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.

“I would not be surprised if they hired a very good actor...to say charges against me that are total fiction,” Saliba says. “It is intellectual harassment...these are scare tactics.”

The film was produced by the David Project, an organization formed in August 2002 in response to a nationwide “ideological assault on Israel” on campuses and in the media, according to the group’s website.

Rachel Lea Fish, director of the David Project’s New York office and a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, says that the issue at Columbia is part of a nationwide trend.

Two years ago, Fish spearheaded an effort to force Harvard administrators to return a controversial $2.5 million gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates because of his ties to an allegedly anti-Semitic think tank.

“I think what we are trying to do is to shine a light on what is happening at many Middle East departments across the country,” she says.

But Columbia senior Eric J. Posner says that there is no problem at Columbia—except for the fact that the opinions in “Columbia Unbecoming” do not reflect student thought on campus. In an effort to make his view public, Posner has compiled the testimonies of 26 MEALAC supporters in the Columbia community, about double the number that appeared in the documentary.

Posner says that during his time at Columbia, he has never seen any of the behavior described in the film.

“The few times I’ve ever seen anyone break etiquette in a classroom at Columbia, it was always a student being abrasive and emotional,” Posner wrote in an e-mail.

SEEKING PEACE

Critics on both sides of the issue often compare the idea of reaching harmony at Columbia to the prospects of achieving peace in the Middle East—difficult and unforeseeable in the near future.

In December, Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger appointed a “grievance” committee to investigate charges of intimidation across the university’s campus—not just within the MEALAC department. The committee has met with more than 50 students, professors, and administrators to date and expects to issue a report within two weeks.

But both sides of the debate seem to have their own grievances to air over Bollinger’s commission.

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), the group that organized last Sunday’s conference at Columbia, has alleged that many committee members hold conflicting personal ties to the professors under scrutiny. They say that two members of the committee signed a call for divestment from Israeli companies, one member was the dissertation sponsor of Massad, and they allege another has publicly compared Israel to Nazi Germany.

Judith S. Jacobson, assistant professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia and also the New York coordinator for SPME, says she thinks the choices for the committee were “highly questionable.”

“Even people who have conflicts of interest can do the right thing...but if they do not, we will have continuing controversy,” she says.

Saliba discounts the charges, calling the allegations “slander in the worst possible way.”

He says that while he has no objections to the appointment of a committee, he takes issue with Bollinger’s management style, which he says has been influenced by outside political pressures.

“Up to this very minute, the president has not contacted me and listened to what is my side of the story,” Saliba says. “That is [the] worst level of discrimination.”

THE HOME FRONT

Last month, Harvard’s Dershowitz visited Columbia and asserted that MEALAC professors are “encouraging the terrorists” in the Middle East. Dershowitz—an outspoken defender of Israel—said he would support the creation of another committee if Bollinger’s grievance committee reaches a “biased” result.

But aside from the comments by Dershowitz, the Columbia fiasco has not sparked much more conversation in Cambridge.

Charles Jacobs, president of the David Project, says that Jewish students at Harvard have contacted the organization in hopes of arranging a Harvard screening of “Columbia Unbecoming.” The details have not yet been worked out, he says.

E. Roger Owen, Meyer professor of Middle Eastern history, says the political debate at Columbia has had little influence on academia at Harvard.

“Columbia, being in New York, gets invaded by the ideologies of the city itself,” says Owen. “The Arab-Israeli dispute, which is hot in New York, tends to be represented on campus in a much more direct way than it would be on the Harvard campus.”

“The Arab-Israeli dispute has gone with [Middle East studies] for the past 50 years,” he says. “It’s something we all deal with and it’s remarkable that so little of what we teach does incite controversy.”

—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.