a centre
for Palestine studies. The Department of Middle East and Asian
Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) encompasses the study of over one
billion South Asians, over 300 million Arabs, tens of millions of
Turks, of Iranians, of Kurds, of Armenians, and of six million
Israelis, five million of whom are Jewish.
To study these varied populations and cultures, MEALAC has three
full time professors who cover Israel and Hebrew, four full time
professors to cover the Arab World, and two full-time professors who
cover South Asia. One need not do complicated mathematics to see who
is overrepresented and who is not, if the question is indeed a
Moreover, the class that this propaganda machine is targeting,
my "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies" course, is one
of a number of courses offered at Columbia that cover the
Palestinian/Israel conflict. All the others have an Israel-friendly
perspective, including Naomi Weinberger's "Conflict Resolution in
the Middle East", Michael Stanislawski's "History of the State of
Israel, 1948-Present" and a course offered in my own department by
my colleague Dan Miron, "Zionism: A Cultural Perspective".
My course, which is critical of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism,
is in fact an elective course which no student is forced to take.
Let us briefly review these claims of intimidation. Not only have
the students (all but Noah have not even taken my courses) not used
a single university venue to articulate their alleged grievances,
they are now sponsored by a private political organisation with huge
funds that produced and funded a film about them, screened it to the
major US media and to the top brass of the Columbia administration.
Last Wednesday, the film was screened in Israel to a government
minister and to participants at a conference on anti- Semitism. The
film has still not been released to the public here and is used as a
sort of secret evidence in a military trial.
The film has also been used to trump up a national campaign with the
aid of a New York congressman to get me fired. All this power of
intimidation is being exercised not by a professor against students,
but by political organisations who use students against a junior non-
tenured faculty member. A senior departmental colleague of mine, Dan
Miron, who votes on my promotion and tenure, has recently expressed
open support for this campaign of intimidation based on hearsay.
Indeed with this campaign against me going into its fourth year, I
chose under the duress of coercion and intimidation not to teach my
course this year. It is my academic freedom that has been
circumscribed. But not only mine. The Columbia courses that remain
are all taught from an Israel-friendly angle.
The aim of the David Project propaganda film is to undermine our
academic freedom, our freedom of speech, and Columbia's tradition of
openness and pluralism.
It is in reaction to this witch-hunt that 718 international scholars
and students signed a letter defending me against intimidation and
sent it to President Bollinger, with hundreds more sending separate
letters, while over 1,300 people from all walks of life are signing
an online petition supporting me and academic freedom. Academics and
students from around the world recognise that the message of this
propaganda film is to suppress pluralism at Columbia and at all
American universities so that one and only one opinion be allowed on
campuses, the opinion of defending Israel uncritically.
I need not remind anyone that this is a slippery slope, for the same
pressures could be applied to faculty who have been critical of US
foreign policy, in Iraq for example, on the grounds that such
critiques are unpatriotic.
Surely we all agree that while the university can hardly defend any
one political position on any current question, it must defend the
need for debate and critical consideration of all such questions,
whether in public fora or in the classroom. Anything less would be
the beginning of the death of academic freedom.
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