Malpractice at Columbia

From Martin Kramer, “Arabic Panic,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2002, pp. 88-95. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

“I’ve never used my classes to talk about political activism of the kind that I’ve done. I’ve stuck pretty carefully to the notion that the classroom is sacrosanct to a certain degree.” The words belong to Edward Said, who taught for some forty years at Columbia.18 From what I have heard, his claim may even be true (to a certain degree). Sadly, the crude imitators of Said have failed to emulate him on precisely this point – and precisely at Columbia.

Joseph Massad is an assistant professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) at Columbia, where he also completed his doctorate. He holds views that are common enough among Palestinians: Zionism is racism, its offspring Israel is “a colonial settler racist state,” it has manipulated the Holocaust for its own ends, Palestinian refugees have an unfettered right of return, etc. On February 6, Massad gave a talk entitled “On Zionism and Jewish Supremacy,”19 sponsored by Columbia’s Middle East Institute, and it polarized student opinion. A MEALAC undergraduate wrote an op-ed in the campus newspaper, complaining that the title and content were “anti-Jewish.”20 An article by an international affairs graduate student called it “not the least bit academic,” and an exercise in “tacit incitement.”21 In April, Massad appeared at a pro-Palestinian sit-in on campus, where he decried Israel as “a Jewish supremacist and racist state,” and added: “Every racist state should be threatened.”22

Massad’s views are not all that unusual in Middle Eastern studies, and he has every right to express them on Columbia’s Low Plaza, in public lectures, and in print. But should someone who is busy propagandizing against the existence of Israel be employed by Columbia to teach the introductory course on the Arab-Israeli conflict?

This past spring, MEALAC offered a course entitled “Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Society.” The course description promised that its instructor would “provide a historical overview of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict to familiarize undergraduates with the background of the current situation.” This is neutral language and suggested that students could look forward to a disinterested introduction to a controversial subject. Wrong: the instructor was none other than Joseph Massad. Suffice it to say that this column has received a surfeit of student complaints about the course, suggesting that there is no difference between what Massad teaches and what he preaches.23

This violates no university regulation. The assignment of the course to Massad was just bad judgment by the departmental chair. If MEALAC had a chair with a sense of propriety – or plain common sense – someone like Massad would have been steered away from teaching his commitments.

The problem is that the chair, Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies, is as militant as Massad. After September 11, he expressed doubt about bin Ladin’s responsibility for the attack and announced that CNN should be held accountable for “war crimes.”24 In an op-ed in the campus newspaper, Dabashi denounced Zionism as “a ghastly racist ideology,” condemned “the Israeli slaughter of innocent Palestinians in Jenin,” and declared that he and his colleagues (including, presumably, Massad), had “received repeated and unequivocal assurances from our recognized administrators that we have done absolutely nothing wrong in defending the rights of voiceless victims of the massacres in Palestine.”25 He also cancelled his classes to attend the pro-Palestinian sit-in. (One irate student, in an Internet posting, pointed out that Columbia students do pay $90 per class session.) In short, the message conveyed from the very top of the department is that it’s virtuous to teach your opinion from a lectern in one hour, and to shout it from a soapbox in the next.

Perhaps Edward Said and I are old-fashioned. I happen to agree with him that the classroom is sacrosanct, and that professors shouldn’t teach the subjects of their political activism. The only way to avoid cross-contamination is to maintain some space between your personae, public and academic. Unfortunately for Columbia’s students, this tradition has died a thousand deaths on their campus, and in MEALAC they face a faculty body with no more pressing mission than their systematic indoctrination. These days, students often ask me where they should study the modern Middle East. I am also an alumnus of Columbia. I wish I could recommend it. Sorry, I can’t.

18 Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said (New York: Pantheon, 2001), pp. 280-81.
19 This was a verbatim presentation of his article by the same title, published in New Politics, Winter 2002.
20 Daphne Berman, “Masks of Tolerance,” Columbia Daily Spectator, Feb. 26, 2002.
21 Yaron Schwartz, “Exploding the Myth of Israeli Racism,” The SIPA Communiqué, Mar. 6, 2002.
22 Quoted by Xan Nowakowski, “Students Organize Sit-In to Support Palestinians,” Columbia Daily Spectator, Apr. 18, 2002.
23 The Columbia Conservative Alumni Association also lists Massad among the six “worst faculty,” for things he is alleged to have said in class. At
24 Quoted by Nat Jacks, “MEALAC Professors Criticize U.S. Policies,” Columbia Daily Spectator, Sept. 28, 2001.
25 Hamid Dabashi, “The Hallowed Ground of Our Secular Institution,” Columbia Daily Spectator, May 3, 2002. The article is an intemperate assault on Columbia’s Hillel rabbi.