[Marxism] Columbia Mideast studies developments

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 28 08:06:52 MST 2005


Professors Contest Charges Of Anti-Semitism
Some Call Bollinger's Response to MEALAC Dispute Inadequate

by James Romoser
Columbia Spectator Senior Staff Writer

March 28, 2005

Disturbed by the outgrowths of the controversy over Middle East studies at 
Columbia, faculty members across the university are speaking out against 
what they see as baseless attacks from outsiders intending to harm 
Columbia’s reputation.

They are responding not to the specific allegations made against certain 
professors in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, 
but to the broader characterizations of Columbia as an intolerant, even 
anti-Semitic university that have arisen out of those allegations.

Some professors are also criticizing University President Lee Bollinger for 
not defending Columbia forcefully enough or early enough in the 
controversy, thereby letting outside organizations like The David Project 
and newspapers like The New York Sun frame the debate.

In their comments, made both publicly and in interviews with Spectator, the 
professors have repeatedly invoked the ideals and terminology of academic 
freedom, saying universities like Columbia must retain absolute authority 
over what they teach and how they teach it. Outside groups, they say, are 
violating professorial autonomy by attacking Columbia based on the 
controversial views of certain MEALAC professors, like Joseph Massad and 
Hamid Dabashi, who have been critical of Israel.

“There is a broad sentiment among the faculty that Columbia has been very 
unfairly under attack from public organizations and newspapers,” said Eric 
Foner, the Dewitt Clinton professor of history.

“Charges that there is a climate of anti-Semitism at Columbia, that it is 
impossible to express pro-Israeli views at Columbia, these wild charges 
that this is a place where Jewish students are intimidated all the time—I 
just feel that these charges are utterly inaccurate and they need to be 
refuted directly,” Foner added.

Such charges have come from a variety of sources over the last few months 
in the aftermath of the release of Columbia Unbecoming, a documentary 
produced by The David Project in which several students and recent alumni 
say they were intimidated by some MEALAC professors, including Massad and 
Dabashi.

Last October, a New York Daily News editorial entitled “Depths of bigotry 
at Columbia” stated, “Columbia University classrooms are infected by a 
culture of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bigotry.”

Last November, an editorial in The New York Sun said, “The fact is that 
Columbia has been infected with a contingent of faculty members whose 
hatred for Israel has eclipsed any academic mission.”

In addition, heavily pro-Israel commentators like Martin Kramer, of Tel 
Aviv University, and Daniel Pipes, of the Middle East Forum and Campus 
Watch, have long been critical of Middle East studies at Columbia and have 
made similarly severe accusations against the university recently.

As a way to respond to these charges, Foner and David Johnston, the Joseph 
Straus professor of political philosophy and the core curriculum, composed 
an open letter on academic freedom and gathered 43 other signatures from 
members of the arts and sciences faculty. The one-and-a-half-page letter, 
which refers to the MEALAC controversy only implicitly, supports the 
unfettered right of professors to explore “unwelcome, unsettling, or 
offensive” ideas.

“Many of the allegations that have been made during this 
campaign—allegations that have attempted to create the impression that an 
atmosphere of intolerance exists at Columbia—are blatantly false,” the 
letter states.

Even Jonathan Cole, Columbia’s former provost, addressed the allegations 
against Columbia in a talk on campus last Tuesday. Comparing the current 
situation to a McCarthy-era witchhunt, Cole said, “The university must 
nurture the creation of novel and sometimes unsettling ideas.”

A number of faculty members have also criticized the way the president has 
handled the attacks. While most professors expressed lukewarm support for 
the Ad Hoc Grievance Committee, the Bollinger-created task force which is 
nearing the end of its investigation of students’ claims of intimidation, 
many of them also said his public comments in response to outside charges 
of anti-Semitism have been inadequate.

“Although there’s been some defense of academic freedom in the 
administration’s statements certainly, it’s been a pretty mixed defense,” 
Johnston said.

Christia Mercer, a professor of philosophy who signed the letter, called 
Columbia Unbecoming a “piece of right-wing propaganda,” and said, “It would 
have behooved the administration to say very early on that the claims The 
David Project made about Columbia were just utterly absurd. If we at 
Columbia let the right-wingers attack us and get away with it, that will 
set a very bad precedent.”

