What's Wrong With This Picture?

Columbia University has an endowment of approximately $4 billion (that's billion). Jewish and Israeli students in the Middle Eastern Studies Department report being harassed and harangued by their professors. Columbia, implicitly acknowledging problems with the department, and having already taken money from an evil Middle Eastern dictatorship for a chair named after the late Egyptian "Palestinian" propagandist and terror advocate Edward Said, decides to add a chair in Israel Studies to the department. But not yet. First the university has to raise money for the chair. Ahem. I can't speak to whether the Israel Studies chair is an appropriate step or not (don't know enough about why this is perceived as a good solution, but I'm skeptical that the way to deal with a disfunctional department is to try to add "balance"; why not instead start by punishing professors who, for example, refuse to answer questions from Israeli students?), but I'm pretty confident of this: if Columbia had been faced with serious claims of discriminatory harassment by professors against women or members of other minority groups (including Arabs), and the university establishment felt that a professorship would help resolve the situation, the university would dip into its $4 billion endowment and not wait until it raised additional money to try to rectify the situation. Instead, the university seems to expect that the Jewish community (who else?) will foot the bill for a new Israel Studies fellowship, paying for the privilege of having Columbia's Middle Eastern Studies Department perhaps become slightly more balanced. Kind of like the old days, when czars and other monarchs would tax the Jewish community to pay for their "protection" from the monarchs' own forces. Pathetic.

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.

Massad Update:

Professor Joseph Massad of Columbia, accused in a film by one student who approached him after a lecture of an overtly hostile attitude toward the student as an Israeli, and by another student of responding obnoxiously when the student tried to defend Israeli policy in class, has responded: "Massad called the documentary 'a propaganda film' and claimed it was a part of a 'racist witchhunt of Arab and Muslim professors.'" This response hardly inspires confidence. Anyone can cry racism about anything, but there are important issues at stake.

So I'll ask the relevant questions again: (1) did these incidents actually occur?; (2) If so, were they momentary lapses, or part of a pattern of behavior? (3) If these incidents did happen, when you combine them with the incredibly strident rhetoric, and innacurate factual assertions, present in Massad's writings about Israel (e.g., this one), are pro-Israel opinions welcomed, or at least accepted, in his classes? Can students with such opinions expect fair treatment? Can Israeli students expect fair treatment in his classes?

These are substantial questions, ones that can't be brushed off with (yes, there's that word again) strident accusations of racism.

UPDATE: More details from the Jerusalem Post, revealing other alleged incidents involving Massad: "Massad, who teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history, told a class, 'The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi.' In a separate discussion, he allegedly yelled at a Jewish student, 'I will not have anybody here deny Israeli atrocities.'"

Massad, Continued:

Ariel Beery of Columbia writes to emphasize that in his view the problem is not Massad per se, but the entire wildly ideological and intolerant Columbia Middle Eastern Studies Department. Ariel has also started a blog, focusing on the controversy at Columbia, that corrects several errors that have appeared in media accounts of the controversy.

And Ragout finds that Massad's "scholarship" creates gems like this one: Such practices [as the torture of Abner Louima by NYC police] clearly demonstrate that white American male sexuality exhibits certain sadistic attributes in the presence of non-white men and women over whom white Americans (and Brits) have government-sanctioned racialised power.Perhaps Massad is lucky that he has come under such close public scrutiny--maybe he will succeed in becoming a "free speech martyr" and distract Columbia from basing its tenure decision on his writings.

Massad Defends Himself:

I've been reporting on the Professor Joseph Massad controversy at Columbia, which you can follow via the links below. I've reproduced, via Juan Cole, Massad's statement in his own defense, which I will mostly let speak for itself. My quick comments:

The difficulty with Massad seems less that he is anti-Israel, as such, and I've seen no evidence that he is anti-Semitic, but that he is an extreme left-wing ideologue who allows that ideology to interfere with scholarly judgment and to make broad statements about matters on which he is ignorant. Note that in statement reproduced below, while strongly objecting to being accused of anti-Semitism, he smears tens of millions of American Christians as anti-Semites, asserting that all evangelical Christians (whom he mischaracterizes as all being fundamentalists) (a) want to convert Jews, and (b) are therefore anti-Semitic. In fact, not all evangelical factions want to convert Jews; even fewer have active programs to do so (as opposed to seeking converts equally from all groups, including other Christians); and, as for the remaining groups who specifically target Jews for conversion, it's pretty hard to see as "anti-Semites" those who are eager to peacefully persuade Jews to join their religious community because they think that God has special love for the Jewish people.

