Telling it like it is


Freedom of expression is an essential part of University life, but it does not include intimidation. Columbia University’s Statement on Academic Honesty

[Professor Joseph Massad] was teaching the class about the Jenin incidents [during the Palestinian resistance] and a girl raised her hand and tried to bring up an alternative point of view and before she could get her point across, he quickly . . . shouted at her, ‘I will not have anyone sit through this class and deny Israeli atrocities.’ Which pretty much limited the students’ ability to even question him, or bring up an alternative point of view. Columbia University student Noah Liben, in the David Project film Columbia Unbecoming

Harassing students because they express pro-Israel views or are identifiably Israeli should be treated no differently than harassment of students because they’re black or because they’re gay. Columbia student Danielle Kahane, Columbia Unbecoming

Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, facing the first major challenge of his two years in that position, is not likely—for the rest of his tenure and beyond—to forget the David Project. That organization’s 25-minute film Columbia Unbecoming has been primarily responsible for the subsequent local, national, and international coverage of charges that some professors in the university’s Middle East studies department abuse their academic freedom by intimidating students who don’t agree with them.

Hardly any attention has been paid, however, to Charles Jacobs, the founder of the David Project. I first heard of him years ago when I saw in Harlem’s Amsterdam News that Jacobs had given a speech at Columbia University exposing, before it was in the papers, the enslavement, killing, and gang rapes of black Africans in the south of Sudan. (He was wearing a bulletproof vest because of death threats from people who claimed to belong to the Nation of Islam.)

I called Jacobs in Boston, learned that he had founded the American Anti-Slavery Group, and began a long series of columns, here and elsewhere, about those atrocities.

Because of Jacobs and, among others, black pastors throughout this country, black leaders such as Congressman Donald Payne of New Jersey and talk show host Joe Madison, white evangelicals, and schoolchildren in Denver and other cities, much money was raised to redeem thousands of slaves through Christian Solidarity International.

In addition to his work at the David Project, Jacobs is involved in protesting the genocide in Darfur, and is writing a Sudan Reader—an annotated collection of readings and documents about the brutal record of the National Islamic Front government of that country and the failure of the world, particularly the United Nations, to stop the current horrors in Darfur.

Interestingly, Professor Dan Miron, a scholar of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature at Columbia’s Middle East studies department, commenting on the charges of anti-Israel bias among some of his colleagues, told The New York Sun:

“Israelis are put to a test that is not applied to anyone else. You will not hear any murmur about the people of Sudan but . . . Israel is singled out in a way that is racist.”

The fiery focus on Israel in that department was tellingly noted in an article in the student newspaper The Columbia Spectator by Charles Jacobs and Avi Goldwasser, the executive producer of the Columbia Unbecoming film. They called for “an intellectually diverse [Middle East studies] department that deals with the major challenges in the Middle East, including the oppression of women, gays, and minorities, and the challenges of democracy, human rights, civil society, and modernity.”

Moreover, Ariel Beery, a student in the Middle East studies department, said to The New York Sun‘s Jacob Gershman about the selectively indignant anti-Israel professors there:

“They teach everything in the context of one special, small struggle, where there are 23 countries out there where minorities are being oppressed, where women are bound to their homes, where homosexuals are put in jail. They’re ignoring the rest of the Middle East in favor of a small dimension of it.”

Yet the beleaguered Columbia president, Lee Bollinger, in a December 8 letter to the Columbia community about yet another faculty investigation he’s set up, declared the committee “will not review departments [as a whole] or curricula.” Why not an outside independent committee so that colleagues will not be reviewing colleagues?

In the same pledge, Bollinger declares “the committee will not investigate anyone’s political or scholarly beliefs.” That’s understandable in the name of the professors’ academic freedom, but Bollinger has set himself a dilemma.

How can he assure present and future students in his Middle East studies department that they will actually learn the full dimensions of those studies if the present curricula remain? The curricula reflect the views and interpretations of the professors, and the evident biases of some of them.

Bollinger tries to swerve around this dilemma by establishing a permanent committee to hear and investigate student complaints, including faculty bias.

Put on that kind of notice, biased professors can get themselves to be more amiable to dissident students and even try to answer their questions without making them feel like dolts. The fevered prejudicial politics of these professors, however, would not change, even if their curricula were to include one of Professor Dan Miron’s books (no doubt to be derided by those professors). As a result, students interested in Middle East studies would still be deprived of Columbia University’s guarantee of meaningful free inquiry.

The answer to this dilemma is for Lee Bollinger to provide an actually diversified Middle East studies department. It’s not about bringing in pro-Israel professors, but scholars who teach—not inculcate. The nature of this department will be watched closely for a long time, and unless President Bollinger can make it worthy of Columbia’s tradition of free inquiry, his tenure may be foreshortened.