The Treatment Of The Middle East At Columbia University

, Rabbi Charles Sheer, Leave a comment

Over a year ago, we initiated this e-bulletin to inform the community about our highly successful anti-divestment campaign at Columbia. Since that time, there have not been any major divestment campaigns on any U.S. campus, and almost no anti-Israel student-initiated activity – speakers, films or demonstrations – on our campus. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the battleground regarding the Middle East at Columbia University has shifted to the classroom: the principal anti-Israel voices are not pro-Palestinian student leaders and groups, but Columbia faculty and academic departments.

On the one hand, there are many fine courses taught by CU faculty on Hebrew language and literature, the history of Israel and Zionism, Arab culture, languages and nationalism, etc. These courses, offered in various departments, are taught with the usual CU standard of careful scholarship and balance.

On the other hand, some faculty members whose teaching style is called “advocacy education” espouse a consistent anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian bias. Their personal politics pervade the classroom and academic forums. The record is public: search under “Columbia University” at websites such as and Be prepared; it is not a pleasant read.

I attended a lecture in October on, “The Persistence of the Palestinian Question” given by Joseph Massad, Assistant Professor, Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) as part of a series sponsored by the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University, at our Heyman Center.

Massad’s thesis was: Zionism is a European colonial system based upon racist principles; its primary goals are the eradication of Palestine – as a country and a culture, and the expulsion of the Palestinians, “if [they are to be] allowed to live at all”.

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; the military conflict in Gaza has become the new Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; and the flight of the Palestinians from Israel in 1947 was the fulfillment of the Nazi Zionist goal to make the land “Judenrein”, which now means free of the “new Jews”, i.e., the Palestinians.

He made a small but telling side-point: that what passes as Israeli food – falafel, humus, etc. – is, in fact, standard Arab cuisine. However, Massad cited this “intentional appropriation” of Arab food by the Jewish people as an illustration of the lengths to which Zionists have gone to suppress anything Palestinian.

From a distance, this diatribe may sound ludicrous. However, its impact on campus is serious. MEALAC should enable our students to explore issues vital to their understanding of the modern Middle East in a balanced way. Yet, last year, MEALAC’s major co-curricular program was a film festival noted for its strident pro-Palestinian slant. (See — January 31, 2003.)

Of course, academic freedom is a cornerstone of our University. However, students are understandably reluctant to take courses from faculty who impose their biases in their teaching. A student group is currently working on a video that records how intimidated students feel by advocacy teaching, and how some are discouraged from taking MEALAC courses or majoring in Middle East studies.

Given the anxiety that students feel about our MEALAC department, one can understand why so many are concerned about the recent establishment of the Edward Said Professorship of Arab Studies. While many have asked that a donor list be made public, to date most of the donors remain anonymous, casting a shroud of secrecy and suspicion.

So, I have good news and bad news. On the student activity level, anti-Israel programming is down and pro-Israel activity at Hillel is strong: we have sent dozens of students on Hillel’s birthright Israel trips; we hosted Israel Minister Natan Sharansky in September, and our Hillel’s six Israel groups reflect a healthy range of student opinion about the complexities of the Middle East and the Israel agenda. In some classrooms, however, advocacy education is a major concern.

As a Jew and a Zionist I have my own personal opinions about the Middle East. Columbia need not share those convictions. It must, however, share my passion for unbiased scholarship and the establishment of a proper learning environment so our students – Jews and non-Jews – can learn about complex issues with honesty and integrity.

Rabbi Charles Sheer is the Director and Jewish Chaplain of the Barnard Hillel at Columbia University in New York. This is a copy of his Winter 2003 E-Bulletin.