Moreover--and this is truly absurd--Massad claims that evangelical Christians (and not, say, Islamic Jihadists) are the "most powerful anti-Semitic group worldwide." Besides the nonsensical notion of grouping all the disparate evangelical factions into one "group", the obvious questions arise: How many Jewish children in France have been beaten by evangelical Christians? How many evangelical ministers or newspapers have referred to Jews as the sons of pigs and monkeys? Beyond the tiny and definitely non-mainstream Christian Identity movement, which fundamentalist or evangelical terrorist groups have targeted Jews for violence? Which evangelical nations expropriated Jewish property and expelled their Jewish populations? Does a Jew wearing a yarmulke feel threatened walking through small-town Oklahoma, or am I confusing that with Cairo, Baghdad, Riyadh, etc.?

Massad also states that in his class, "One of the assigned readings by Israeli scholar and feminist Simona Sharoni spoke of how in Hebrew the word 'zayin' means both penis and weapon in a discussion of Israeli militarised masculinity." Again, this is an ideological construct with tenuous roots in reality. My Israeli wife--who served in the Israeli army and therefore heard plenty of discussions of weaponry--tells me that the modern Hebrew word for "weapon" is "neshek," and that she has absolutely never heard the word "zayin" used to mean weapon in modern Hebrew. She does recall that there is a biblical Hebrew word that has the same root as "zayin"--mizuyan--which means something like to be armed or wear armor (she can't recall which, which is a sign that she only encountered this in her Bible studies class, not in spoken modern Hebrew). If the word "zayin" or any derivatives is not used in modern Hebrew to mean weapon, how can this be an example of "Israeli militarised masculinity?" This makes me very suspicious of whether Prof. Massad, who styles himself an expert on Zionism and Israel, actually speaks Hebrew.

Anyway, here is Prof. Massad's statement (Note that the most troubling alleged incident involving Prof. Massad, is the one in which he refused to speak to an Israeli student at Columbia until the student revealed "how many Palestinians he had killed" while in the army; Prof. Massad denies that this incident ever took place, or that he ever met this student.):

The recent controversy elicited by the propaganda film Columbia Unbecoming, a film funded and produced by a Boston-based pro- Israel organisation, is the latest salvo in a campaign of intimidation of Jewish and non-Jewish professors who criticise Israel. This witch-hunt aims to stifle pluralism, academic freedom, and the freedom of expression on university campuses in order to ensure that only one opinion is permitted, that of uncritical support for the State of Israel.

Columbia University, the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, and I personally, have been the target of this intensified campaign for over three years. Pro-Israel groups are pressuring the university to abandon proper academic procedure in evaluating scholarship, and want to force the university to silence all critical opinions. Such silencing, the university has refused to do so far, despite mounting intimidation tactics by these anti- democratic and anti-academic forces.

The major strategy that these pro-Israel groups use is one that equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. But the claim that criticism of Israel is an expression of anti-Semitism presupposes that Israeli actions are "Jewish" actions and that all Jews, whether Israelis or non-Israelis (and the majority of world Jews are not Israelis), are responsible for all Israeli actions and that they all have the same opinion of Israel.

But this is utter anti-Semitic nonsense. Jews, whether in America, Europe, Israel, Russia, or Argentina, are, like all other groups, not uniform in their political or social opinions. There are many Israeli Jews who are critical of Israel just as there are American Jews who criticise Israeli policy. I have always made a distinction between Jews, Israelis, and Zionists in my writings and my lectures. It is those who want to claim that Jews, Israelis, and Zionists are one group (and that they think exactly alike) who are the anti-Semites. Israel in fact has no legal, moral, or political basis to represent world Jews (ten million strong) who never elected it to that position and who refuse to move to that country.

Unlike the pro-Israel groups, I do not think that Israeli actions are "Jewish" actions or that they reflect the will of the Jewish people worldwide! All those pro-Israeli propagandists who want to reduce the Jewish people to the State of Israel are the anti-Semites who want to eliminate the existing pluralism among Jews. The majority of Israel's supporters in the United States are, in fact, not Jews but Christian fundamentalist anti-Semites who seek to convert Jews. They constitute a quarter of the American electorate and are the most powerful anti-Semitic group worldwide. The reason why the pro-Israel groups do not fight them is because these anti-Semites are pro-Israel. Therefore, it is not anti-Semitism that offends pro- Israel groups; what offends them is anti-Israel criticism. In fact, Israel and the US groups supporting it have long received financial and political support from numerous anti-Semites.

