Prof. Joseph Massad of Columbia:

Brian Leiter links to an online petition in support of Prof. Joseph Massad of Columbia. Brian states that the charge of misconduct vis a vis a student by Mr. Massad are serious, but do not warrant dismissal. First, let's be clear that I have no personal knowledge as to whether any accusations made against Prof. Massad are true. As far as I know, the most serious charge against Prof. Massad, and the one Brian is likely referring to, is as follows:

a former Columbia undergraduate, Tomy Schoenfeld, recalls attending a lecture about the Middle East conflict given by Mr. Massad in spring 2001. At the end of the lecture, Mr. Schoenfeld prefaced a question to the professor by informing Mr. Massad that he was Israeli, Mr. Schoenfeld told The New York Sun. "Before I could continue, he stopped me and said, 'Did you serve in the military?'" Mr. Schoenfeld, who served in the Israeli Air Force between 1996 and 1999, recalled. He said that he told Mr. Massad he had served in the military and that Mr. Massad asked him how many Palestinians he had killed. When Mr. Schoenfeld refused to answer, Mr. Massad said he wouldn't allow him to ask his question.

At least Brian notes the seriousness of the charge. Despite the flowery rhetoric of the on-line petition, harassment and discrimination against an individual student based on his national origin is certainly not part of academic freedom, though one can debate how serious the reprecussions from one incident should be. For now, not knowing all the facts, including Prof. Massad's side of the story, I'm willing to reserve judgment; but why are Massad's defenders so eager to defend him on academic freedom grounds, before knowing all the facts? They call on Columbia President Bollinger "to rise to the occasion and issue a categorical statement in defense of Professor Massad and against this campaign of defamation;" is Bollinger supposed to categorically defend Massad without knowing the facts?

And why is a movie about anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment at Columbia that merely investigates incidents such as these, along with the reaction thereto, an "attack on academic freedom?" Part of freedom of speech the right to criticize what professors say and do in their classrooms and in their scholarly work. And donors, specifically criticized by the petitioners, have the right to withhold donations from a university if they believe that the university is doing a poor job in one way or another.

Certainly, any official sanction from Columbia--assuming it even follows up on any of this--faced by Prof. Massad should (1) be based on fact, not rumor; (2) be limited to conduct not protected by the principles of academic freedom; and (3) be proportionate to action taken against other professors for similar misconduct. But the suggestion in the on-line petition that a claim of discrimination by Prof. Massad by an Israeli student should not be taken seriously because "[t]hey ignore his distinguished teaching record and the significant support he enjoys from the vast majority of students who have, in fact, taken his classes," is risible. Should a university ignore complaints of discrimination by a black student, a woman, or member of another group just because most students weren't subject to such discrimination and in fact enjoyed the class?

Note that Brian links to the website of notorious British professor Mona Baker, famous not for her scholarship but for firing two Israeli professors--both, ironically, leftists--from an academic journal she ran solely because they are Israelis. She's now a spokesperson for academic freedom and integrity?

I'm certainly aware, from working on You Can't Say That!, of how claims of discrimination can be misused to try to silence others. But I'm waiting for some indication, from Prof. Massad or others, that the incident in question never actually happened. Until then, forgive me if I don't join the petitioners on the barricades.

UPDATE: More on Massad here. If this is a representative example of Massad's "scholarship," it's hard to imagine why any reputable university would want him teaching a course there, much less consider him a viable candidate for tenure. (Among other things, anyone who sees Zionism as merely an outgrowth of racist European colonialism, neglecting two thousand years of Jewish prayers for a return to the Land of Israel, and related incidents such as Shabtei Zevi's false Messiahship in the 17th century which included a promise of a Jewish return to the Land of Israel, is incredibly ignorant of relevant Jewish history. To take another example, the original Zionist immigrants to Palestine didn't come armed, as Massad states, they came peacefully, having bought land legally from Arab landowners, and only armed themselves to protect themselvs from Arab marauders who frequently attacked their settlements. And so on.)

On the other hand, here is a rather sympathetic portrayal of Massad from the New York Jewish Week. This article clarifies the incident in question--it occurred after a public lecture, not after a class, so at least Massad isn't accused of haranguing one of his own students, although another student claims that Massad was very disrepectful when the student defended Israel in class. Unfortunately, the Jewish Week reporter doesn't seem to have asked Massad whether either incident happened.

FURTHER UPDATE: The Sun reports that Bollinger has launched an investigation. Also according to the Sun,

In one scene in the film, a Columbia student, Noah Liben, recalls a class he had with Mr. Massad in spring 2001 during which the professor, while making the argument that Zionism is a male-dominated movement, told students that the Hebrew word zion means "penis." Zion actually means a "designated area or sign post," which sounds similar to zayin, which means a weapon or penis, according to Rabbi Charles Sheer, the former Jewish chaplain at Columbia.

Actually, in Hebrew, the word "Zayin," slang for penis, sounds nothing like the word "Tziyoan" meaning Zion. Anyone who confuses zayin and tziyoan to make a silly political point is a boob.