Saving Private Massad

Fiascos at Columbia University follow one another in a dizzying succession. This week’s episode opens tonight at the Law School, where four academics will solemnly consider a burning question. No, it’s not how to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which is the present mission of armies of diplomats and statesmen. It’s this: “Is the two-state solution still the best hope for Palestinians and Israelis, or is time to begin working toward a one-state option?” On Morningside Heights, some people ponder this over their cornflakes.

The correct answer, in case you were wondering, is that the right time isn’t now or ever. The binational “one-state option” is a thin euphemism for the elimination of Israel and its total replacement by Palestine, which would invite “back” several million Palestinians eager to realize their “right of return.” Those few Israelis who have heard of the idea shrug it off as a joke, and no responsible Palestinian faction advocates it, because it defies common sense and popular will on both sides. It’s a bit of secular messianism, which if it were ever made operational would produce a few more generations of blood and fire. It properly belongs on the same shelf of “solutions” as the “transfer” of Palestinians across the Jordan River or the Hamas vision of a Jew-free Islamic state. It’s crackpot.

So the idea would consign millions of people to endless bloodshed. Is that a reason for intellectuals not to champion it? In Edward Said’s declining years, when he took on the aura of a prophet, he veered toward the “one-state solution.” Unfortunately, he never really thought through its implications for the Jews. “The Jews are a minority everywhere,” he told an Israeli interviewer. “They are a minority in America. They can certainly be a minority in Israel.” When the interviewer asked him whether a Jewish minority would be treated fairly, given the region’s past history, Said offered this bit of rigorous thought:

I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.

It worried him? He wondered what would happen? How many Israeli Jews would sign on to that? Said never managed to persuade even his one Israeli soulmate, Daniel Barenboim, that his messianic fantasy was workable.

But academe has never lacked for people willing to follow Edward Said off a cliff, and assorted acolytes have since cogitated, speculated, and elaborated upon his half-baked idea. Palestinian intellectuals living abroad have flocked to it because it makes their impassioned hope for the demolition of Israel look fashionably progressive: The Israeli Jews don’t have to leave, they can live comfortably as a minority among us. (I have the uneasy feeling that they don’t worry as much as Said did about whether that would really work.) A handful of Jewish and Israeli intellectuals have also taken up the idea, because… well, go figure. It gets them written up in the Haaretz Friday supplement, for a weekend of fame.

The mission of this cult is to establish that the “one-state option” wasn’t simply the hallucination of the Morningside messiah, but that it’s a genuine program (unlike, say, “transfer” or an Islamic republic), deserving of inclusion on any panel devoted to “alternative proposals for Middle East peace.” That’s the sub-title of tonight’s Columbia panel, and to judge from its co-sponsors, the cult members have achieved their initial goal. The prime mover behind the panel is Qanun, a group of Arab students at the Law School, but co-sponsors include the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA; Lisa Anderson, dean), the Middle East Institute (Rashid Khalidi, director), and the office of the chaplain. That’s the backing of social science and God right there.

But there’s another goal, more immediate in the Columbia context, and I think it’s this: to save the besieged Joseph Massad, assistant professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, and the prime target of Columbia’s investigation into faculty abuse of students over Israel.

Since coming to Columbia, Massad has modeled himself on Said. But the result has been a crude parody of Said: Massad’s extremism is unmitigated by finesse or nuance. He once denounced Israel as racist twenty-two times in a single mind-numbing op-ed. His forthcoming book, for which he hopes to get tenure, is an attempt to redefine Zionism as “an anti-Semitic project.” He has compared Ariel Sharon to Goebbels. He has written that Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israel are “the most powerful anti-Semitic group worldwide.” (All references here.) The student charges against him are plausible precisely because he reads like a man who has lost all control of his rage.

When Said was around, he could shelter Massad and see to his needs under one roof—a Columbia doctorate, publication by the university press, and a first appointment in a Columbia department. Were Said still around, he would have quashed the present controversy with one sharply-worded essay in the Ahram Weekly, sending everyone at Columbia scurrying back into their burrows. But Said is gone, the students and some faculty have gotten their courage back, and it’s now a level played field. So how is Massad to be saved?

By including him, as the announcement of tonight’s panel does, among a group of “eminent” scholars in an event co-sponsored by reasonable people. By framing the event in a way that seems to locate Israel’s elimination within the field of mainstream debate. By positioning him alongside an Israeli of comparable extremism (Haifa University’s Ilan Pappe, en route to participate in “Israel Apartheid Week” in Toronto). And by putting him up there with Rashid Khalidi, who will say that Massad’s vision could become the only option if Israel doesn’t concede, concede, concede. (The Princeton medievalist Mark Cohen also appears on the panel. He’s window-dressing.)

So SIPA and the Middle East Institute have affixed their names to an exercise in quasi-academic extremism, which legitimizes the case for dismantling Israel and throws a lifeline to the professor who champions it. There’s no surprise in any of this: it’s Columbia. What did surprise me was the news that Columbia wants to raise millions of dollars for a chair and a visiting professorship in Israel studies.

My question to Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger is this: do you mean the two-state-solution Israel, or the one-state-solution Israel/Palestine? And if it’s the latter, or something in between, are you going to use that money to sponsor events like this evening’s timely discussion? Or bring over more Israelis in Maestro Barenboim’s wake, to pay tribute to “my dear Edward” in the Said Memorial Lecture? Or bring Joseph Massad and Ilan Pappe together to co-teach Massad’s course on “Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Society”? (You know, the one with the blunt disclaimer: “The purpose of the course is not to provide a ‘balanced’ coverage of the views of both sides.”) Or develop new trendy courses like the one being offered this semester by another Said acolyte (an Israeli Arab) on “Cultures of Colonialism: Palestine/Israel”?

Sorry to ask all these pesky questions, but like Edward Said, I tend worry a great deal about the Jews.

Morning-after update: Here’s a report on the panel proceedings from the Columbia Spectator. Only one of the four panelists (Cohen) is reported to have supported a two-state solution, and he spoke off-topic. The Spectator: “Khalidi and Massad agreed with Pappe’s assessment that a two-state solution is a ‘utopian vision’.” A two-state solution is utopian! If the report is true, then Khalidi has abandoned his past position in favor of Said’s folly. Otherwise, everyone was perfectly true to form: “The panelists attacked Israeli racism as the root of conflict.” Of course. It’s Columbia.

Further update: Mark Cohen corrects the Spectator: “I in no way and in no words associated myself with that view [‘the reality is defined by Israeli racism’], which was most vociferously presented by Professor Massad.” Glad to learn it.