This is not to say that some anti-Zionists may not also be anti-Semitic. Some are, and I have denounced them in my writings and lectures. But the test of their anti-Semitism is not whether they like or hate Israel. The test of anti-Semitism is anti-Jewish hatred, not anti-Israel criticism. In my forthcoming book, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question, I link the Jewish Question to the Palestinian Question and conclude that both questions persist because anti-Semitism persists. To resolve the Palestinian and the Jewish questions, our task is to fight anti-Semitism in any guise, whether in its pro-Israel or anti-Israel guise, and not to defend the reprehensible policies of the racist Israeli government.

I am now being targeted because of my public writings and statements through the charge that I am allegedly intolerant in the classroom, a charge based on statements made by people who were never my students, except in one case which I will address momentarily. Let me first state that I have intimidated no one. In fact, Tomy Schoenfeld, the Israeli soldier who appears in the film and is cited by the New York Sun, has never been my student and has never taken a class with me, as he himself informed The Jewish Week. I have never met him.

As for Noah Liben, who appears in the film according to newspaper accounts (I have not seen the film), he was indeed a student in my Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies course in the spring of 2001. Noah seems to have forgotten the incident he cites. During a lecture about Israeli state racism against Asian and African Jews, Noah defended these practices on the basis that Asian and African Jews were underdeveloped and lacked Jewish culture, which the Ashkenazi State operatives were teaching them. When I explained to him that, as the assigned readings clarified, these were racist policies, he insisted that these Jews needed to be modernised and the Ashkenazim were helping them by civilising them.

Many students gasped. He asked me if I understood his point. I informed him that I did not. Noah seems not to have done his reading during the week on gender and Zionism. One of the assigned readings by Israeli scholar and feminist Simona Sharoni spoke of how in Hebrew the word "zayin" means both penis and weapon in a discussion of Israeli militarised masculinity. Noah, seemingly not having read the assigned material, mistook the pronunciation of "zayin" as "Zion", pronounced in Hebrew "tziyon". As for his spurious claim that I said that "Jews in Nazi Germany were not physically abused or harassed until Kristallnacht in November 1938", Noah must not have been listening carefully.

During the discussion of Nazi Germany, we addressed the racist ideology of Nazism, the Nuremberg Laws enacted in 1934, and the institutionalised racism and violence against all facets of Jewish life, all of which preceded the extermination of European Jews. This information was also available to Noah in his readings, had he chosen to consult them. Moreover, the lie that the film propagates claiming that I would equate Israel with Nazi Germany is abhorrent. I have never made such a reprehensible equation.

I remember having a friendly rapport with Noah (as I do with all my students). He would drop off newspaper articles in my mailbox, come to my office hours, and greet me on the street often. He never informed me or acted in a way that showed intimidation. Indeed, he would write me e-mails, even after he stopped being my student, to argue with me about Israel. I have kept our correspondence.

On 10 March, 2002, a year after he took a class with me, Noah wrote me an e-mail chastising me for having invited an Israeli speaker to class the year before when he was in attendance. It turned out that Noah's memory failed him again, as he mistook the speaker I had invited for another Israeli scholar. After a long diatribe, Noah excoriated me: "How can you bring such a phony to speak to your class??"

I am not sure if his misplaced reproach was indicative of an intimidated student or one who felt comfortable enough to rebuke his professor!

I am dedicated to all my students, many of whom are Jewish. Neither Columbia University nor I have ever received a complaint from any student claiming intimidation or any such nonsense. Students at Columbia have many venues of lodging complaints, whether with the student deans and assistant deans, school deans and assistant deans, department chairmen, departmental directors of undergraduate studies, the ombudsman's office, the provost, the president, and the professors themselves. No such complaint was ever filed.

Many of my Jewish and non-Jewish students (including my Arab students) differ with me in all sorts of ways, whether on politics or on philosophy or theory. This is exactly what teaching and learning are about, how to articulate differences and understand other perspectives while acquiring knowledge, how to analyse one's own perspective and those of others, how to interrogate the basis of an opinion.

Columbia University is home to the most prestigious centre for Israel and Jewish studies in the country. Columbia has six endowed chairs in Jewish studies (ranging from religion to Yiddish to Hebrew literature, among others). In addition, a seventh chair in Israel studies is now being established after pro-Israel groups launched a vicious campaign against the only chair in modern Arab studies that Columbia established two years ago, demanding "balance"!

Columbia does not have a centre for Arab studies, let alone a centre for Palestine studies. The Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) encompasses the study of over one billion South Asians, over 300 million Arabs, tens of millions of Turks, of Iranians, of Kurds, of Armenians, and of six million Israelis, five million of whom are Jewish.

To study these varied populations and cultures, MEALAC has three full time professors who cover Israel and Hebrew, four full time professors to cover the Arab World, and two full-time professors who cover South Asia. One need not do complicated mathematics to see who is overrepresented and who is not, if the question is indeed a demographic one.

