Witch Hunt vs. Academic Freedom

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Joseph Massad

Joseph Massad is assistant professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, and has been among the prominent targets of a vicious campaign by right-wing and Zionist organizations against Middle East scholars. This is an excerpt from his March 14, 2005 statement to the Ad Hoc Committee of investigation formed by the Columbia University administration. For further background on the witchhunt against Middle East studies, see Joseph Massad, “Policing the Academy,” published in Al-Ahram Weekly, No. 633, 10-16 April 2003 (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/633/op2.htm); and Joel Beinin, “The new American McCarthyism: policing thought about the Middle East,” Race and Class, v. 46 no. 1, July-September 2004.

I APPEAR BEFORE you today because of a campaign of intimidation to which I have been subjected for over three years. While this campaign was started by certain members of the Columbia faculty, and by outside forces using some of my students as conduits, it soon expanded to include members of the Columbia administration, the rightwing tabloid press, the Israeli press, and more locally the Columbia Spectator. Much of this preceded the David Project film “Columbia Unbecoming,” and the ensuing controversy.

Critical History

I started teaching at Columbia in the Fall of 1999. At the conclusion of my first academic year, during which I taught my class on Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies, I received a Certificate of Appreciation for teaching presented by “The Students of Columbia College, Class of 2000,” and was nominated and was one of the two finalists for the Van Doren teaching award which went that year to Professor Michael Stanislawski.

In my second year, I began to be told of whispers about my class on Palestinian and Israeli politics and Societies. Jewish students in my class in the Spring 2001 would tell me that I was the main topic of discussion at the Jewish Theological Seminary and at Hillel and that my class was making the Zionists on campus angry. I took such reports lightly, as the class had doubled in size from the first year.

I did notice however that the class included some cantankerous students who insisted on scoring political points during the lectures. I would always diffuse the situation by allowing all questions to be asked and by attempting to answer them informatively.

Although my course description explained that the purpose of the course is to provide a thorough yet critical historical overview of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict to familiarize undergraduates with the background to the current situation, I decided in the following year (Spring 2002) to emphasize that point more clearly. The course description read as follows:

“The course examines critically the impact of Zionism on European Jews and on Asian and African Jews on the one hand, and on Palestinian Arabs on the other — in Israel, in the Occupied Territories, and in the Diaspora. The course also examines critically the internal dynamics in Palestinian and Israeli societies, looking at the roles class, gender, and religion play in the politics of Israel and the Palestinian national movement. The purpose of the course is not to provide a balanced coverage of the views of both sides, but rather to provide a thorough yet critical historical overview of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict to familiarize undergraduates with the background to the current situation from a critical perspective.”

The point of the class description is to make sure the students understood that no side was being presented, neither the Palestinian nor the Zionist side, but rather that this was a course that was critical of both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. When I taught the class in 2004, after returning from my sabbatical, I decided to remove the sentence on balance, especially after CampusWatch began to attack me for including it.

It was with this as background that I started my Spring 2002 semester. My Palestinian and Israeli course seemed to have a more cantankerous crowd that year than before. Even though this year the class had two discussion sections to accommodate the number of students, a number of students insisted on having discussions during the lecture. Some would bring with them a pro-Israel lobby propaganda book from which they would insist on reading in class. I would let them.

One student in particular stood out. A smart older student in General Studies, who identified herself as having a South African Jewish background, would insist on asking many questions every lecture, most of which were about scoring political points.
The class had over 80 students and therefore it was difficult to accommodate such a large number of questions from students. No matter, I decided to let her ask all her questions in every lecture in order to make her feel comfortable and that she feel that the class is a space where she could express herself freely.

She would E-mail me asking for exact sources for information that I would give in class. I would E-mail her back what she needed. For a while, it seemed that I was her research assistant, which I was happy to do, in order to teach her that there are indeed scholarly sources and scholarly answers to her political queries.

I later found out from other students that she was circulating a petition in the class to have me fired from Columbia. I asked her after class one day if that was the case, and told her that if it were so, that she would be free to circulate it outside of class, not inside. She smiled back without comment.

I saw her on college walk one day after Spring break. She came up to me and told me that she had just been to Israel and the Occupied Territories and expressed how bad she felt about the situation there. She apologized about the petition and told me that she had been approached from the outside to do it but she had dropped the matter. She spoke of people at the medical school and others from outside the university who were behind the idea, but did not provide details. I did not inquire.

