Pro-Israel group monitoring, intimidating Columbia faculty

29 April 2010

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Critics of Israeli policy and sympathizers with Palestinians have been subjected to intimidation at Columbia University. (Angela Radulescu)


In the summer of 2000, preeminent scholar Edward Said sparked what became conventionally known as a “controversy” when he was photographed hurling a small stone into the no-man’s land between Lebanon and Israel.

What Said, one of the 20th century’s most important literary theorists, considered a trivial gesture of jubilation following the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was, for pro-Israeli groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an act of violence and evidence of political extremism. In February 2001 Said was disinvited from a conference on Freud he was to have spoken at in Vienna.

The stone-throwing fracas created by the ADL and other groups was the first salvo in a series of Mideast-related convulsions at American universities, and particularly at Columbia, where Said had attainted the vaunted rank of University Professor.

The latest iteration of this saga concerns one of Said’s students, Professor Joseph Massad, who is labeled “controversial,” perhaps as frequently as any contemporary American scholar.

Specifically, a student group at Columbia called Campus Media Watch (CMW), backed by the pro-Israeli media monitor the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), recently violated university regulations while urging students to “report” on allegedly biased utterances by Massad and other professors, according to faculty members and students.

According to documents, news reports and interviews with students and professors familiar with the incidents, documents and news reports, Columbia senior Daniel Hertz falsely claimed this semester to be a registered student in the class “Palestinian and Israeli politics and societies.” Hertz criticized the content of the class on CMW’s website, and urged other students to report on any perceived bias in Massad’s teaching.

Hertz’ father, Eli E. Hertz, is a prominent pro-Israeli businessman and activist, who among other roles, serves as the chairman of CAMERA’s board and sits on the Executive Council of the powerful Washington-based pro-Israel lobby group the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

If the university administration does not take a firm stand in the case, professors and students argue, the incident could hamper freedom of expression in the classroom. The apparent attempt to eavesdrop on Massad’s classroom also coincides with a resolution denouncing the professor introduced in the New York City Council (Res 0050-2010, 3 March 2010).

For Columbia faculty members, the case also raises the specter of a six-year-old dispute concerning Massad, who was granted tenure last year after top Columbia officials rejected claims that he intimidated students in lectures. Massad was branded as an extremist in a film, Columbia Unbecoming, which was produced by another pro-Israeli pressure group, The David Project.

“Extremely upbeat and congenial”

The incident began in January when Hertz began attending Massad’s class without registering, and wrote an anonymous blog post on CMW’s website, under a section titled “class watch” (“CMW Class Watch: Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies,” 21 January 2010).

Hertz founded CMW in the fall of 2009 after completing a summer internship with CAMERA. Hertz also identifies himself as a CAMERA campus fellow.

“Professor Massad initially caught me off guard,” Hertz wrote in his report on the class. “Extremely upbeat and congenial, it did not seem as though he could be someone guilty of delegitimizing the State of Israel, which is a common claim against Professor Massad’s work.”

He goes on to note that the syllabus for the class includes not only the works of Edward Said (The Question of Palestine), Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi (Palestinian identity) and Massad’s own book The Persistence of the Palestinian Question, but also the writings of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and those of Israeli Jewish critic Shlomo Sand (The Invention of the Jewish People).

“A majority of the listed authors are among Israel’s greatest detractors,” Hertz wrote. “And while many are in fact Israeli, some of them, especially Shlomo Sand, have written pieces that many have considered virulently anti-Semitic.”

Hertz’ article ends by urging other students to report on this and other classes: “If you are taking this class or any other Middle Eastern related classes and would like to tell us about your experiences, please let us know by emailing us.”

Massad told The Electronic Intifada that he noticed the blog post, and immediately notified Sudipta Kaviraj, the chair of his department (Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures — MEALAC).

“We wanted to be a lot more alert this time, given what had happened,” Massad said, referring to the 2003-2004 dispute that followed the publication of the film.

Kaviraj forwarded this initial complaint to Columbia’s Vice President Nicholas Dirks and Provost Claude Steele, Massad said.

