Joseph Massad’s Mangled Lexicon

Joseph Massad, professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, is a central figure in the scandal surrounding the University’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department.

Massad and other professors are accused of intimidating students at the prominent Ivy League university. He is said to have shouted at a student who attempted to raise an alternative point of view, “I will not have anyone sit through this class and deny Israeli atrocities,” and to have responded to concerns raised by an Israeli student by angrily asking the student how many Palestinians he had killed.

It may be impossible to conclusively prove allegations that Massad intimidated students and stifled discourse at Columbia. (See update below.) But while those who have not been in a classroom with Massad might never know for certain if he engaged in such extreme behavior, the professor’s extremist views and rhetoric regarding the Middle East conflict—and his mendacious scholarship—are quite clear for all to see.

Massad’s writings present the conflict as a simple issue of good versus evil. Those Palestinians seeking to destroy Israel are merely pursuing “the legitimate rights of the Palestinians to resist,” whereas Israel is a “racist settler colony,” characterized by the “unceasing brutality and sadism of the Israelis.”

The extremity of his viewpoints and rhetorical style are exemplified in a passage in Cairo’s weekly Al-Ahram English language newspaper, in which Massad criticizes a European philosopher who, despite being a critic of Israel, supports that country’s existence:

What concerns [Slavoj Zizek] 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— all of which seem of little concern to him—but rather Arab “anti-Semitism” which should not be “tolerated.” (“The Legacy of Jean-Paul Sartre,” Jan. 30 – Feb. 5, 2003.)

To Massad, it seems, everything about Israel is racist, whereas the notion of Arab “anti-Semitism”—set in scare quotes—is mocked.

He supports his accusations by disingenuously redefining key concepts—such as Judaism, Zionism and anti-Semitism—to suit his hypotheses, using misquotation and prevarication.

“Jews Are Not Jews”

Massad outrageously shuffles the definitions of Jews, Palestinians and anti-Semites, generalizing that, because of Israel’s existence, there has been a “transformation of the Jew into the anti-Semite, and the Palestinian into the Jew” (“The Legacy of Jean-Paul Sartre”).

And he means this not strictly in a metaphorical sense. “Many can claim easily,” Massad said in a conversation with historian Benny Morris, “that the Palestinians of today are the descendants of the ancient Hebrews ….” On the other hand, he said, the notion that European Jews are descendants of the ancient Hebrews is “preposterous,” “absurd,” and even somehow “anti-Semitic.”

To which an astonished Morris responded: “You’re saying that Jews are not Jews. That’s what you’re saying” (“Joseph Massad and Benny Morris Discuss the Middle East,” History Workshop Journal, Spring 2002).

Elsewhere, Massad suggests that Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion supported the assertion that Palestinians, and not Jews, trace their roots to the Hebrews. According to Massad, Ben-Gurion felt that “the Palestinian peasants were the actual descendants of the ancient Hebrews …” (“Rome and Jerusalem Revisited,” Al-Ahram, Feb. 19 – 24, 2004).

This is a distortion of Ben-Gurion’s writings from his 1918 book, Palestine, Past and Present. He indeed felt that Arab peasants may have descended from those few Jews who remained in the Holy Land after their brethren were exiled. He never stated, however, that these remnants were “the actual” descendants of the Hebrews, or that this possible relationship precludes the Jewish line of descent from their forefathers.

To the contrary, Ben-Gurion always maintained that Israel was the one homeland of the Jews. In his memoirs, he describes the founding of Israel as “the regaining of our land,” and extols the Jewish return “to the very land held by their ancestors.” Even in exile, he adds, “the Jews continued to live in their hearts and minds within the bounds of a heritage tied … to the physical area regarded as home” (Memoirs, 1970).

Zionism Redefined

Massad also radically redefines in his writings the history and goals of Zionism.

“At the time of the rise of Zionism, Zionism itself was not viewed as a Jewish liberation movement but as a movement for the colonization of Palestine by Jews,” he once said (“Joseph Massad and Benny Morris Discuss the Middle East”). It is unclear what Massad means by this, but it seems to be an attempt to buttress his perpetual misrepresentation of Israel as a “colony” or “colonial state.”