Another student of mine (now at the School of International and Public Affairs), who self-identified as a Likudnik, also approached me on campus one day during the Spring 2002 semester, telling me that he and a few other students had been invited to see a female professor at the medical school. He described that the meeting was so surreptitious and conspiratorial, that it felt that they were planning on having me murdered.

In fact, the plan was to strategize how to get me fired. The student told me that they discussed the option of meeting with a female administrator who worked at the time at the Middle East Institute, to coordinate the plan with her. He told me that he had informed the students and the medical school professor that even though he disagreed with me, that he thought I had the right to express my views.

Organized Harassment

The female student who initiated the petition against me was not alone in class who consistently posed hostile questions. Three or four other students would do so intermittently.

One of them insisted on reading out loud in class paragraphs from a propaganda book issued by a pro-Israel lobbying organization. The book is Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict written by one Mitchell Bard and published by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

Many students complained that these few students were disruptive of class, especially as there are discussion sections for them to raise their concerns. I allayed their anxiety by explaining that there is something to learn from some of the students’ politically-motivated questions, namely that all students would learn the political arguments of proponents and opponents of certain scholarly analyses of the conflict, and that students who had political queries would also learn that there are indeed persuasive answers to the queries they raise from a critical and scholarly angle.

During the same semester, in April 2002, I was attacked and misquoted by the Spectator after attending an on-campus rally in support of Palestinians under Israeli military attack in the West Bank and Gaza, and an op-ed piece and letters were published in the Spectator accusing me of anti-Semitism for a lecture I had given at the Middle East Institute in February 2002.

The op-ed piece by a junior at Barnard named Daphna Berman, who was not my student, drew parallels between a swastika found in a law school bathroom and my lecture and rebuked the university for allowing me to speak out:

“I was struck by the University’s willingness to publicly condemn blatant expressions of anti-Semitism [such as the swastika incident] while simultaneously condoning, and even sponsoring, more tacit and subtle forms of that same evil. Massad’s talk is lent a certain legitimacy by mere virtue of the fact that his views exist within an academic framework. The rhetoric is polished, the multisyllabic words characteristic of academia are pleasing to the ear, and so Massad’s message somehow becomes more acceptable, more palatable. Yet fundamentally, the difference between Massad’s message and its more blatant and visually tangible manifestation are only subtle.”

As for the political rally, which took place on Wednesday April 17, 2002, I was one of countless speakers. I spoke out and asserted the following:

“Like white South Africans who felt threatened under apartheid and who only felt safe when they gave up their commitment to white supremacy, Israeli Jews will continue to feel threatened if they persist in supporting Jewish supremacy. Israeli Jews will only feel safe in a democratic Israeli state where all Jews and Arabs are treated equally. No state has the right to be a racist state.”

The Spectator misquoted me as saying that Israel is a Jewish supremacist and racist state, and that every racist state should be threatened. When I protested the misquotation, the Spectator journalist who wrote the story, Xan Nowakowski, apologized and informed me via E-mail that she did not even attend the rally and got the quotes from another reporter. She assured me that the newspaper would run a correction. After a back and forth for almost a week on E-mail, the Spectator ran the correction on April 24, 2002.

Misquotes and Misinformation

However, two major pro-Israeli propagandists, namely Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes, would insist on reproducing the misquote in articles that they wrote to newspapers and that they posted on their websites. On June 25 2002, Daniel Pipes and one Jonathan Schanzer published an article in the New York Post titled “Extremists on Campus,” in which they listed me as one such extremist and complained that I use my class as a soapbox for anti-Israeli polemics.

The Wall Street Journal published on September 18, 2002 an article about a pro- Israel website calling itself CampusWatch being launched by Daniel Pipes, stating that the website listed eight professors (including me) with our own public dossiers as enemies of America and Israel and called on our students to monitor us in class. Following the launch of CampusWatch, my E-mail was spammed for months with over 4000 E-mails daily, which I had to sift through until finally Columbia was able to install an anti-spamming program.

Moreover, I was subjected to identity theft when thousands of racist E-mails would be sent in my name to individuals and listservs, including a few to the White House and Congressmen threatening them with terrorist action. Moreover, thousands of other E-mails would be sent to people with requests of notes of receipt being sent back to my E-mail account which clogged it further with thousands of such E-mail receipts.

I also received tens of racist E-mails and phone messages including death threats directed at me. In the meantime, Pipes’ website called on our own students to spy on us in the classroom and report to him, and Kramer called for my dismissal from Columbia University.