“In the meantime people are asking me — people who had seen the blog — ‘do you know who it is in your class?’ and I said, ‘no and I don’t want to know,’ because I don’t want to be unconsciously biased against this student if he’s a registered student in my class,” Massad said.

Although he was blogging anonymously, Hertz then gave an interview to the Columbia Spectator, the daily student newspaper, in which he claimed he was taking Massad’s class. The Spectator revealed that “Hertz blogs about what he says are inaccuracies in [Massad’s] lectures” (“Media Watch to promote dialogue, members say,” 10 February 2010).

After reading this in the Specator, Massad said, “I look up on the roster, and I see he’s not registered in my class.”

Massad said he checked with his two teaching assistants, who confirmed that Hertz was not registered for the class, and was not attending a discussion section. It was then that he decided to check university regulations to make sure he was within faculty rights to ask Hertz to leave the class, he said.

At the same time, the professor said, “my former chair and current chair contacted several student deans and the provost’s office, informing them of these developments and that professor Massad is planning to ask an unregistered student to leave the class, and they said he would be fully in his right, in fact this man has no right to be in this class.”

Massad also said Hertz repeatedly disobeyed instructions for all students to register for the course.

“From the start of the semester, for the first four or five classes, I asked, is anyone still unregistered? He never raised his hand,” Massad said.

“We also had to coordinate registering students for two discussion sections. I asked, is anyone still not registered for the discussion sections; no one raised his or her hand. I announced that I did not allow auditors in the class, either registered or unregistered auditors. I said this several times but to no avail.”

The day after the Spectator article appeared, Massad pointed to Hertz at the beginning of his lecture and asked what his name was and whether he was registered for the class. According to Massad, his teaching assistant, and students in the class, it was 11 February, well after the 29 January deadline to register for classes.

Massad recalled Hertz sitting in the front of the classroom with his laptop open and his iPhone on, “possibly recording my voice,” and once the students had “settled down,” asking him if he had registered for the class.

When Hertz then said that he only wanted to audit the class, Massad recalled answering, “Even if you wanted to audit the class you would have had to get my permission, and nonetheless you would have had to register as an auditor, and I would not have allowed that.” He then said he informed Hertz that he was in violation of university regulations, at which point Hertz, recalled Massad, asked “Do you want me to leave?” Massad answered, “Yes, please.”

Massad said he again informed the department’s chair “for procedural purposes” and also wrote to Columbia’s provost, Claude Steele, and other officials, and opened an official grievance procedure with the university.

Kaviraj and former MEALAC chairman Sheldon Pollock also met with Steele, supporting Massad’s claims, he said. Massad also said he met with Jeri Henry, the senior assistant dean of judicial affairs, as a part of the grievance procedure.

Kaviraj, Henry, Vice President Nicholas Dirks and other Columbia administration officials declined repeated requests for comment on the matter.

“A spy”

In April, with the grievance procedure coming to a culmination, Hertz wrote an opinion article in the Spectator in which he again accused Massad of bias and intimidation (“Intimidation 101,” 18 April 2010).

In the article Hertz repeated his claim that he was still weighing whether or not to take the class when he was asked to leave, even though the registration deadline had passed almost two weeks earlier. In the article he did admit however that “Massad had the right to ask me to leave the classroom for not being registered.”

He also alleged that after he left the class, he was informed, presumably by another student, that Massad denounced him in front of the class as a “Jewish spy.”

However, Massad, his two teaching assistants and a student enrolled in the class said that this claim was false. Based on these interviews, it appears Massad likely called Hertz a spy for an off-campus organization, but made no reference to his ethnic or religious background.

“He absolutely didn’t use that phrase,” said Golnar Nikpur, one of the teaching assistants. “He used it as a teaching moment,” she said, saying Massad stressed that students should be free to express their views in class.

“He didn’t dwell too much on Daniel Hertz in general,” she added.

Elazar Elhanan, the other teaching assistant (also a grandson of the Israeli general Matitiyahu Peled, a veteran of the 1967 war who joined the Israeli peace movement in the 1970s), said that Massad “explained to the class that it’s a violation of the university code.”

“I think he used the word ‘spy,’ but he didn’t say ‘Jewish spy,’” Elhanan said of the incident. “It was a bit unpleasant but it wasn’t what Hertz quoted him as saying.”

