Though a controversial documentary made by Columbia University students alleges that professors at the university discriminated against pro-Israel students, professors and students studying in Yale’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department said they have not seen bias in classrooms here.
The documentary, entitled “Columbia Unbecoming” and produced by a group of students with the backing of the Boston-based Israel advocacy group The David Project, was first shown publicly at Columbia in November. In the 25-minute film, some students say they were demeaned and harassed by professors in Columbia’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department for expressing views in support of Israel.
Professor Joseph Massad, who is one of the professors mentioned in the documentary, countered the film’s charges in a statement posted on his Web site. In the statement he said that not only had no official complaint against him been filed with the Columbia administration, but he had maintained a friendly rapport with all of his students, including one who was featured in the documentary.
“Many of my Jewish and non-Jewish students (including my Arab students) differ with me in all sorts of ways,” Massad wrote. “This is exactly what teaching and learning are about, how to articulate differences and understand other perspectives while acquiring knowledge.”
While the controversy continues at Columbia, Yale’s NELC students said harassment in the classroom is not an issue here in New Haven.
“I haven’t heard any serious complaints or any type of intimidation,” Yale Friends of Israel President Richard Leiter ’06 said.
Other students agreed that Yale professors steer clear of judging students based on their political beliefs.
“There are certain professors here who have different political leanings, but whether or not their political leanings are reflected in their behavior towards different students is never something I’ve noticed here at Yale,” Mark Aziz ’05, the public relations chair for the Arab Students’ Association, said.
Columbia sophomore Bari Weiss, who is involved in the group Columbians for Academic Freedom, which has supported the makers of the documentary, said the university’s history of activism makes it a likely campus to be at the center of the debate over a professor’s right to free speech in his or her classroom.
“[Columbia's] history of political activism really influences a lot of what goes on,” Weiss said. “The average Columbia student really has this activist instinct in them. Everyone’s just really politically minded [and that] makes it a much more public thing.”
But Zvika Krieger ’06, a NELC major and senior editor of the Yale Israel Journal, said Yale’s NELC Department is generally apolitical, as it focuses predominantly on the ancient Near East. Krieger said that, ironically, because he is not always forced to be on the defensive, he feels safer questioning Israel’s policy in an environment “conducive to honest intellectual criticism.”
Professor Benjamin Foster, a specialist in Assyriology who teaches “Introduction to the Middle East,” said before he lectures about the Israel-Palestine question he explains how the narrative he presents may not correspond to the narrative a student might presently believe.
“I just basically try to construct a fact-dense narrative,” Foster said. “I’m not into questions of who’s right and who’s wrong.”
Foster said most students in his class, which this year drew over 50 students, found his lectures “quite even-handed.”
Nevertheless, one student in Yale’s NELC Department saw worrying trends within the department.
“There definitely are a few professors that are overwhelmingly critical of Israel without giving equal consideration to criticism for the Palestinian side,” said one NELC major who wished to remain anonymous. “While their teaching has not been per se overtly anti-Israel, the environment fostered — has been such that the professors clearly have an agenda.”
The major added that if the department is made to be like Columbia’s more modern department, which some students are advocating for, the department would be opened up to more bias.
In response to the film, Columbia President Lee Bollinger has established a panel of faculty members to hear the testimonies of students and professors and attempt to sort through the sometimes conflicting accounts, Weiss said.