As I was on sabbatical in London that year, I was relatively shielded from the campaign, even though my E-mail account continued to be disrupted…Upon returning to Columbia in the Fall of 2003, I was scheduled to give a lecture on the 2nd of October at the Society of Fellows at the Heyman Center. The lecture was attended by a large number of people including many faculty members, Professor Nicholas Dirks, who had not yet become vice-president, was among them.

After the lecture I was asked a number of hostile questions from young students and from one Rabbi Charles Sheer, about whom I had heard the previous year when he railed against MEALAC (Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures) professors in the context of the pro-Palestinian rally that took place on campus in April 2002. I had never met him before. I answered all the questions put before me.

Several professors came to me afterwards, including Brinkley Messick of the Department of Anthropology and my departmental colleague Janaki Bakhle, among others, wondering how I managed to remain calm in the face of rude and hostile questions of the caliber I had been asked.

Rabbi Sheer’s secretary called me and left a message asking for the text of the lecture. I never responded. The lecture has been published in the scholarly journal Cultural Critique and has recently been the topic of a newspaper article in the New York Sun, and I believe also in the Daily News.

On 6 January 2004, Rabbi Sheer posted a letter on the Hillel website addressed to Columbia and Barnard students, in which he discussed my lecture and made a startling announcement. Sheer proceeded to mention that he had attended my lecture at the Heyman Center and then summarized it by making outrageous claims that were never made in the lecture: “Professor Massad has reversed the roles of all the players and redefined many of the historic events: the Zionists are the new Nazis; the Palestinians are oppressed victims and therefore the new Jews…”

(T)he false claim attributed to me by Rabbi Sheer that I said that the Zionists are the new Nazis, a claim I never made, would find its way to Ariel Beery who would make the same claim in the video “Columbia Unbecoming,” as would Noah Liben in his description of my course — a false claim that would be repeated ad absurdum in the media. Sheer concluded with two interesting claims, one which effectively called on students not to take my class, and another announcing the filming of “Columbia Unbecoming.”

The Campaign Escalates

Suffice it to say that my class had over fifty students for the Spring 2004 and students did not heed the call made by Sheer. The class did however include a number of auditors (I found out they were unregistered during the last week of class) who would consistently harass me with hostile ideological questions that ignored all the readings.

Students complained about the disruption this caused the class. I tried to emphasize to the auditors that their questions must be relevant to the subject at hand and that they must do the readings. They never did and I continued to answer their questions until the end of the semester to avoid creating a tense atmosphere in the classroom. During this period, the New York Sun and Kramer and Pipes continued to attack me in their columns and on their websites.

In an article on December 30, 2003, the Sun had again attacked one of my newspaper columns, misquoting me. In my column (for the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram), I stated that “While Israel has no legitimacy and is not recognized by any international body as a representative of the Jewish people worldwide but rather as the state of the Israeli people who are citizens of it….” The Sun quoted me as saying that Israel has no legitimacy.

I asked for a correction from the reporter Jacob Gershman. He agreed and the newspaper ran it the next day. This however was just a brief lull. On May 4, 2004, the Sun ran another article about me by one Jonathan Calt Harris, identified as an associate of Daniel Pipes at Campus Watch, titled “Tenured Extremism.” After a litany of misquotes, half quotes, and outright fabrications, Calt Harris referred to my views as akin to those of Nazis, concluded by stating:

“Mr. Massad is soon up for tenure review. Should this once distinguished university stoop to provide a permanent forum for his views, it would signify a truly stunning oversight. He knows no distinction between a classroom lecture and advocacy at a public demonstration.”

“Columbia Unbecoming”

(Subsequently) I received a letter from Joel J. Levy, director of the New York chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, copies of which had been sent to President Bollinger and Provost Brinkley. The letter was significantly dated on May 6, 2004, two days after Calt Harris published his article in the Sun.

The letter complained to me that, according to one report it received from one student who attended a lecture that I had given at the University of Pennsylvania on March 24, 2004 (which incidentally was the same lecture I gave at Columbia’s Society of Fellows the previous October), ideas expressed in my lecture are anti-Semitic. The letter made false claims about what my lecture said and asked that I retract them and issue an apology for my allegedly anti- Semitic remarks. I wrote Mr. Levy back and copied President Bollinger and Provost Brinkley. I stated in my letter that:

“My principled stance against anti- Semitism and all kinds of racism is a matter of public record and cannot be assailed by defamatory reports or by letters from the ADL that consider them credible sources. Indeed I have condemned anti-Semitism in my Arabic and English writings, regardless of whether the person expressing it was pro-Israel or anti-Israel, an Arab, an American Christian, or an Israeli Jew. I therefore expect a prompt correction of the errors contained in your letter and demand an immediate apology, a copy of which should be sent to President Bollinger.”

