“Columbia Unbecoming” in the clear light of day

The library of Columbia University.


Over the past several weeks, claims of intimidation in the department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) of Columbia University have hit newspapers around the world. Accusations of one-sidedness and anti-Americanism abound. It is all based on a previously unreleased film Columbia Unbecoming, which purports to document incidences of intimidation and anti-Semitism in the classroom. The “underground documentary” that has been touted by major New York City press has been released. We can finally begin an honest discussion.

The film cannot seriously be called a documentary. It is a collection of uncorroborated claims made by students with a political axe to grind. Not once are the accused professors asked for their views. And the opinions of the many satisfied MEALAC students are systematically excluded. The perspective put forward by the film represents a very narrow subset of the Columbia student body. It’s a group of students that are extremely outspoken and un-apologetic supporters of the state of Israel. We are talking about students with a well-funded and dominant political agenda who are in no way marginalized from the public discourse. In my four years at Columbia, I have come to recognize a number of the names behind the film. They are students who mounted a campaign of defamation against Professor Edward Said for throwing a rock at the Israeli border shortly after South Lebanon was liberated from Israel’s despised occupying forces in 2000. They launched a well funded and so-far successful publicity stunt against a modest divestment campaign from Israeli weapons manufacturers in 2002. These cohorts turned out a counter-demonstration to the thousands strong student walkout on campus the week after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Hardly a silenced bunch.

In the Spring of 2001, I took Professor Joseph Massad’s class on Israeli-Palestinian Politics and Societies. It was a class that exposed me for the first time to a history and critique of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. As most people in this country I had never been exposed to any deep history or analysis of what seemed to me to be a complicated and age-old conflict. Professor Massad’s engaging lectures but just as importantly, his openness to discussion and disagreement in the classroom opened my eyes to an entirely new realm of debate. I took the class with Noah Lieben, one of the foremost critics of Massad and MEALAC. I am deeply disturbed by accusations put forward by Lieben in Columbia Unbecoming, and would have been happy to express them in the film if asked. Lieben’s interventions and aggressive disagreements in class helped deepen my understanding of Zionism, and create a stimulating environment for debate. Professor Massad always respectfully fielded Lieben’s and others’ questions and points. At times the debate took over to the detriment of keeping up with the syllabus. But it was an invaluable part of the process and made it one of the best and most rigorous classes in my four years at Columbia University.

As opposed to their innocuous stated goals, the filmmakers have created a witch-hunt atmosphere on campus. They are trying to silence and marginalize the minority, anti-Zionist position. Rather than protecting “academic integrity” they are waging a full frontal assault on it. The effect of the film has been to narrow the scope of what is taught in the classroom. Professor Massad has been pressured out of teaching his class this Spring. And a number of professors in the MEALAC department have received racist emails and death threats. Among them, Professor Massad received an email from Columbia Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine Moshe Rubin, which was excerpted without comment by the Columbia Spectator: “Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar.” A university task force to further investigate the incidences of anti-Arab racism at Columbia, anyone?

Let’s be clear about what is at stake here. Since September 11, 2001 thousands of Arabs, South Asians and Muslims have been deported and disappeared into detention centers. The US has held over 560 people without trial in an internment camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Attacks on Arabs and those who “appear” Arab or Muslim are on the rise. The Columbia campus is not sheltered from this reality. The FBI has visited Arab and international students and the Columbia University administration has facilitated this process by turning over student records to the Department of Homeland Security. The makers of this film have created an atmosphere on campus that dovetails with this national climate of racist scapegoating. It should behoove the Columbia University administration to leap to the defense of an untenured Arab professor who is defamed and harassed out of teaching his class. Instead the administration has given credence to the politically motivated claims.

This is not a conflict between Jewish students and everyone else on campus. Hundreds of students turned out to the film’s premier. In the discussion period following the film, many Jews braved a largely hostile atmosphere to challenge the validity of the “documentary,” and voiced their opposition to the harassment of MEALAC. They spoke passionately in defense of Professor Massad, and the harassment leveled at Jews on campus who criticize Israel. Stephanie Schwartz, a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), a self-identified anti-Zionist Jew, spoke of the daily haranguing that she faces for wearing a keffiyeh (a Palestinian scarf) in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

Schwartz explains that: “The dialogue about Israel at JTS is extremely narrow. I can say that I don’t agree with all of Ariel Sharon’s policies, but it’s almost unheard of for someone to say that they don’t support Israel’s ‘right’ to attack Palestinians. One of my professors, in a discussion about all of the various movements of Judaism in America today, said that the only thing that unites American Jews is support for Israel. It’s just assumed that we’re all Zionists.” The tragedy is that Jews cannot study their history and religion without being bombarded by Zionism. The red herring of this debate is that the small number of students who made this film claim to speak for the experience of all Jews. Meanwhile they continue to make life difficult for anti-Zionist Jews and non-Jews alike on campus.

Still, the makers of the documentary insist that their film is not about politics. The fact that The David Project sponsored their film— a Boston-based pro-Israel group that was expressly formed in the spring of 2002 as a counter-weight to the headway of the Palestine solidarity movement on campuses— goes unmentioned. But the movement behind The David Project and the recent hysteria of academic intimidation on campus deserves attention. It is part and parcel of a larger campaign involving a coalition of groups including McCarthyite groups such as Campus Watch who aim to marginalize voices questioning the US and Israel’s place in the Middle East. It is a dishonest attempt to use “academic integrity” as a cover for bullying and censorship. If academic integrity is really what this is about, then let us create real parity in the MEALAC department. We can start with a Center for Palestine Studies with a tenured chair. And then maybe we can talk about where to build a multi-million dollar facility to house it.

The problem is that there is no parity between the two sides of this debate. The accusers are not the victims. The charges are on par with claims of racism from white students in an African American history course. When the Palestine solidarity movement was at its height during the spring of 2002, hundreds of Columbia students, faculty and staff refused to go on with business as usual while Palestinians were bulldozed into their homes. We walked out, sat-in and insisted that an occupied, ghettoized, and impoverished people have a right to resist their oppressors. Today apologists for Israel have made headway on rolling this back. The flurry of bogus accusations brought out by this film has shown the urgency for a strong, self-confident Palestine movement on this campus and in this country. It is desperately needed as the US and Israel stand poised to remake the map of the Middle East. In the wake of Israel’s “Days of Penitence” massacre of over 100 Palestinians in Northern Gaza, it is critical. And maybe now that The David Project’s propaganda film has seen the light of day we can have a real debate and begin that work.

Related Links

  • Joseph Massad responds to the intimidation of Columbia University, Joseph Massad (3 November 2004)
  • The David Project website

    Monique Dols is a Columbia University Student in the School of General Studies and a Mid-Atlantic representative to the Campus Antiwar Network Coordinating Committee. She can be reached at mjd139@columbia.edu. To sign a petition in defense of Professor Joseph Massad, visit: http://www.petitiononline.com/jmassad/petition.html