As the debate surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to touch nerves and ignite passions on college campuses nationwide, safeguarding academic freedom becomes an increasingly important priority.
A few months ago, Richard Brodhead upheld a decision allowing the controversial Palestine Solidarity Movement to hold a conference at Duke University, citing an obligation to First Amendment rights — a move I commend. Up the coast, another relatively new university president faced a similar situation when an independently produced documentary catalyzed widespread criticism of Columbia University’s MEALAC (Middle Eastern Asian Languages and Cultures) Department. The film, which features several students claiming to have been subject to anti-Israel bias and intolerance in the classroom, has seriously damaged the reputation of one academic in particular, professor Joseph Massad.
In his Dec. 3 Op-Ed, (“At Columbia, the Ivory Tower is under siege,”) Kanishk Tharoor criticizes the events at Columbia, but misrepresents the situation as the product of a conniving “pro-Israel cadre” — saboteurs of free speech set out to oust their professor from Columbia’s prestigious academic circles. This, however, is not the case.
First, Tharoor instinctively rules out the possibility of actual wrongdoing. Several of Massad’s former students have come forward with accounts detailing his use of intimidation; others have submitted written statements to confirm these. One student and former Israeli soldier, Tomy Schoenfeld, recalls approaching the professor to ask him a question, only to be answered with another: How many Palestinians have you killed?
It is no secret that Massad is the most virulently “anti-Israel” (of course, these labels are part of the problem) of all the professors in Columbia’s MEALAC department, which is fine. As a historian and citizen, Massad is entitled to hold any view and to share it freely. But while academic freedom must be upheld at all costs, it cannot be used as an impenetrable shield to deflect valid complaints. One party’s right to free speech cannot invalidate another’s.
Second, I am not surprised that what Tharoor finds “most troubling — is the students’ decision to turn to a political lobby.” This decision troubles me as well. Yet he portrays this decision as the hasty tactic of overeager activists, executed without first “pursuing any of the viable processes of complaint within Columbia,” a portrayal that is simply contrary to fact. Students turned to the David Project (a grassroots initiative, not a political lobby) to create a documentary only after attempting to register their complaints through a number of university venues: the professors themselves, deans, department chairs (some of whom were themselves the subjects of students’ grievances), the ombudsman office, the provost and President Lee Bollinger. Noah Liben, one of the Columbia students involved — the very one Tharoor mentions as having “maintained a lively dialogue with Massad via e-mail and office hours” — insists that “we had no initial intention of going to an outside source for help, but when all else failed, the David Project graciously gave us a forum for our voices to be heard.”
It is troubling indeed that these students felt it necessary to seek outside support. At a place like Yale, where each student has a dean, master and faculty advisor to turn to, it is hard to imagine having nowhere to go with a serious grievance, and even harder to conceive of a student fearing academic repercussions for choosing to do so. Columbia has recently recognized the need to adopt a risk-free complaint system, and has already set up an ad hoc committee to review the allegations until a more formal and permanent one can be established.
Yet the problems with Tharoor’s article run deeper than its numerous factual inaccuracies. Throughout the piece, Tharoor persistently casts “pro-Israel” students as rabble-rousing conservatives bent on eliminating any vestige of liberalism from college campuses. Framing the problem as a result of dense, French-hating Joe Neo-Con’s efforts, he goes on to describe the movement at Columbia, citing “members of Congress, moneyed conservative organizations and eager-beaver students” as its main constituents. Here he treads the same path as the professor he defends, who is similarly guilty of reducing all of “these pro-Israel groups” down to witch-hunting “pro-Israeli propagandists” in recent statements.
Tharoor’s (and Massad’s) essentialist depiction of pro-Israel students is a gross misrepresentation of the reality on campus. Many of the pro-Israel student leaders at Columbia most involved in this issue — some my close friends — are left-wing, highly critical of Israeli policy and enthusiastic fans of other pro-Palestinian professors at Columbia, such as world-renowned historian Rashid Khalidi.
Moreover, Professor Massad’s class, “Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies,” was an elective course. The Jewish and Israeli students who opted to take it were aware of Massad’s political leanings (with which he is quite open) and were eager to learn about the conflict from a new perspective. In fact, many of them gave very positive reviews of the class for precisely that reason. Those who came out against him did so to take issue with his conduct, not because they couldn’t stomach his “intolerant leftist excesses.”
Because the controversy at hand is fraught with the complex politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is all too common that observers allow their own personal politics to get in the way of an objective appraisal of the situation. It seems that Tharoor has not escaped the influences of his own preconceptions. I hope he might reconsider his view of pro-Israel groups and realize that, far from being armies of anti-liberal crusaders, we consist of thoughtful individuals with diverse backgrounds and political leanings — individuals open to questioning and challenging previously held beliefs.
Amanda Elbogen is a sophomore in Calhoun College.