Columbia’s Israel Problem

In 2005 Columbia University came under fire over allegations of anti-Israel bias among professors teaching in its Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. Columbia’s response was to set up… yet another department that already seems tilted in the direction of anti-Israel bias.

According to the New York Sun, Columbia appointed as new director of the university’s three-year-old Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies a former professor at the University of Tel Aviv, Yinon Cohen, who signed a statement in 2002 supporting Israelis who refused to serve in Israel’s military operations in Gaza and on the West Bank during a violent Palestinian-Arab uprising. “For thirty five years an entire people, some three and a half million in number, have been held without basic human rights,” the statement signed by Cohen and 357 other professors at Israeli universities read. “The occupation and oppression of another people have brought the State of Israel to where it is today.”

One of the reasons the institute picked Cohen might have been that the search committee responsible for his appointment included Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East and Asia Languages and Cultures Institute (known around campus as MEALAC) during the 2005 furor. Another member of the search committee was Lila Abu-Lughod, who has supported a campus campaign to force Columbia to divest itself of investments in Israel. Khalidi and another MEALAC professor, George Saliba, signed a letter of protest over Columbia president Lee Bollinger’s harshly critical introduction of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when the Iranian president spoke on campus last Sept. 24. Bollinger had taken Ahmadinejad to task for funding terrorism, denying the Holocaust, and calling for the destruction of Israel.

The 2005 controversy at Columbia arose when a group of Jewish students calling themselves the David Project released a documentary film, “Columbia Unbecoming,” in which Jewish and pro-Israel students recounted instances of overtly biased classroom and lecture behavior by MEALAC professors, who openly concede that they believe in “advocacy teaching” in the tradition of the late Columbia professor and anti-Israel activist Edward Said. (Khalidi holds a $2.5 million endowed chair in Said’s name at Columbia, and a further controversy arose when news emerged that the United Arab Emirates had contributed $200,000 to fund the chair.) One student interviewed for the film recounted a classroom incident in which Saliba told a Jewish student that she had no claim to the land of Israel because she had “green eyes” and was thus not a genuine “Semite” like him. (Saliba said the student had garbled a more generalized remark of his contesting historical Jewish claims to Israel.). Hamid Dabashi, a former MEALAC chairman, had written an article for an Egyptian newspaper describing Israelis thus: “Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people,”
The most controversial professor of all was a MEALAC instructor, Joseph Massad, whose class syllabus expressly warned students who did not agree with his political views not to take his class. A Columbia student who had served in the Israeli army asserted in the film that when he had asked a question of Massad during an off-campus lecture, Massad refused to answer until the student revealed how many Palestinians he had killed (Massad denied the incident.). At a lecture at Oxford University, Massad had declared, “The Jews are not a nation. The Jewish state is a racist state that does not have the right to exist.”

The Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, funded with a $3 million gift from a group of donors who included $3 million from donors that included NBA ommissioner David Stern, and financiers Richard Witten, Philip Milstein, and Mark Kingdon, was supposed to represent Columbia’s effort to balance the anti-Israel rhetoric pouring out of MEALAC. Cohen, the newly appointed director and a well-regarded scholar of social conditions in Israel, is clearly not operating at the same level of anti-Israel fury as his colleagues at MEALAC. He has been endorsed by at least one pro-Israel student group on campus. Still, it would have better served Columbia’s image, already tarnished by the violent on- and off-campus anti-Jewish rhetoric of MEALAC professors, to have sought a director whose views were not quite so consonant with those at MEALAC using a search process entirely free of MEALAC ties.


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