I never heard back from the ADL, or from the provost.

It was with this as background that news about the David Project film “Columbia Unbecoming,” surfaced on October 20, 2004 in a New York Sun article…I still have not seen the film. Let me reiterate what I said in my statement regarding the claims put by the students in the film.

I am now being targeted because of my public writings and statements through the charge that I am allegedly intolerant in the classroom.Let me first state that I have intimidated no one. In fact, Tomy Schoenfeld, the Israeli soldier who appears in the film and is cited by the New York Sun, has never been my student and has never taken a class with me, as he himself informed The Jewish Week. I have never met him.

As for Noah Liben, who appears in the film according to newspaper accounts (I have not seen the film), he was indeed a student in my Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies course in the spring of 2001.

Noah seems to have forgotten the incident he cites. During a lecture about Israeli state racism against Asian and African Jews, Noah defended these practices on the basis that Asian and African Jews were underdeveloped and lacked Jewish culture, which the Ashkenazi [European Jews—ed.] State operatives were teaching them.

When I explained to him that, as the assigned readings clarified, these were racist policies, he insisted that these Jews needed to be modernized and the Ashkenazim were helping them by civilizing them. Many students gasped. He asked me if I understood his point. I informed him that I did not.

Noah seems not to have done his reading during the week on gender and Zionism. One of the assigned readings by Israeli scholar and feminist Simona Sharoni spoke of how in Hebrew the word zayin means both penis and weapon in a discussion of Israeli militarized masculinity. Noah, seemingly not having read the assigned material, mistook the pronunciation of zayin as Zion, pronounced in Hebrew tziyon.

As for his spurious claim that I said that Jews in Nazi Germany were not physically abused or harassed until Kristallnacht in November 1938, Noah must not have been listening carefully. During the discussion of Nazi Germany, we addressed the racist ideology of Nazism, the Nuremberg Laws enacted in 1934, and the institutionalized racism and violence against all facets of Jewish life, all of which preceded the extermination of European Jews. This information was also available to Noah in his readings, had he chosen to consult them.

Moreover, the lie that the film propagates claiming that I would equate Israel with Nazi Germany is abhorrent. I have never made such a reprehensible equation.

As for the claim made by Ariel Beery, whom I have never met and who has never been my student, that my favorite description is the Palestinian as the new Jew and the Jew as the new Nazi. Such a statement is an outright lie. Beery gets this quote not from anything I said or wrote, but from the fabrication made up by Rabbi Sheer on his Hillel web posting of January 4th 2004.

Outright Lies

As for the claims made by Deena Shanker, whose story suddenly appeared in a report in the New York Sun after my posted statement dismantled the false claims made by Liben and Schoenfeld, her claims are also outright lies.

In her New York Sun account, Ms. Shanker stated that she asked me

“if it is true that Israel gives prior warning before launching strikes in Palestinian Arab territories. That provoked him to start screaming, If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against the Palestinians then you could leave the class, Ms. Shanker said. She said she was shocked by his reaction, and that Mr. Massad usually answered civilly along the lines of, No, you’re wrong. She said Mr. Massad compared Israelis to Nazis during lectures in class.”

Shanker later told the New York Times a different story: She said that Professor Massad sometimes ridiculed her questions and during one class exchange yelled at her to get out. (She stayed.) People in the class were like blown away, she said. Her account to the Jerusalem Post was also inconsistent with the other two accounts: “‘If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against the Palestinian people then you can get out of my classroom!’ Massad shouted, according to Shanker’s account.”

Deena Shanker is lying in all three versions of her story. I have never asked her or any student to leave my class no matter what question they asked. In fact, I never asked any of my students to leave class for any reason. I have no visual memory of Deena Shanker, who never came to office hours or spoke with me after class. The incident she describes has never taken place.

In the aftermath of the film, I have received, and still receive, a barrage of hate mail and racist E-mails and voicemail messages. The first such E-mail message was from a medical school professor called Moshe Rubin. Professor Rubin wrote me on October 20th, the same day as the first report was published in the Sun. Under the subject heading Anti-Semite he wrote: “Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned get the hell out of America you are a disgrace and a pathetic typical arab liar. Moshe Rubin”

Many more such E-mails would follow. The campaign would quickly expand and include medical school professor Judith Jacobson. Such threatening E-mails have also targeted others in my department….

Fighting Back

I should state that I have received immense support from across the world, through countless letters and thousands of signatures on an online petition. These include hundreds of individual letters from academics, students, and supporters, and tens of letters from my own students, especially my Jewish students.