A university spokeswoman, Susan Brown, did not respond to requests for 
comment on the professors’ criticisms of Bollinger, but she did issue a 
statement on the faculty letter. The statement read in part, “The letter 
signed by [45] members of the faculty addresses the fundamental importance 
of freedom of thought and speech to the mission, character and 
contributions of research universities. The values expressed by the faculty 
members are shared by the administration.”

In a speech before the New York City bar association last Wednesday, 
Bollinger made some of his most forceful remarks to date in regard to 
Columbia’s critics. “It is simply preposterous to characterize Columbia as 
anti-Semitic or as having a hostile climate for Jewish students and 
faculty,” he said, according to a transcript of the speech.

But early on in the controversy, Bollinger’s public comments were far more 
measured, often going no further than to stress the general importance of 
academic freedom for both professors and students.

And even in Wednesday’s speech, Bollinger did not go as far in defending 
professorial autonomy as some faculty members have called for. Autonomy, 
Bollinger said, is not absolute—and there can be limits on the content of 
what is taught.

“We should not say that academic freedom means that there is no review 
within the university, no accountability, for the ‘content’ of our classes 
or our scholarship. There is review, it does have consequences, and it does 
consider content,” he said.

Andrew Nathan, the Class of 1919 professor of political science, was 
sharply critical of that portion of Bollinger’s speech.

“This was a talk in which he still entertained the possibility that what he 
calls unacceptable ideas are being taught in the classroom,” Nathan said.

Nathan also said he wishes Bollinger had been more supportive of the 
faculty from the beginning.

“I think the administration should say strongly that our existing 
mechanisms of faculty self-governance and the quality of teaching and 
scholarship on the campus is high, and that they don’t believe that 
unacceptable ideas have been promulgated in the classroom,” Nathan said.

History professor Richard Bulliet, a Middle East specialist who has not 
been named in the controversy, said he wishes the administration had acted 
more quickly to quell the controversy, but he generally defended 
Bollinger’s actions.

“If you have very specific charges that are made, I think it probably is 
wise not to make absolute blanket statements absolving professors of all 
misbehavior until you have made some sort of determination as to whether 
there’s a factual base that would call for some action,” he said.

Bulliet’s name was not on the letter circulated by Foner and Johnston, and 
he said he was unaware of it.

===

CU to Create $5 mil Chair Of Israel Studies
Trustees Contribute $3 million; Committee Hopes to Hire Ivy's First Chair 
of Israel Studies by Fall 2006

By Owen Hearey
Columbia Spectator Staff Writer

March 28, 2005

In the midst of a controversy centered on allegations of pro-Palestinian 
teaching in Columbia’s MEALAC department, the administration has pushed 
forward with its plans to hire the Ivy League’s first permanent chair of 
Israel Studies.

Although the new position was publicly announced by University Trustee Mark 
Kingdon, CC ’71, at the March 3rd John Jay Awards Dinner, a search 
committee met for the first time last Friday to begin drawing up plans to 
fill the position. According to the search committee chair, professor 
Michael Stanislawski, the committee hopes to have the new professor on 
campus by Fall 2006.

Stanislawski, also the assistant director of Columbia’s Center for Israel 
and Jewish Studies, did not waste any time in making the new chair’s role 
perfectly clear.

“This chair is not a political appointment; it’s an academic appointment,” 
he said in an interview Saturday.

While the announcement comes at a time of mounting national exposure for 
Columbia’s MEALAC department, Stanislawski was adamant that the timing was 
completely coincidental. The idea for the Israel Studies chair, he said, 
predated the recent controversy.

“It would be naïve to think that there’s a ‘Chinese wall’ between the two, 
but there’s no causal relationship between this year’s controversy and this 
chair,” he said.

So far, the donors, all University trustees, have pledged more than $3 
million to the chair’s creation, which the school has billed as a $5 
million undertaking. Although Stanislawski refused to speculate what 
motivated the chair’s benefactors to make donations, he mentioned that it 
was not a “tough sell.” Stanislawski said that he had been talking to 
donors for well over a year, and that the announcement simply came at a 
time when the search committee had been formed.