Moreover, the class that this propaganda machine is targeting, my "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies" course, is one of a number of courses offered at Columbia that cover the Palestinian/Israel conflict. All the others have an Israel-friendly perspective, including Naomi Weinberger's "Conflict Resolution in the Middle East", Michael Stanislawski's "History of the State of Israel, 1948-Present" and a course offered in my own department by my colleague Dan Miron, "Zionism: A Cultural Perspective".

My course, which is critical of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, is in fact an elective course which no student is forced to take.

Let us briefly review these claims of intimidation. Not only have the students (all but Noah have not even taken my courses) not used a single university venue to articulate their alleged grievances, they are now sponsored by a private political organisation with huge funds that produced and funded a film about them, screened it to the major US media and to the top brass of the Columbia administration.

Last Wednesday, the film was screened in Israel to a government minister and to participants at a conference on anti- Semitism. The film has still not been released to the public here and is used as a sort of secret evidence in a military trial.

The film has also been used to trump up a national campaign with the aid of a New York congressman to get me fired. All this power of intimidation is being exercised not by a professor against students, but by political organisations who use students against a junior non-tenured faculty member. A senior departmental colleague of mine, Dan Miron, who votes on my promotion and tenure, has recently expressed open support for this campaign of intimidation based on hearsay.

Indeed with this campaign against me going into its fourth year, I chose under the duress of coercion and intimidation not to teach my course this year. It is my academic freedom that has been circumscribed. But not only mine. The Columbia courses that remain are all taught from an Israel-friendly angle.

The aim of the David Project propaganda film is to undermine our academic freedom, our freedom of speech, and Columbia's tradition of openness and pluralism.

It is in reaction to this witch-hunt that 718 international scholars and students signed a letter defending me against intimidation and sent it to President Bollinger, with hundreds more sending separate letters, while over 1,300 people from all walks of life are signing an online petition supporting me and academic freedom. Academics and students from around the world recognise that the message of this propaganda film is to suppress pluralism at Columbia and at all American universities so that one and only one opinion be allowed on campuses, the opinion of defending Israel uncritically.

I need not remind anyone that this is a slippery slope, for the same pressures could be applied to faculty who have been critical of US foreign policy, in Iraq for example, on the grounds that such critiques are unpatriotic.

Surely we all agree that while the university can hardly defend any one political position on any current question, it must defend the need for debate and critical consideration of all such questions, whether in public fora or in the classroom. Anything less would be the beginning of the death of academic freedom."

UPDATE: A reader writes:

In the interest of complete accuracy, I am obliged to correct your impression of the non-use of the word "zayin" in modern Hebrew to refer to "weapon". It is accepted IDF parlance to refer to "armed forces" as "kokhot mezuyanim", the latter word deriving from the root "zayin". ("Kokhot" is the plural of "koakh", meaning "force"). "Klei zayin", or "instruments of weaponry" (i.e.,weapons), although somewhat antiquated, is also correct modern Hebrew, and not limited to Bible class usage.

The same root also occasionally means "fortified" - thus, "reinforced concrete" is "beton mezuyan". It should not need pointing out that this is not Biblical usage. You would, naturally, be perfectly justified in inquiring after my credentials in offering these remarks. To save you the trouble of asking for them - I am Israeli-born, a native speaker of Hebrew, a captain in the IDF, and still do regular reserve duty, where I am exposed to the most current Israeli military idiom.

I should also point out that these comments should under no circumstances be taken to indicate agreement with Sharoni's polemic, viz. her "discussion of Israeli militarised masculinity".

For what it's worth, my wife reiterates her point that "neshek," not zayin, is the Hebrew word for "weapon," and adds that it's very, very rare to hear any of the other terms the reader mentions in modern Hebrew.

Another reader writes:

The origin of the Israeli Hebrew slang word zayin meaning 'penis' is actually from the letter of the alphabet [zayin is the seventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and is the equivalent of "zee"], not from the biblical and rabbinic word meaning 'weapon'. The derivation I heard was that in early Israeli slang the word zanav, 'tail', was used for penis, and when that started to seem too improper, the first letter of the word, zayin, was euphemistically substituted for it, which in due course has become the only colloquial word for it (with no trace of this sense remaining in zanav).

UPDATE: Several reliable sources inform me that Massad does not know Hebrew. Isn't Columbia embarassed to have a non-Hebrew speaker teaching a course called "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies"? How much can Massad know about Israeli society if he can't speak to Israelis in their native tongue, nor read Israeli books or periodicals in the original?