All these letters were sent to President Bollinger, Provost Brinkley, and Vice-President Dirks. Copies of many of these letters were sent to me. In addition, a colleague at the University of Texas at Austin, Professor Neville Hoad, circulated a letter within a few days of the controversy and obtained 828 signatures of major scholars and academics around the United States and the world, which he also submitted to the Presdent, the Provost, and the Vice-President.

Another academic colleague at the State University of California, Asad AbuKhalil, set up an on-line petition, which obtained upwards of 3000 signatures, a copy of which was also sent to Bollinger. Hooligans attempted to undermine the petition by signing names like Adolf Hitler and Osama Ben Laden, but they were not able to shut the petition down.

In addition, two letters were sent to the President, the Provost, and the Vice-President, one by 24 graduate students at MEALAC, and another by 52 graduate students from other departments at Columbia. The Middle East Studies Associations Academic Freedom Committee also issued a letter defending my academic freedom, as did the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee.

Thirty professors from the American University in Cairo also sent a letter defending me. President Bollinger has as of yet not responded to any of these individuals or organizations with the notable exception of the ACLU…

Perhaps I need to state to the committee that I derive my authority as a scholar of the Middle East from my doctoral training here at Columbia’s Political Science Department which granted me my PhD with distinction, a rare honor that was further certified by the Middle East Studies Association which granted me its most prestigious award for a social science dissertation for 1998, the Malcolm Kerr Award.

My book, which was based on my dissertation, was published by Columbia University Press, and has been endorsed and reviewed favorably by the most prominent Middle East scholars in the academy. The only unfavorable review, out of 17 favorable reviews, it received was in Martin Kramer’s unscholarly magazine Middle East Quarterly.

My book and my articles on the Palestinian Israeli conflict are used as standard texts for courses on nationalism and on Palestine and Israel across the United States and Europe. My recent work on sexuality and queer theory is also taught across the country, and a book length study on the subject is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

I currently have two standing offers from prestigious presses for a book based on my published essays on Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. An attack on my scholarship therefore is not only an attack on me and on MEALAC but on Columbia’s political science department, on prestigious academic presses, including Columbia University Press, and on the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), an opinion expressed by Martin Kramer who also condemns Middle East Studies at Columbia and MESA itself.

I should affirm here that President Bollinger is under the impression that he can set the research agenda for Middle East scholarship at Columbia much better than Columbia’s Middle East faculty. He told The Jewish Week that “we need to integrate better than we have other fields that have knowledge relevant to the work being done in MEALAC. What is the relationship, for example, between the environmental facts of life in the Middle East and Asia, or its diseases, and the culture there?”

This retreat to 19th century climatology and medical anthropology is disturbing. Would President Bollinger also think that there is a relationship between environmental facts, diseases and the culture of African Americans or of American Jews?

Threat to Academic Freedom

I am concerned that Bollinger may well be making an academic judgment about me that is based not on my scholarship or pedagogy but on my politics and even my nationality.

In addition, when a number of faculty members and I signed a petition in 2002 calling on Columbia to divest from companies that sell weapons to Israel, a country guilty of human rights abuses, Bollinger’s response betrayed a strong emotional reaction and a stronger political bias:

“The petition alleges human rights abuses and compares Israel to South Africa at the time of apartheid, an analogy I believe is both grotesque and offensive.”

While the campaigners against me off this campus do not have the direct power to influence my future employment at Columbia, Bollinger clearly does, and therefore his failure to defend academic freedom is detrimental to my career and my job.

I am further chilled in this regard by reports that at the recent general meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Bollinger sought to change the 50-year tradition regarding how tenure cases are decided at Columbia when he stated that he and the trustees, in accordance with the statutes but in contravention of a 50-year tradition, would want to have the final say in tenure cases in the future.

That the Columbia University administration acted as a collaborator with the witch-hunters instead of defending me and offering itself as a refuge from rightwing McCarthyism has been a cause of grave personal and professional disappointment. I am utterly disillusioned with a university administration that treats its faculty with such contempt, and am hoping against hope that the faculty will rise to the task before them and force President Bollinger to reverse this perilous course on which he has taken Columbia’s faculty and students.

The major goal of the witch-hunters is to destroy the institution of the university in general. I am merely the entry point for their political project. As the university is the last bastion of free-thinking that has not yet fallen under the authority of extreme rightwing forces, it has become their main target. The challenge before us is therefore to be steadfast in fighting for academic freedom.

ATC 116, May-June 2005