BY SOL STERN and FRED SIEGEL - Special to the Sun
February 4, 2005
You might think that Columbia University would be on its best academic behavior on the issue of the Middle East conflict these days. After all, several professors in the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, known as MEALAC, are credibly accused of anti-Semitism and intimidating pro-Israel students. The university's president, Lee Bollinger, has appointed a committee to look into the charges. But even with the media spotlight on, Columbia apparently can't help itself.
Last Monday night we attended a university panel on the Middle East conflict titled "One State or Two? Alternative Proposals for Middle East Peace." Even the panel's title was a giveaway that we were in for more anti-Israel bias on campus. The "one state" solution is a euphemism for the destruction of the Jewish state - a trope of the most extreme rejectionist elements within the Palestinian movement and their allies in Syria and Iran. Terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah want to create an Islamic Republic in place of Israel. A few splinter Marxist groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, founded by George Habash, offer the Jews a solution that's far more "progressive." They murder innocents merely to replace Israel with a "secular democratic" Palestine.
The scene at Columbia, with Spartacists handing out literature outside the packed auditorium and proponents of Palestinian military victory in the vast majority, was wildly at odds with the hopeful development on the ground, where Messrs. Sharon and Abbas are now scheduled to meet. One of the panelists was Mark Cohen, a Princeton historian of medieval Islam. He gave a measured scholarly presentation on the subject of Arab Muslim anti-Semitism, insisting that attacks on Jews in the Koran had little to do with hostility to Jews. It's a debatable proposition. But professor Cohen never even engaged the issue at hand. He largely served as a prop for the ranting to follow.
Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia professor whose recent book argues that Yasser Arafat was right to reject the best peace deal he had ever been offered, opening the way to four years of bloodshed, presented a tendentious argument for a one-state solution that strained to stay within the bounds of reasoned discourse.
Then Joseph Massad took the floor, and the floodgates of hatred opened wide. Mr. Massad is one of the MEALAC professors accused of demanding of one Israeli student, "How many Palestinians did you kill today?" At the forum, he used the phrase "racist Israeli state" more than two dozen times. He used seemingly universalist language of anti-racism to drive a fascist argument. Mr. Massad is so extreme that he argued that Arafat was in effect an Israeli collaborator for even talking about compromise.
Whatever can be said of this rant, its "academic" content was hard to discern. But to judge by the applause he received, Mr. Massad was the star of the evening. Obviously, Mr. Massad, an acolyte of the dear departed George Habash, isn't worried about President Bollinger's panel, which includes three professors who have signed petitions demanding that all universities divest from Israel.
The final act of hatred came from the Israeli quisling "historian" Ilan Pappe, who has stated openly that his so-called scholarly work is an attempt to create a counter narrative to official Zionist historiography and to undermine the international legitimacy of the state of Israel. He bizarrely insisted that the destruction of Israel would pave the way for enhanced rights for women, and the feminist students in the audience cheered.
Instead of providing an alternative to hatred and extremism from both sides, this panel was a hate-fest masquerading as academic discourse. And this was no aberration attributable only to one misguided student group. In addition to Qanun, a Columbia Law School student group, the panel was cosponsored by the university chaplain, the Student Senate, and two of Columbia's most prestigious academic affiliates: the Middle East Institute, headed by professor Khalidi, and the School of International and Public Affairs. SIPA's dean, Lisa Anderson, was appointed by Mr. Bollinger to the committee looking into the charges against professor Massad - whose dissertation adviser she was.
Coming away from Monday night's hate panel and then looking at this tangled web of conflicts of interest within the university, we realized that the issue of misconduct in the classroom by one or two professors, important though it is, is dwarfed by a more fundamental question: How did a great institution of higher learning allow itself to be transformed into a platform for vicious political propaganda and hate speech directed against one country, Israel?
Surely one crucial moment in this transformation was Columbia's decision to raise $4 million - including a contribution from the United Arab Emirates - to create the Edward Said endowed chair in Arab studies, and then to give the prize to professor Khalidi. We don't doubt that Mr. Khalidi has academic credentials. Compared to professors Massad and Pappe, he is a model of decorum and moderation. But when Columbia academic officials made this choice they knew they were getting a Palestinian political activist. From 1976 to 1982, Mr. Khalidi was a director in Beirut of the official Palestinian press agency, WAFA. Later he served on the PLO "guidance committee" at the Madrid peace conference.
In bringing professor Khalidi to Morningside Heights from the University of Chicago, Columbia also got itself a twofer of Palestinian activism and advocacy. Mr. Khalidi's wife, Mona, who also served in Beirut as chief editor of the English section of the WAFA press agency, was hired as dean of foreign students at Columbia's SIPA, working under Dean Anderson. In Chicago, the Khalidis founded the Arab American Action Network, and Mona Khalidi served as its president. A big farewell dinner was held in their honor by AAAN with a commemorative book filled with testimonials from their friends and political allies. These included the left wing anti-war group Not In My Name, the Electronic Intifada, and the ex-Weatherman domestic terrorists Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. (There were also testimonials from then-state Senator Barack Obama and the mayor of Chicago.)
The message sent by Columbia University officials by this choice was that they were determined to honor the memory of Edward Said by continuing to have radical Palestinian activism on campus. That's what they now have in spades. The question is whether it's now possible within the university's public space to even make an argument for the only democratic country in the Middle East.