Volume 74, Number 29 | November 24 - 30, 2004

Talking Point

Anti-Semitism or free expression of ideas at Columbia?

By Ed Gold

My friend called from New Hampshire, very upset. “I heard about the anti-Semitism at Columbia,” he said, “and I’ve just stopped my contributions to the school.”

He and I both went to Columbia but he had a much more lucrative career and for 25 years he has been making respectable contributions to the school.

“Hold your horses,” I urged. “I saw the Columbia story too, but it may not be that bad. You know it’s possible to be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic. Before you cut the school off, let me check it out and get back to you.”

He agreed.

The issue arose, according to the Jewish Week, a New York publication, following the production of a documentary called “Columbia Unbecoming” by the David organization in Boston, which strongly supports Israel. The film alleges strong anti-Israel bias in courses offered by the Middle Eastern and Asian languages and cultures department. It contends that several professors have intimidated and verbally abused Jewish students who differ with them.

The outcry that followed the printing of the story in the city press prompted Representative Anthony Weiner, a Brooklyn Democrat who has mayoral ambitions, to call for the expulsion of one professor, Joseph Massad.

The brouhaha has led to an immediate reaction from the Columbia University hierarachy. Its president, Lee Bollinger, has messaged alumni and trustees that he has been consulting with a wide range of audiences on and off campus on the essential issues: freedom of expression and civil discourse, the integrity of academic programs and the campus’s intellectual climate.

He appears to have met with an extraordinary number of Jewish leaders in the city, including Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League; Mort Zuckerman, publisher of the Daily News; Bob Morgenthau, Manhattan district attorney; and Seth Lipsky, editor of the New York Sun, which first reported on the film that set off the public controversy.

Professor Massad, whom Representative Weiner wants removed, admits freely that he believes Israel is a racist state. But he told the Jewish Week that he has never intimidated any students, that there is free exchange in the classroom, and that he was “dedicated to all his students,” Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

He has been receiving some very nasty hate mail since the story first appeared. One student interviewed for the documentary claims that Massad in an off-campus lecture several years ago asked if he had served in the Israeli army and, if so, how many Palestinians had he killed. But an Israeli who attend Massad’s classes says he never felt intimidated, adding that the lectures were passionate and emotional.

Massad, who I’m sure has a skewed view of the Middle East conflict, argues that “a free exchange” is what “teaching and learning are all about.”

Amen to that. That jibes with my own experience at Columbia. In one government class we had a New Deal instructor who argued all term with a Bob Taft supporter but, at term’s end, gave him an A.

I recall my year in Humanities with the famous teacher, Lionel Trilling. He often invoked sarcasm, even ridicule, when he thought student arguments were weak in substance or simply doctrinaire. I recall him once skewering a student who maintained his devotion to the divinity. Just another day with Trilling.

Bollinger has asked the historian and university provost, Alan Brinkley, to sort out the matter and report back. His goal, Brinkley says, is to protect “the rights of members of our community to engage in free and open discourse in an environment of tolerance and mutual respect.”

On the evidence so far, and in light of Columbia tradition, I suggest that Representative Weiner find himself another issue.

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