Columbia senior Shaina Low, who is enrolled in the class, also confirmed this account, saying, “he never used the word ‘Jewish.’” She quoted Massad as identifying Hertz as “a spy in the class [who] wants you to spy for him too.”

Rebutting Hertz’ claim in his op-ed that Massad also went on a “paranoid rant” denouncing him, Low said “the exchange lasted three minutes.”

After repeated phone and email inquiries, Daniel Hertz declined to be interviewed for this article.

Even Hertz concedes that Massad’s classroom manner is usually “extremely upbeat and congenial,” and Massad’s other students and assistants also say that he promotes an open debate in class in which all viewpoints are heard, including those of students who identify as strongly pro-Israel.

Nikpur, the teaching assistant, said given the past reported controversy about Massad’s teaching, she was “surprised” at “how friendly the class has been.”

She added: “Eighty percent of the comments come from the students who identify as Zionists. They take up a lot more of the class time … I have truly never seen anything that even approximates intimidation.”

Shaina Low concurred. “The Jewish students who disagree [with Massad] are the most outspoken, and he never answers in a rude or condescending way.”

Low added: “He always allows students to ask questions. I don’t think he’s intimidating at all … He doesn’t present himself as someone who is going to attack people.”

After his removal from the class, Hertz however continued to pursue Massad. When the professor gave a public lecture at the Columbia Law School on 24 February, Hertz was there, Massad recalled, typing copious notes on his laptop.

“A hunting expedition”

Rosalind Morris, a professor in Columbia’s anthropology department, said that Massad may not be the only professor targeted for surveillance or “reportage.”

“There are a number of faculty on campus who, although they haven’t undertaken the kind of systematic chasing-down that Joseph has, feel that such students have been present in their classes,” she said. “There have been a couple of cases where I asked people to identify themselves and explain their presence.”

Elaborating on the presence of such unannounced visitors in her own classes, Morris said: “When someone shows up in class, doesn’t ask permission, one notices. When that person takes notes relentlessly, one is a little bit suspicious. There is no proof that this is evidence of spying, but it is unusual [even] for students who are enrolled in class to take meticulous notes constantly.”

Morris also said groups like Campus Media Watch are using monitoring tactics to stifle debate and infringe on the classroom as a safe space for discussion of even the most controversial subjects.

“The general sense of being surveilled intrudes upon the sense of freedom in the classroom. In smaller classes it intrudes on the nature of the relations among students who are supposed to be in a free and enabled seminar circumstance where they can speak without fear.”

Such monitoring, she said, “really inhibits the kind of discourse that goes on in the classroom. Topics are taken off the table.”

Moreover, Morris said MEALAC professors and their associates are systematically targeted by groups like CMW. “These faculty members have a priori been determined to be worthy as targets. This is a kind of hunting expedition.”

She also argued that CMW and related groups are not interested in fostering engagement and dialogue. “Under those circumstances there’s no authentic listening or engagement with the class,” she said.

The ostensible aim of this eavesdropping, she said, is to record statements that when removed from context could be construed as inflammatory. “What people are looking for is decontextualizable statements that can do a certain work in a kind of spun media shtick about Columbia,” she said.

Shaina Low, the student in Massad’s class, said it was “ironic” that Hertz accused the professor of intimidation, arguing that the situation is the reverse. “I think they’re trying to intimidate the professors and the groups on campus from saying anything or holding any events that might be critical of Israel,” she said.

“It creates a bad atmosphere. No one wants to attend a class where the professor feels he’s constantly being watched,” she added.

Indeed, there is evidence that Hertz’ presence, once revealed, unsettled some students. After Hertz’ removal from the class, Nikpur noted, students voiced concerns in a discussion session about the presence of an unregistered observer affiliated with an outside group.

“Students were surprised and dismayed,” she said. “They thought it was unfair that this student would take up their class time, or that he didn’t want certain kinds of voices in the classroom.”

Sarah Alexander, a member of Just Peace, a student group at Columbia Hillel affiliated with the moderate pro-Israeli lobby J Street, said she had had contact with CMW and agreed that the group’s reportage tactics did not foster dialogue.

