Columbia's Middle East Crisis

Facing anti-Semitism allegations, Columbia attempts to find answers

NEW YORK—On a tranquil Sunday morning on the Columbia University campus, an unbefitting line forms outside of Uris Hall. Inside, security teams inspect bags, check IDs, and wield metal-detecting wands at perplexed students, professors, and members of the community. But those entering the building aren’t here to see a world leader or big-name celebrity—the day’s attraction is a conference addressing anti-Semitism charges that have riven the Columbia community recently.

The security is just one sign of how tense this campus has become. For nearly six months now, a cloud of controversy has hovered over Morningside Heights, the quiet uptown Manhattan neighborhood that is home to Columbia. At the center of the storm is the school’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), a small unit of 20 full-time professors, some of which have come under fire for allegedly fostering academic intimidation in their classes.

The debate sharply intensified last year with the release of “Columbia Unbecoming,” a short film in which nearly a dozen Columbia affiliates testify that MEALAC professors alienated them with anti-Israel rhetoric in the classroom and community. Accused professors vehemently deny the charges and say the film is an attempt to silence dissenting opinions on campus and oust professors from their positions.

While the events at Columbia have not been the centerpiece of conversation at Harvard in recent months, the debate has resonated in Cambridge. Harvard’s Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz joined the fray last month as one of MEALAC’s most vocal critics. The David Project—a Boston-based Zionist advocacy group—has also been at the heart of the controversy for producing “Columbia Unbecoming.”

The uproar at Columbia comes only a few years after an Israel divestment movement engulfed the Harvard campus with cries of anti-Semitism. And with an official report on the MEALAC situation expected to be completed by the end of March, similar emotions are running high on the campus of Columbia.

THE UNBECOMING

Last October, the premiere of the relatively unknown “Columbia Unbecoming” sparked an international debate over the allegations of anti-Semitism and Columbia’s MEALAC professors.

In one segment of the film, a former student claims that MEALAC Professor Joseph Massad forced another student to accept Massad’s view of Israelis in order to remain in the classroom.

Massad “quickly demanded and shouted at [the student], ‘I will not have anyone sit through this class and deny Israeli atrocities,’” Noah Liben claims in the film.

Massad has said the allegations are part of a larger “campaign of intimidation” directed at professors who criticize Israel in academic discourse.

“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,” Massad said in a statement last year.

Daniel L. Harlow, a junior at Columbia College who took a course with Massad last semester, says that he believes there is no substance to the allegations.

“Of the students that I’ve spoken to—some from New York who are of Jewish background—I haven’t spoken to anyone who felt personally intimidated,” he says.

In another portion of the documentary, a student describes an encounter she had with MEALAC Professor George Saliba after expressing concern over an anti-Israel movie shown in his class.

Saliba “came really close to me,” Columbia graduate Lindsay Shrier says in the film. “He moved down his glasses, and looked right into my eyes and he said, ‘See you have green eyes.’ He said, ‘You’re not a Semite. He said, ‘I’m a Semite. I have brown eyes. You have no claim to the land of Israel.’”

Saliba has repeatedly denied the allegations and says he thinks the motivations of the accusers are part of a larger political movement.