The Mideast Comes to Columbia

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Article/book #: 15965
Title: The Mideast Comes to Columbia
By: Scott Sherman  
Published in: The Nation
Date of issue: Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Topic(s) addressed: People/entities mentioned in this item:

Commentary (by As’ad Abu-Khalil -- source):

The American Left and the Middle East (Nation magazine). In my 21 years in the US, I came to realize this: you can never really trust the American Left when it comes to the Middle East. They are not good, even when they are, or even when they think they are. Their progressive outlook on the Middle East can only go this far, not very far at all, if you ask me. It always stops: it hits a wall of one (or more) of the following: ignorance, bigotry, Zionist sympathies, and Western self-righteousness. I say this because I have been very unhappy with the recent Nation magazine issue on academic freedoms. I did not like the piece by Scott Sherman. As I told one of the editors privately, I very much disliked his references to my dear friend Joseph Massad. He referred to Joseph as "dogmatic." What does that mean? Who is not "dogmatic" about the Arab-Israeli conflict? Is Sharon "dogmatic"? Does the Nation magazine refer to Sharon as "dogmatic"? Is the Nation magazine's support for Israel (albeit in " '67" borders) "dogmatic"? Is the Nation Magazine's insistence on running ads by the fanatical Flame organization "dogmatic"? And then the writer claims that supporters of Joseph has been angered by or displeased with him? No names given. They also make things up and claim that Edward Said was concerned about Joseph's radicalism. I think that the late Edward Said was more concerned about Nation's moderation than about Joseph's radicalism, if you ask me. Worse, the entire article leaves the reader with the impression that this Arab "wog" (Joseph) has gone too far, and he needs to moderate his views.

»An intellectual architect of HR 3077 was Martin Kramer, who, along with Daniel Pipes, has taken it upon himself to police and patrol the discipline of Middle East studies. Kramer is the author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (2001), a senior associate of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and an indefatigable polemicist and critic. Since Columbia Unbecoming was first screened this past October, Kramer has been especially vituperative in his attacks on Massad, MEALAC and even president Bollinger. (In late January Kramer averred that Columbia's president "should have to jump through a hundred more hoops" before the MEALAC matter can be settled.) Pipes runs his own think tank, the Middle East Forum, which in 2002 launched Campus Watch, whose mission is to critique and harass liberal and progressive scholars of the Arab world… The current developments at Columbia are deeply satisfying to Kramer and Pipes: A few months ago Harvard Magazine asked Pipes to delineate Campus Watch's recent accomplishments, and he replied, "Pressuring Columbia University to the point that the president has organized a committee [to investigate] political intimidation in the classroom."
The creation of that committee, which consists of five Columbia faculty members, would not have occurred without Columbia Unbecoming. But one can't easily speak of "the film," since a number of different versions exist. Columbia students close to the debate maintain there are at least six versions. The film has never been released to the public, but it has been selectively screened for Columbia administrators, trustees, students and journalists. This magazine requested a copy from the David Project and was repeatedly rebuffed. I finally saw one version of the film in its entirety at a packed campus screening in late January. What's clear is that Columbia Unbecoming is a propaganda film: one that portrays Jewish students as "silenced" by professors who "criticize Israel and...question its legitimacy"; in which vague and anonymous accusations are tossed about by students whose faces are sometimes blurred and whose voices are sometimes masked; which deliberately conflates what instructors say in the classroom with what they publish and do outside the classroom; and which attributes sinister motives to Columbia administrators and faculty, not one of whom is given the opportunity to respond to the allegations.
Columbia Unbecoming is a source of anguish and embarrassment to some prominent members of the university's Jewish community. Robert Pollack is a professor of biological sciences, a former dean of the university's Columbia College and a man who was instrumental in raising $13 million for the construction of the Kraft Center, a six-story building that is now the permanent home of Columbia's Jewish community. (Much of Columbia Unbecoming was shot in the Kraft Center.) "This building is a gift of the American Jewish community in its fullest happiness," says Pollack. "One must wonder: Why would a video like this be made in a building like that?" Pollack is no great admirer of MEALAC, and he clashed with Columbia's Edward Said over the Israel-Palestine conflict, but he has no patience for the view that the university is hostile to Jewish students: "It is a crazy, crazy exaggeration to claim that Jews are under attack at Columbia or that the faculty is anti-Semitic." And he is caustic about Columbia Unbecoming: "No one has seen the video," says Pollack. "There is no video to see. There's a cloud of videos constantly changing. It's innuendo and gossip." «