“On one hand people have the right to say whatever they want on the Internet,” she said. “But going to a class just to report back on what they said is counter to the goal of the classroom.”

Alexander and other student activists also said that CMW members are frequently seen at Middle East-related events on campus, especially those organized by other student groups. For example, Hertz and another CMW member were seen in mid-April taking notes at a student-sponsored public lecture with Professor Rashid Khalidi concerning Israeli policies in Jerusalem.

Rahim Kurwa, a graduate student active in Columbia’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), said CMW “is effective at trying to intimidate people.” Their presence at events spurs “a lot of talk” inside the pro-Palestinian camp, he said. Activists debate, “Should we kick them out? Should we tell them off?”

Kurwa said SJP has so far resisted the temptation to respond with its own “James Bond-ish” espionage missions. Such methods, he said, threaten to reduce the debate on the issues “to a juvenile conflict between student groups.”

Aside from Hertz, two other CMW representatives, Vice President Zahava Mandelbaum and Campus Relations officer Hunter Rees, did not return repeated emails and phone calls seeking comment for this article.

Outside influence

In his complaint to the provost about Daniel Hertz and Campus Media Watch, Massad said he specifically noted Hertz’ status as a campus fellow of Boston-based CAMERA.

It is unclear what type of support CAMERA provides to CMW. A CAMERA representative reached by phone refused to answer questions.

Nevertheless, the links between the two groups appear significant. CAMERA’s website says the organization “provides one-on-one assistance to students who encounter Middle East distortions in campus publications, flyers, rallies and classroom teaching.”

CMW, with its stated goal of combating “bias” in the media, appears to be modeled after CAMERA. Despite its name, however, most activities listed on its website are unrelated to media, and are rather related to all discussion of the Middle East in any setting, including the classroom.

CMW’s mission statement says it is “devoted to promoting accurate and balanced coverage of the Middle East on campus” (“About,” Campus Media Watch). Likewise, CAMERA asserts it is “devoted to promoting accurate and balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East” (“About CAMERA”).

CMW’s website links to major pro-Israel groups with family ties to Hertz. Hertz’ father, Eli E. Hertz, is the author of the website Myths and Facts which also sees itself as correcting biased information about the Middle East.

Eli Hertz, according to the bio on his websites, is president and CEO of the Hertz Technology Group, a general computing and network services company (“About,” MythsAndFacts.org).

The profile also lists involvement in several major American pro-Israel organizations. In addition to his high-level involvement in CAMERA and AIPAC, Hertz is also identified as executive vice president of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and a trustee of the influential Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

His bio also implies that Hertz is, in fact, Israeli: “Prior to his arrival in the US in 1974, Hertz served nearly seven years in the Israeli Defense Force as a paratrooper and was honorably discharged at the rank of Captain.”

Eli Hertz has also authored several publications, often arguing that it is legal for Israel to maintain control of the occupied West Bank. He also self-published a 253-page rebuttal to the 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice in the Hague which pronounced Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank illegal.

He also writes opinion columns for the right-wing Israeli settler-run news website Arutz Sheva (“Making Jerusalem a Battleground,” 29 March 2010).

Public records also indicate that the elder Hertz is a frequent donor to political campaigns, mostly for pro-Israel democrats. Records available on OpenSecrets.org show that in the 2008 cycle, Hertz gave $1,000 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, but once Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination, Hertz gave $3,000 each to the Republican National Committee and the McCain-Palin campaign.

As a Columbia student, Daniel Hertz appears to have taken after his father, pursuing computer science and adopting the “media watchdog” approach to pro-Israel activism. Hertz also cites his father’s writing in his own articles on the CMW website.

Eli Hertz was unavailable for comment, and a message left at his residence on Long Island was not immediately returned.

Daniel Hertz designed CMW’s website, which even the group’s critics note is professional in appearance, certainly above average for a student group that only came into existence two semesters ago.

Outside of his activism, acquaintances describe Hetrz as a “nice” and “friendly” college student who usually goes by the name Danny. In addition to the CMW site, Hertz also maintains a personal website (dannyhertz.com) where he posts screwball videos satirizing the behavior of his roommates.

