The recent controversy elicited by the propaganda film “Columbia Unbecoming,” a film funded and produced by a Boston-based pro-Israel organization, is the latest salvo in a campaign of intimidation of Jewish and non-Jewish professors who criticize 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 Israel. 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 criticize 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 met him. 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 modernized and the Ashkenazim were helping them by civilizing 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 militarized 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 institutionalized 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 March 10, 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 class??” I am not sure if his misplaced reproach was indicative of an intimidated student or one who felt comfortable enough to rebuke his professor!
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 analyze one’s own perspective and those of others, how to interrogate the basis of an opinion.
Columbia University is home to the most prestigious Center 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 Center for Arab Studies, let alone a Center for Palestine studies. The Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures 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 demographic one.
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/Israeli 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 organization 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 organizations 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 1400 people from all walks of life are signing an online petition supporting me and academic freedom. Academics and students from around the world recognize 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 U.S. 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.
Joseph Massad is professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University.