The Columbia Battleground

The David Project, a Boston-based pro-Israel group, triggered a media flurry when it released “Columbia Unbecoming,” a film in which Columbia University students accuse several professors in the school’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department (MEALAC) of academic abuse and intimidation. While it is difficult to assess each side’s claims and counterclaims regarding specific incidents, it is clear that the MEALAC department is extremely hostile to Israel and is shaped by radical professors.

The late Edward Said, an English and comparative literature professor who made his home at Columbia for 40 years until his death in 2003, undoubtedly laid the groundwork for MEALAC’s radicalism. An early spokesman for the Palestinian cause, Said penned Orientalism (1978), an influential book which shaped Middle East studies across the country, and particularly at Columbia’s MELEAC department.

While often perceived as a moderate, Said never accepted Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state, but instead promoted a single state for Palestinians and Jews. A prominent member of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile for more than a decade, Said broke with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat when the latter signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. Said believed the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was “an instrument of Palestinian surrender” and was part of Israel’s continued attempt to dominate the Arabs.

In 1999, Commentary magazine revealed that the revered Said had repeatedly lied about his upbringing, claiming he had been raised in Jerusalem where he spent an idyllic childhood until the invading Jewish army forced his family to flee in December 1947. In actuality, Said spent the bulk of his childhood in Cairo, the son of a wealthy businessman (“‘My Beautiful Old House’ and Other Fabrications by Edward Said,” Justus Weiner, September 1999).

When the English professor died, a professorship was endowed in his name in the MEALAC department, thereby institutionalizing Said’s hostility toward Israel at Columbia’s Middle East department.

His legacy largely lives on through MEALAC professor Joseph Massad, who regularly characterizes Israel as a “racist” state not worthy of existence. For instance, on Feb. 6, 2002, he delivered a lecture at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs entitled “On Zionism and Jewish Supremacy.”

Another major player in Columbia’s Mideast studies brouhaha is Hamid Dabashi, a former chair of the department, who depicted Israelis as follows: 

Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people…There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture. No people can perpetrate what these people and their parents and grandparents have perpetrated on Palestinians and remain immune to the cruelty of their own deeds. (Al Ahram, Sept. 23, 2004)

As documented in “Columbia Unbecoming,” on April 17, 2002, Israel’s independence day, an anti-Israel rally was scheduled to compete with a pro-Israel celebration. According to the campus paper, the Columbia Spectator, MEALAC’s Joseph Massad addressed the rally, proclaiming that Israel is “a Jewish supremacist and racist state,” and that “every racist state should be threatened.” Nicholas De Genova, a professor of Latino Studies, told the crowd: “the heritage of the victims of the Holocaust belongs to the Palestinian people. The state of Israel has no claim to the heritage of the Holocaust.”

Hamid Dabashi and George Saliba, two prominent MEALAC instructors, canceled their classes to attend the demonstration. Several students complained to the Hillel’s Rabbi Charles Sheer and the administration that their professors encouraged them to attend. According to the Jerusalem Post, Saliba admitted taking his class on a “field trip” to the rally (Oct. 31, 2004).

Following students’ objections, Rabbi Sheer wrote a piece in the Columbia Spectator criticizing instructors who canceled classes and encouraged students to participate in the event. Debashi and Saliba answered Sheer’s piece in the Columbia Spectator with ad hominem attacks on the rabbi, but failed to address the substantive issues Sheer highlighted in his piece. Hamid Debashi wrote in a May 3, 2002 op-ed that:

Rabbi Charles Sheer, Jewish chaplain…has taken upon himself the task of mobilizing and spearheading a crusade of fear and intimidation against members of the Columbia faculty and students who have dared to speak against the slaughter of innocent Palestinians. In a succession of rude and intrusive interventions, he has launched a campaign of terror and disinformation reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition against me…

none of us who have publicly spoken against the Israeli slaughter of innocent Palestinians in Jenin refugee camps and other parts of Palestine have broken any University rule…

Rabbi Sheer targets to denounce in his tirade or subject to systematic harassment in his crusade against those of us who believe Zionism is a ghastly racist ideology [sic].

Likewise, George Saliba responded to Sheer’s criticisms with personal attacks:

It is doubly alarming to learn from Rabbi Sheer that students are reporting to him, as he claims, what goes on in the classrooms, thus making one feel that we have been miraculously transported to some medieval theocracy, where a religious authority is re-instituting the Inquisition…

Rabbi Sheer cites several conditions under which a class could be cancelled, of course including religious holidays, but obviously not including attendance at a political rally where both students and faculty could benefit from access to accurate information on the Middle East that is never reported by the newspapers “of record” nor is it even allowed to be reported by any member of the press as Ariel Sharon’s army prohibited access to the press when he was committing his massacres in Jenin. (Columbia Spectator, letter, May 1, 2002)

Saliba ended his letter with the advice “Rabbi! Just preach! Do not even attempt to teach!”

In “Columbia Unbecoming,” Rabbi Sheer said about Dabashi’s and Saliba’s responses to his Op-Ed: “if this is what they are willing to do to me in public, in writing, you can imagine what they are willing to do to students in the classroom.”