»Finally, there is the case against Joseph Massad, whom the film calls "one of the most dangerous intellectuals" on campus. One senses that he is the real target of Columbia's internal and external critics. Massad, a Palestinian, earned his doctorate in political science from Columbia, where he developed a close relationship with Edward Said. In 1999 Massad was given an assistant professorship in MEALAC, and he is up for tenure in two years. (His scholarly output would seem to make him a viable candidate: Massad's first book, on Jordanian national identity, was published by Columbia University Press. His second, Desiring Arabs, is forthcoming from Harvard.)
For Pipes & Co., Massad is something of a gift: He is strident, dogmatic, proud, deliberately provocative and utterly uncompromising in his defense of the Palestinian struggle. He is a man who traffics in absolutes, a man who often infuriates even those who are sympathetic to his views. Said worried about his young friend's propensity for careless rhetoric – a point that Massad himself acknowledged in his Al-Ahram obituary of Said: "He would caution (actually yell at) me against giving way to my 'youthful' enthusiasm in a world in which we have few friends and numerous enemies." Massad is a ferocious critic of Israel and Zionism, but he is also withering on the subject of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. (He supports a single, binational state.) To his detractors he is a devil figure, a "dangerous intellectual." Massad frequently acts out the role by unleashing a steady stream of inflammatory anti-Zionist rhetoric: "racist Jewish state" is a locution he constantly employs.«

»The roots of the Columbia conflict can be traced back to campus political developments in 2001 and early 2002. In March 2002 a network of national Jewish organizations met to evaluate what they saw as an alarming rise in anti-Israel activity on campus. From those meetings emerged the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), which is a partnership of Hillel and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. (The three organizations share a building in Washington.) According to a 2002 article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a Jewish-oriented news service, top-flight talent was brought in to advise the ICC and assemble a battle plan. "Pro-Israel professionals from the elite consulting firm McKinsey & Company offered pro-bono services," the article noted. Those professionals created a document for the ICC arguing that "the primary goal for this year should be to 'take back the campus' by influencing public opinion through lectures, the Internet and coalitions." The ICC – which recently received a $1,050,000 grant from the Schusterman Foundation, and whose speakers list includes Daniel Pipes – has an impressive array of "members": AIPAC, ADL, Americans for Peace Now and the Zionist Organization of America, among others.
The ICC has a single "affiliate member": the David Project. The David Project is led by Charles Jacobs, who is a co-founder of CAMERA, the pro-Israel media watchdog group; the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Group, which calls itself "America's leading human rights group dedicated to abolishing modern day slavery worldwide"; and, along with Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol, among others, a member of the board of advisers of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The ICC's website lists a number of "regional ICCs" that receive "strategic advice and guidance" from the Washington headquarters. The regional ICC representative in New York is none other than Rachel Fish, the director of the David Project's New York office. Jacobs was tight-lipped in a recent interview: He refused to provide details about his financial backers, referring only to unnamed "individuals and foundations"; and he declined to elaborate on the extent to which the David Project receives tactical advice from professional pro-Israel lobbyists and operatives allied with the ICC. «

»But the report, which is expected in late March, is unlikely to end the imbroglio. The coalition arrayed against Columbia seems increasingly confident and well organized. It has begun to campaign for an external body to investigate the charges, and has enlisted Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and Village Voice journalist Nat Hentoff in that cause. Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer can barely contain their satisfaction: In televised remarks to his Columbia supporters on March 6, Kramer noted that the MEALAC controversy could mark "a turning point" in the ongoing campus ideological war over Middle East studies.«

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