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Witch-hunt Targets Columbia Prof

Chris Anderson Dec 23, 2004

witchProfessor Joseph Massad PHOTO: J. ADAS

As Columbia University students begin their winter break, the campus remains in turmoil over accusations of harassment in the school’s Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures Department (MEALAC).

A faculty committee is investigating charges that MEALAC Professor Joseph Massad intimidated Israeli and Jewish students in his classroom. The investigation has in turn sparked an outcry as Columbia University admitted that no formal student complaint has been “initiated through any of the formal processes at the university” against Massad.

The accusations, instead, first appeared in a 20-minute film, Columbia Unbecoming, which circulated around the university this October. Columbia Unbecoming was produced by the David Project, a Boston-based organization that declares itself “a proud member of the Israel on Campus Coalition,” and sees its mission as promoting “the truth about Israel” on university campuses.

Massad denies that he harassed or intimidated students, countering that Columbia Unbecoming “is the latest salvo in a campaign of intimidation of Jewish and non-Jewish professors who criticize Israel.” In a statement posted on Columbia’s website, Massad says, “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.”

Monique Dols, a history student at Columbia and member of the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend Academic Freedom, echoes Massad’s arguments. “These accusations… are at best dishonest and at worst slanderous, a politically motivated campaign of intimidation against individuals on campus that dare criticize Israeli foreign policy.”

Since the harassment charges were made public, Massad has received numerous pieces of hate mail, including an email from Moshe Rubin, a professor of medicine at Columbia. According to the Colombia Spectator, it read in part: “Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar.”

Massad is one of several MEALAC professors being targeted in an orchestrated campaign by Campus Watch, which has been labeled a “blacklisting project” for its attacks against academics critical of Israel.

An Oct. 29 article in the The Jewish Week pokes further holes in the harassment charges. The article, based on almost two dozen interviews with current and former MEALAC students, found that “a much different picture emerges than the one seemingly portrayed [in Columbia Unbecoming]… Most of the complaints on campus appear to be from pro-Israel activist students not in the MEALAC program.”

Israeli native Lia Mayer-Sommer told The Jewish Week that “it wasn’t fun to be the only Israeli in [Massad’s] class, but I never felt intimidated. Passionate, emotional, but not intimidated.”

Despite the flimsiness of the charges and concerns that the campaign is part of a broader agenda to curtail academic freedom, Columbia has responded swiftly to the claims of intimidation. A month-long investigation by Provost Alan Brinkley concluded that Columbia’s grievance procedure was “inadequate” and called for “an ad hoc committee, drawn from the faculty, to hear student complaints and, when appropriate, investigate them.” This committee is continuing to examine the charges against MEALAC.

Some Columbia students are concerned that the right soundly out-organized left-wing campus groups. “We don’t have the funders and we don’t have the support of the tabloid media in New York,” Dols said in response to a reporter’s question at a Dec. 7 press conference. “But the meetings of the Coalition to Defend Academic Freedom have been large, and in terms of spirit and in terms of interest we feel we’re ahead of the other side.”

But frustration over a lack of a response among supporters of the besieged professors boiled over at the press conference. “Nothing’s happening here at all,” complained a visibly agitated student in the audience. “Are we just going to sit around and wait until they attack another professor on bogus charges, or until they fire this one? What’s going on in this country these days?”