It is interesting to note that both professors erroneously claimed in their pieces that there was a massacre at Jenin when, in fact, even the United Nations, which is hardly soft on Israel, reported that there was no massacre.

Why does the university fail to demand more rigorous academic standards for its MELEAC professors? Does freedom of speech include disseminating false information and should that be encouraged by any school? These questions are no less pressing than the investigation regarding allegations about academic intimidation.

A Compose r Weighs In

Before “Columbia Unbecoming” was released in October, individuals attempted to shed light on the problems which plagued the MEALAC department. When John Corigliano, a distinguished classical composer and Columbia alumnus was honored by the university in March 2003, he used the platform to criticize Middle East studies at Columbia. On receiving the award he said:

there has been an enormous, enormous amount of publicity about the various departments of Middle Eastern studies, and about the fact that the anti-Israeli policy in these [departments] is enormous. And one can say that of the department of Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Columbia, that’s true here.

Hamid Debashi penned a response to Corigliano’s remarks:

Rabbi’s [Sheer] fabricated lies and Corigliano’s misguided accusations are insults to the dignity of my colleagues and shamelessly defame my department…

Such malicious misrepresentations of my department are a deliberate attempt at silencing voices of civilized dissent and civil discourse. (Columbia Spectator, March 10, 2003)

The composer answered Debashi’s letter in the March 24, 2003 Spectator. Corigliano questioned Debashi’s conduct:

Much has been written in these pages about Dabashi’s highly questionable behavior around April 17, 2001 [sic–2002]. As a professor myself, at Juilliard and at Lehman College, I have no problem with Dabashi’s canceling a class if Columbia approved his request for the day off. I question only whether the way he did it was subtly coercive…

In this light, I suggest that the style (not, I repeat, the fact) of Dabashi’s abrupt cancellation of his class casts serious doubt over whether he is aware of the appropriate placement of the boundary between scholarship and activism…

Students deserve real self-discipline from their professors. I miss evidence of this quality in the illiberalism, sloppy research, and near-hysterical tone of these statements Dabashi has written for publication. It’s deeply disturbing to me that–at this time, of all times–such a person chairs the department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia.

The testimonials in “Columbia Unbecoming” include several alleged instances of intimidation by various MEALAC professors within the classroom. Among the more serious claims of intimidation are those involving Professor Massad. He allegedly told a woman in his class that “if you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against the Palestinian people, then you can get out of my classroom.” Nevertheless, apparently neither the incident nor her views affected the student’s grade, as she received an A for the course.

The Web site for “Columbia Unbecoming” emphasizes that students attempted to address their grievances with the university’s administration, but their concerns were ignored. According to “Columbia Unbecoming” site (

Columbia University’s highest officials have acknowledged that the grievance policies in place were inadequate and provided no effective recourse for students with complaints of intimidation by faculty members. Moreover, the students who have spoken out against professors state that the officials charged with handling such grievances either ignored them or directed them to other officials who were unresponsive.

Once Columbia was unable to ignore allegations of academic intimidation by some of its professors, the university appointed a committee to assess the students’ complaints. However, many observers are concerned that the appointed committee is biased. Two out of the five people on the committee were signatories of the anti-Israel divestment petition. About 100 faculty members signed the petition for Columbia to divest from companies doing business with Israel, while more than 350 faculty members put their name on the anti-divestment one. However, not a single professor who signed the anti-divestment petition was selected to serve on the ad hoc committee. In addition, most of those on the committee also have personal or professional relationships with the professors being investigated.

Moreover, student Zac Franc noted that when

there was a controversy surrounding the English department, a committee was convened with members from outside the University. If Bollinger were serious about this investigation and had any sense, he would have done the same in this situation, if for nothing else than to avoid even the appearance of conflict. (Columbia Spectator, Feb. 14, 2005)

Indeed, the publication on March 31, 2005 of the committee’s report neither quelled the controversy surrounding MEALAC, nor put to rest skepticism about the make-up of the committee.

A statement by the David Project’s Charles Jacobs asserted:

This is a biased report by a biased committee, which ignored the facts to protect its own.

We expected an unfair report from a committee composed of friends and colleagues — and even a thesis advisor — of the professors it was supposed to investigate. But the report is disgraceful, beyond our expectation. …

The report admits the University Administration was insensitive, inconsiderate, and even antagonistic to students who complained that anti-Israel professors harassed them. And it admits that students had no effective means to register complaints. But it reduced a major academic scandal to only these narrow bureaucratic foul-ups.

The Columbia Chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East released as statement declaring that, for the most part, “the report has confirmed our predictions,” and adding that

In its dissemination of the report, the Administration continued to treat students disrespectfully. The Administration gave the report exclusively to the New York Times and the Spectator, allegedly with the condition that the articles not include comments from the students. The Times article indicates that the Administration gave Professor Massad a copy a few days ago, and includes his comments. No such courtesy was extended to the students involved.

Regardless, it doesn’t take a committee to determine that the department is filled with extremists who are obsessively anti-Israel. MEALAC professors Hamid Dabashi, Joseph Massad, George Saliba, and Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, are all proponents of the one-state solution, a euphemism for the destruction of the Jewish state. How can students who take MEALAC courses expect a balanced presentation of the facts when many of its most prominent professors do not even acce pt Israel’s right to exist?

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