CAMERA however is neither the first nor the only outside group to get involved in Columbia’s campus politics, nor the first to take aim at Joseph Massad.

Between 2003 and 2005, Massad was the target of an apparent bid to deny him tenure, backed by groups including The David Project and also a CMW forerunner, Campus Watch, which specialized in blacklisting professors with pro-Palestinian and anti-war views. It is not clear if any formal ties exist between CMW and Campus Watch. Campus Watch’s director, Winfield Myers, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

In 2009, in accordance with university procedures and without a public announcement, Columbia granted Massad tenure, a fact which, when leaked to the public, seems to have reignited discussion of what is usually referred to as “the controversy” concerning Massad and his teaching and scholarship. The decision provoked a fresh volley of vitriol from the right-wing blogosphere.

That summer, a group of 14 Columbia professors from outside the liberal arts sphere, including faculty in the schools of Medicine, Business, Journalism and Public Health, but not one from the School of Arts and Sciences, which granted Massad tenure, wrote a letter to Provost Steele containing a litany of procedural objections to the decision (“Profs Protesting Massad Tenure Case to Meet with Provost, campus-watch.org, 18 September 2009). None of the 14 responded to emails seeking comment for this article.

On 3 March of this year, a resolution was introduced in the New York City Council “Denouncing the decision to tenure Joseph Massad at Columbia University.” The measure was referred to a committee the same day and no further action was taken.

Given Columbia’s embattled history, these outside measures and others have made Massad and other MEALAC professors wary of any potential attempts to discredit them, no matter how small.

“I don’t think anyone is asking for a strange kind of total immunity to listening or oversight,” Professor Rosalind Morris argued. “But this instrumental, unverifiable [action by CMW], its part [in] harassment campaigns, feeds into petitions, in this case as dovetailed with this grotesque and spurious gesture in the New York City Council.”

She added: “It’s created an environment in which faculty are constantly watching their Ps and Qs on issues that people like Campus Media Watch claim should be the subject of balanced coverage, which is a cover-word for an ideologically conservative position.”

Student of Said

In Massad’s view, the attacks on him are a continuation of attacks on Columbia’s preeminent scholar, Edward Said, which intensified in the last years of the late critic’s life.

“I am attacked for a variety of reasons,” Massad said. “One, because I am at Columbia. Two, because I am a student of Edward Said’s and three that my critique continues in the tradition of Edward’s critiques.”

“The attacks on me are a continuation of the attacks on Edward,” he said, sitting in his office across the street from New York’s Riverside Church, the grand gothic building where Martin Luther King Jr. denounced the Vietnam war in April 1967.

Massad retold the story of the “controversy” that erupted over the photo of Said hurling the stone along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Said was visiting southern Lebanon, where the Israeli military had recently left, ending 18 years of occupation.

After visiting the now-empty al-Khiam prison, where Lebanese and Palestinians were tortured for years by Israel’s armed forces and their Lebanese proxies, Said visited the village of Kafr Kila, along the border with Israel.

It was there that the infamous photograph was taken of Said tossing a rock into the no-man’s land, the photo that was denounced by the ADL and the Zionist Organization of America.

“There were many people [at the border,] all of them … elated by the absence of Israeli troops,” Said wrote at the time. “For a moment, I joined in: the spirit of the place infected everyone with the same impulse, to make a symbolic gesture of joy that the occupation had ended.”

He further wrote, “one stone tossed into an empty place scarcely warrants a second thought.”

In 2002, a year before Said’s death, in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, as the second Palestinian intifada raged and the US prepared to go to war on Iraq, Campus Watch was founded. Said died in 2003, before the release of Columbia Unbecoming. “Within a year of [Said’s] death the attacks quadrupled,” Massad remembered.

Then as now, Massad says his own critics have overstated their case.

“They thought when Edward died that they had gotten rid of him. So they tried to do the impossible to make sure I could not stay here, and they couldn’t. And so their failure was total. They went berserk.”

“It’s an inability to realize that they’ve lost the war.”

Journalist Jared Malsin worked in the West Bank for two and a half years for the Palestinian news agency Ma’an. His website is jaredmalsin.wordpress.com