Yet as often as he refers to “Zionist Jewish colonialism and its commitment to European white supremacy in Jewish guise,” this does not change the definition of Zionism, either in dictionaries (American Heritage describes Zionism as a movement that arose “in response to growing anti-Semitism and sought to reestablish a Jewish homeland in Palestine”) or in the minds of Zionists past and present. (In his opening address at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Theodor Herzl referred to Zionism as “self-help for the Jews,” and “a moral, lawful, humanitarian movement, directed towards the long-yearned-for goal of our people.” Over 100 years later, Chaim Herzog reiterated before the United Nations General Assembly that “Zionism is the name of the national movement of the Jewish people …. Zionism is to the Jewish people what the liberation movements of Africa and Asia have been to their own people.”)

Such definitions are at the heart of Zionism. Yet Massad stubbornly ignores this history, and distracts from it with incessant attacks on Zionism and Zionists.

Zionists, along with a majority of Israeli Jews and their supporters, “are intent on making Palestine Palestinanser-rein,” [sic] he fallaciously states (“Rome and Jerusalem revisited”). In fact, the very week those words were published (in early 2003), Israeli Parliamentary elections showed only marginal support for far-right parties which mention in their platform “voluntary transfer” of Palestinians. And today, a significant majority of Israelis have expressed support for clearing the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank—not of Palestinians, but of Jews.

In another disingenuous attack, Massad states that

Zionist … colonists were part of the British colonial death squads that murdered Palestinian revolutionaries between 1936 and 1939 while Hitler unleashed kristallnacht against German Jews. (“The Legacy of Jean Paul Sartre”)

Again, he rewrites history. In 1936, Arabs launched a six month campaign of violence against Jews and their property. In the first month, 21 Jews were killed, and acres of their agricultural fields were destroyed. As a result of this violence, six Arabs were killed by British police. The death and destruction continued for the next five months, with Arab violence—and the British response to this violence—getting progressively more severe. While there were some Jewish retaliatory raids following the murder of Jews, an official British report on the violence noted:

It is true of course that in times of disturbance the Jews, as compared with the Arabs, are the law-abiding section of the population, and indeed, throughout the whole series of outbreaks, and under very great provocation, they have shown a notable capacity for discipline and self-restraint. (As quoted in Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Martin Gilbert)

Massad also relies heavily on quotes taken out of context—and sometimes blatant fabrications—in his attacks on Zionists. One such fabrication is his claim that Benny Morris, a historian known for his criticisms of Israel, in an interview defended the “massacres” of Palestinians by Israeli forces (“Rome and Jerusalem Revisited”). Far from defending any massacres, however, Morris unequivocally stated during the interview, “There is no justification for acts of massacre.” (“Survival of the fittest,” Ha’aretz, Jan. 9, 2004).

In the same column, Massad cites, as an example of allegedly racist Zionist opinion, former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s “infamous reference to Palestinians as ‘two-legged beasts.'” This is another gross distortion. In a speech before the Israeli Knesset on June 8, 1982, Begin was speaking specifically about terrorists who attack Israeli children. (For more on this and other hoax quotes, see “Quote Busters” on CAMERA’s Web site.)

Similarly, Massad misleadingly states that in Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland, Herzl “identified Palestinians as ‘dirty brigands.'” Massad’s quote comes from Book One of the novel, in which Herzl describes Palestine as a whole—along with its Arab and Jewish inhabitants—in unfavorable terms:

The alleys were dirty, neglected, full of vile odors. Everywhere misery in bright Oriental rags. Poor Turks, dirty Arabs, timid Jews lounged about—indolent, beggarly, hopeless. A peculiar, tomblike odor of mold caught one’s breath. They hurried away from Jaffa, and went up to Jerusalem on the miserable railway. The landscape through which they passed was a picture of desolation. The lowlands were mostly sand and swamp, the lean fields looked as if burnt over. The inhabitants of the blackish Arab villages looked like brigands. Naked children played in the dirty alleys.

Aside from the Jews being “timid” “beggarly” and “hopeless” in the above passage, they are subsequently described as “poor wretches” who “ply no wholesome trade.”

