Most campus activism right now has been centered around the election, but at Columbia University another kind of controversy is taking place. Recent events have proved that an announcement in May of the previously anonymous sponsors of the Edward Said chair at Columbia University was just the beginning of the unraveling of Columbia's relationship with pro-Israel students. In the past week tensions have been rising as a new film by a pro-Israel think-tank revealed that Columbia students have been verbally abused and humiliated by anti-Zionist professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department.
Since the creation of the Edward Said chair in 2002, Columbia has refused to reveal the sponsors of the endowed professorship. The first person to hold the Edward Said chair is Rashid Kahlidi, former professor here at the U of C, who like the late Said, opposes the state of Israel. In 2000 Said was photographed throwing rocks at Israelis. This connection popped up again this past May when Columbia was forced to reveal the list of donors to the Said chair, a list that included the United Arab Emirates. To give you an idea of the implication of this: Harvard refused a $2.5 million endowment from Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the President of the United Arab Emirates, about a year before the formation of the Said chair. The New York Sun reports that Columbia has refused to return the money of the UAE.
Now, Columbia students are coming out with claims of being verbally taunted and silenced by professors in Near Eastern Studies classes. The David Project, a pro-Israel think-tank, has produced a documentary about this called "Columbia Unbecoming."
I initially felt that the students might be mistaken in their complaints. Surely, professors have earned the right to share something of their opinion in classrooms. However, the problem at Columbia is not that professors hold and express these positions but that they impose them on the students.
One part in the film has a student claiming that Joseph Massad, the professor whose behavior has garnered the most complains, refused to talk to him after he revealed that he had served in the Israeli army. Massad insisted that the student reveal if he had killed any Palestinians and how many. Another student complained to the New York Sun that Massad said: "The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi." Notice the vocabulary here. This is not simply an anti-Zionist complaint, but an anti-Semetic one. If students' claims aren't evidence enough, Massad's work itself reveals his claims that Israel is a racist state that shouldn't be recognized. In a 2003 article, appearing in the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram Weekly, Massad decries the lack of anti-Zionism on the part of the European left, bashing the liberal philosopher Salvoz Zizeck because "what concerns him most is not the foundational racism of Zionism and its concrete offspring, a racist Jewish state, nor the racist curricula of Israeli Jewish schools, the racist Israeli Jewish media representations of Palestinians, the racist declarations of Israeli Jewish leaders on the right and on the left, or the Jewish supremacist rights and privileges guiding Zionism and Israeli state laws and policies."
In case you were counting, Massad used the word "racist" five times in reference to Israel in a single sentence. His attitude is a defensive one, not one open to the discussion or debate that should be part of any program of study, and perhaps this is where he fails the most.
Massad likes to call other people racist, but isn't so happy when he is accused of the same thing. He told the New York Times (it's worth noting that he refused to speak to the first paper to break the story, The New York Sun) that "Columbia Unbecoming" "is a propaganda film funded by a pro-Israel group as part of a racist witch hunt of Arab and Muslim professors."
It is a fact that if Massad had said something similar about African Americans he would have already been reprimanded by the Columbia administration. This past February, when the Columbia Spectator published a cartoon that was interpreted as having a derogatory message towards African Americans, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, immediately issued a formal statement on the Columbia website. The threats that pro-Israel students are receiving today are from faculty who should know better and whose influence is more far-reaching.
If he does give a public statement, I would hope that Bollinger reminds professors that our current political climate provides many outlets for their commentary (such as Al-Alhram) but that the classroom isn't one of them. Amid Edward Said's legacy of scholarship, lies, and violence, Massad might at least find an example of someone who reserved his rock-throwing activities for outside the classroom.