Volume 74, Number 50 | April 20 - 26 , 2005

Talking Point

Good marks for committee on Middle East mishegoss

By Ed Gold

Last fall my friend in New Hampshire threatened to stop sending contributions to Columbia after reading newspaper reports of rampant anti-Semitism on campus. I told him to cool it until we could examine the report of a special university grievance committee that was investigating the accusations.

The committee of five professors, with civil liberties attorney Floyd Abrams as consultant, recently issued a report that lets no one — not the accused professors, the university administrators or the passionate accusers — off the hook.

But on the charges of anti-Semitism in Middle East Studies and contentions that students who supported Israel were being penalized, the committee found no substantiation.

There have been, however, grievances raised about the composition of the Grievance Committee, in The New York Times no less, and the issue should be aired, since it has led some critics to insist that the committee’s report was a “whitewash.”

The fact is that two members of the committee agreed earlier that the university should divest from Israel, and a third went ridiculously further by comparing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank with German occupation of Eastern Europe.

Susan Brown, who speaks for the university, insists that personal political views, in this instance, are “irrelevant” in light of the committee’s mandate to focus on evidence of anti-Semitism and on classroom treatment of students.

Another Columbia administrator told me that the Grievance Committee members had not been vetted properly, thus permitting critics on and off the campus to disparage their report. “To that extent,” my source says, “the effort was screwed up even though the report was a good one.”

The committee took as its mantra “the right of all members of the Columbia community to hold and espouse a range of opinions, including those that make others uncomfortable.”

The committee heard testimony from 62 individuals representing all interested parties, and received 60 written submissions. It deliberated over a nine-week period.

It concluded that there was “no evidence of any statements made by faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic” and “no evidence that students were penalized for their views by receiving lower marks.”

Regarding the professors in Middle East Studies who were being attacked, the committee found three incidents that deserved criticism, despite the denials of those being charged.

Professor Joseph Massad, who has drawn the most fire from organized opposition on and off campus, was rebuked on two counts.

One occurred in the classroom when a student asked whether Israelis would ever warn Palestinians before a military action on the West Bank so that civilians could leave the area. Massad allegedly got upset at the suggestion that Israeli “occupiers” might be humane and ordered the student to leave the classroom. As it turned out, she didn’t. But she was upset enough to bring the issue to the Grievance Committee, which believed her story.

Massad was also criticized for actions at a forum when he asked an Israeli who had served in the military: “How many Palestinians have you killed?”

The third charge was against Professor George Saliba, who teaches “Introduction to Islamic Civilization.” The event has a surreal quality. The committee believed that Saliba had told a student: “You have green eyes. You are not a Semite. I have brown eyes. I am a Semite. You have no claim on the Land of Israel.”

He has insisted he was misquoted and told the Columbia Spectator that the charges were “blatantly false.”

Columbia President Lee Bollinger, in a reaction to the Grievance Committee report, suggested that professors in Middle East Studies “resist the lure of certitude.”

Bollinger, by the way, was not immune from criticism in the report. It held the university and its leadership partially responsible for creating the current problem by failing to have easily accessible outlets for student concerns that had built up and festered over a four-year period. Bollinger was quick to accept that judgment.

Finally, the Grievance Committee took exception to some of the practices engaged in by organized campus operations — including students and teachers with off-campus help — that opposed the Middle East Studies program.

The report charges that some students in the Middle East program had been recruited to spy on their professors. Also, the committee found that provocateurs, who were not students in Middle East Studies, had been dispatched to classes to disrupt them by haranguing the professors and preventing them from teaching.

“Students,” the report says, “were entitled to an atmosphere conducive to learning and an evenhanded treatment in all aspects of the student-teacher relationship.”

The almost hysterical reaction to the Middle East Studies program in some quarters has been clearly generated by the outspoken anti-Israeli views of Massad and his colleagues. He has called Israel a “racist state,” and he and some of his colleagues support the one-state concept, with Israel absorbed into it. Massad is a disciple of late Columbia Professor Edward Said, who had long advocated such a solution. The view that Israel should disappear can really galvanize pro-Israel supporters.

It’s this anti-Israeli philosophy that led last year to the David Project, a provocative documentary that attacked the Middle East program, and which included some of the student testimony that the Grievance Committee examined, and on several counts, supported.

The one-state solution is never going to happen. The opportunity for peace in the Middle East rests on a two-state solution with a democratic and secure Israel alongside a democratic and viable Palestine.

To achieve this end, both sides will have to make important compromises. Israel would have to curb its West Bank settlements to allow for a contiguous Palestine, and in my view — unpopular with many other Zionists — Israel should permit the Palestinian capital to be located in the Arab section of Jerusalem.

One group supportive of the David Project, which kicked off the attacks at Columbia, is the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the very effective Israeli lobby in Washington. A top AIPAC official was in Greenwich Village a few years ago, and I asked him repeatedly about the settlements and he insisted: “We don’t take stands on issues.” Finally, he got upset and told me: “You’re a typical West Villager.”

For their part, the Palestinians would have to eliminate private armies like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and give up the demand for “right of return” to the sovereign state of Israel of millions of Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East who have not been absorbed by their Arab brothers.

Newspaper comment on the Columbia situation, mostly critical, has been raging for months, from the Village Voice on the left to the Wall Street Journal on the right.

At one point, the New York Sun got so overwrought it suggested that “eventually the federal authorities will have to get involved at Columbia.”

But a change of pace occurred after issuance of the Grievance Committee report, at least at the Sun, where a reporter wrote that “a faculty rebellion is brewing at Columbia” on the grounds that “Bollinger wasn’t doing enough to defend faculty members” in Middle East Studies.

Bollinger and Columbia have been getting it from both sides. The Daily News had run stories about the “climate of hate at Columbia,” and in a recent critical article goes back 80 years to condemn the university for “keeping qualified Jewish students out,” as if quotas were unique to the Manhattan university.

The Grievance Committee offered a balanced view on the central figure in the controversy, Professor Massad: “A significant number of students found Massad to have been an excellent and inspiring teacher, but with a tendentious and highly charged vocabulary.”

The committee added that the professor sometimes offered intemperate responses to dissenting views but let everyone participate in discussion.

But Massad had unkind words about the report, telling the Columbia Spectator that the Grievance Committee had “bowed to outside pressure as well as the pressure coming from inside the Columbia administration.”

Only in the Washington Square News was the issue dealt with calmly. The W.S.N.’s check of students in Middle East Studies at New York University indicated professors were “respectful of all ideas.” One professor was praised for “addressing both sides equally.” He happened to be Israeli.

So my message to my friend in New Hampshire is to focus on the report findings. Since he is wise and fair-minded, I believe he will continue to support our alma mater. As I will.

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