In the past, most notably with Rashid Khalidi’s Edward Said Chair of Middle 
East studies, the donors’ identities have sometimes become a contentious 
issue. Reacting to pressure from outside groups, the University identified 
the Said Chair’s then-anonymous donors in March 2003; the donors included 
the United Arab Emirates as well as other individual and corporate 
contributors.

Stanislawski did not foresee similar wrangling over this new position’s 
benefactors.

“There’s no secret source of funding here. These are trustees of Columbia 
that have been extremely generous,” he said.

He added that, at a time yet to be decided by the University Development 
office, the donors’ names would “absolutely” be released.

Although he refused to comment on the MEALAC controversy and has refrained 
from viewing Columbia Unbecoming, the documentary that first alleged 
professorial misconduct in the department, he called the idea that Columbia 
was unfriendly to Jews or anti-Semitic “calumny.”

“I think Columbia University is the best institution in Jewish studies in 
the country, and this [appointment] is only going to make us prouder,” he 
said. “It’s just a natural fit.”

Stanislawski rejected the belief that there could be only two sides to an 
issue, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also expressed his 
disapproval for increasing the faculty’s diversity of opinion by hiring 
additional professors to counter existing ones.

“We abhor the notion that some people have of ‘balancing opinions,’” he 
said, speaking on behalf of the search committee.

Instead, Stanislawski is focused on hiring someone who would approach the 
subject matter from an academic point of view. Although he said that the 
professor would be free to voice his or her opinions freely, he expressed 
his hope that the focus of the chair’s role would be “an interdisciplinary, 
scholarly focus on Israel.”

Stanislawski went on to describe the search process as “totally open.”

“There’s no preferred candidate, there’s nobody that we’ve isolated yet,” 
he said. “We’re still considering all possible fields.”

The search committee is composed entirely of Columbia faculty, and a good 
number are from the Center for Israel and Jewish Studies. Stanislawski said 
that although the committee is looking for anyone in the humanities or 
social sciences with an excellent understanding of Israeli society, 
culture, and politics, it’s unlikely that the professor will be a historian 
or a Hebrew literature scholar, since existing professors already cover 
both fields at Columbia.

But Stanislawski was completely unsure where the new professor would come from.

“It could be an American, Israeli, Australian, Austrian, Swede, a 
Palestinian. ... It’s going to be a real international search for the best 
person we can find,” he said.

While the chair could conceivably come from anywhere in the world, the 
academic focal point for Israel studies remains within the country itself. 
Stanislawski plans to make a trip there in May to help scout potential 
candidates.

According to the current timetable, which, along with most other decisions, 
must be approved by Vice President of University Development Susan Feagin, 
the search committee will set a December 15 deadline for applications to 
the position. Next spring, the committee will vet a short list of 
candidates on campus, and then it will make a decision in anticipation of a 
Fall 2006 start date. While the actual selection process might deviate 
somewhat from this tentative schedule, Stanislawski was optimistic that the 
committee would stay on target.

The committee expects the appointee to teach four classes each year, 
including both undergraduate and graduate level courses. Although the 
chair’s overwhelming scholarly focus will be issues related to modern 
Israel, the professor will be housed in an existing academic department 
befitting his or her discipline and will be free to teach whatever he or 
she wants.

The position will be named after current Columbia Professor Yosef Hayim 
Yerushalmi upon his retirement. The University’s Salo Wittmayer Baron 
Professor of Jewish History and director of the Center for Israel and 
Jewish Studies, Yerushalmi received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1966 and has 
been at the University since 1980.

In addition to the permanent chair, the school is creating a visiting 
professorship designed to bring Israeli scholars from an even wider variety 
of disciplines to Columbia. The director and assistant director of the 
Center for Israel and Jewish Studies, currently Yerushalmi and 
Stanislawski, along with an advisory committee to be established later, 
will select the visiting professors. Stanislawski said that he hopes to 
secure one for the next academic year, although he said a Spring 2006 
arrival seems more realistic. The new professorships are designed to create 
a more structured program for Israeli visitors and to help better acquaint 
the University community with respected Israeli scholars.

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