Later in the novel, Palestine is a transformed place, a utopia with an Arab serving as deputy prime minister.

Herzl, then, no more refers to Palestinians as “dirty brigands” then does he refer to them as effective government leaders, or to Jews as indolent beggars.

On Anti-Semitism

Massad also goes to great lengths to redefine the meaning of anti-Semitism. “The term is bandied about as a description of attitudes deemed anti-Jewish,” he wryly states. However, he argues,

the claims made by many nowadays that any manifestation of hatred against Jews in any geographic location on Earth and in any historical period is “anti-Semitism” smacks of a gross misunderstanding of the European history of anti-Semitism (“Semites and anti-Semites, that is the question.” Al-Ahram, Dec. 9 – 15, 2004)

Having challenged the popular understanding of anti-Semitism, Massad then whitewashes Arab anti-Semitism (he refers to it as “alleged Arab anti-Semitism”) while at the same time describing Jews and Israelis as anti-Semites.

Thus, Arabs who deny the Holocaust are not anti-Semites, but “Zionists” are (“Semites and anti-Semites”).

In the same column, he also writes:

• Anti-Semitism is alive and well today worldwide and its major victims are Arabs and Muslims and no longer Jews.

• It is not Jews who are being murdered by the thousands by Arab anti-Semitism, but rather Arabs and Muslims who are being murdered by the tens of thousands by Euro-American Christian anti-Semitism and by Israeli Jewish anti-Semitism.

Elsewhere, he claims that any reference to a “Judeo-Christian” tradition is “anti-Semitic” (“The Legacy of Jean-Paul Sartre”).

Massad blends factual error into this redefinition of anti-Semitism, stating that “those who deny the holocaust among Palestinians have no position whatsoever inside the PLO ….” In fact, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the PLO, has been criticized for Holocaust revisionism, having suggested in his doctoral dissertation that Zionists inflated the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, and that the actual number might be below one million.

Massad’s own viewpoints have been called anti-Semitic by a U.S. congressman, a member of Columbia Law School’s advisory board, and others. While Massad would presumably protest this description—”the claim … that criticism of Israel is ‘anti-Semitic’ is the most anti-Semitic claim of all,” he asserts—some of his generalizations about Jews are disconcerting. For example, he argues that European intellectuals ought to see “the status of the European Jew as a coloniser,” and that American and Israeli Jews “often are” racists, and make up “a large and disproportionate number of the purveyors of anti-Arab racism.”

Massad responds to his critics with unrestrained hyperbole. He calls them Israeli “apologists” who aim to silence “any academic who believes that Islam is not a terroristi c evil religion … and that Muslims and Arabs are humans” entitled to rights. There is a “witch-hunt … in order to ensure that only one opinion is permitted, that of uncritical support for the State of Israel,” he states (“Policing the Acadamy,” Al-Ahram, April 10 – 16, 2003).

Despite Massad’s outcry, the fact remains that the allegations against Massad were first raised by Columbia students who felt that they were intimidated. Considering the professor’s stated views on the “racist” Zionists and “racist” American Jews, the University has good reason to take these allegations seriously, and investigate them thoroughly.

UPDATE April 8, 2005:  Ad Hoc Committee Finds Complaints Against Massad “Credible”

Columbia’s Ad Hoc Grievance Committee Report of March 28 concludes that Massad indeed shouted down one student and asked another how many Palestinians he had killed.

The report asserts that Massad’s conduct “is not consistent with the obligation ‘to show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own….'”

It further notes that “some [students] complained about what they felt was his repeated, even unremitting, use of stigmatizing characterizations and his sometimes intemperate response to dissenting views. Some reported that they were deterred from asking questions by the atmosphere this created.”

However, the Committee also notes in the report that “We have no basis for believing that Professor Massad systematically suppressed dissenting views in his classroom….

Outside the classroom, there can be little doubt of Professor Massad’s dedication to, and respectful attitude towards, his students … whatever their political outlook.”

Both the committee and its findings have been criticized as biased.

This article originally appeared in CAMERA On Campus magazine. For a free subscription, click here.

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