Understanding the Attacks on Pro-Palestinian Professors at Columbia

By Jonah Birch

As the new year begins, the attacks by the right-wing media and mainstream politicians against professors at Columbia University who are critical of Israel and the United States have continued unabated. The current round of assaults began in November of last year following the release of a movie, Columbia Unbecoming, produced by a Boston-based Zionist organization, The David Project. Columbia Unbecoming features interviews with a small number of Zionist activists at Columbia who claim that they have faced intimidation at the hands of pro-Palestinian students and professors, especially in the Middle Eastern and Asian Languages And Cultures (MEALAC) Department.

In the aftermath of the film's release, New York's reactionary tabloids published a series of articles attacking left-wing professors at Columbia; Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn) demanded the firing of Joseph Massad, a MEALAC professor singled out in the David Project movie; and the New York City Council threatened to launch its own investigation of the University. More recently, on January 3 the New York Post published an editorial blasting the New York Civil Liberties Union for opposing the witch hunt at Columbia, and on December 28 the Village Voice printed an article by columnist Nat Hentoff demanding an "independent committee" to investigate MEALAC.

In the face of these assaults, a group of progressive students, spearheaded by the local chapter of the Campus Anti-war Network, organized the "Ad-Hoc Coalition to Defend Academic Freedom," dedicated to countering the right-wing offensive targeting pro-Palestinian professors at Columbia. The "Ad-Hoc Coalition" held organizing meetings that attracted up to eighty students, launched a flyering campaign, and organized a press conference to demonstrate the substantial student support that exists for MEALAC professors. However, the work of the Coalition has been hampered by a common confusion among students and faculty opposed to the attacks about what these assaults represent and how we can fight them.

While revulsion at the witch hunt atmosphere that has infected Columbia is quite common on campus, most students and faculty members tend to view the attacks on MEALAC as assaults on "academic freedom," rather than as political assaults by the right. Many students and professors object to what they perceive to be state and media intrusion into academia, and point out - quite correctly - the danger of such outside interference. It is certainly true that when the government and media have been able to dictate instruction at universities, for example during McCarthyism in the 1950s, the consequences have been disastrous for the pursuit of knowledge.

But it is also important for all of us to understand that the attacks on pro-Palestinian professors at Columbia are part of a much broader assault on Arab-Americans and critics of U.S. foreign policy taking place right now. The New York Daily News made this reality clear when they published a front-page spread on "Columbia's Firebrands," which turned out to mean any professor who had publicly criticized American or Israeli imperialism.

The failure of too many Columbia students and faculty members to develop a realistic understanding of the underlying political component of the attacks on the MEALAC Department has allowed the right to set the terms of debate about the charges leveled against pro-Palestinian professors. At times, many of us angered by the assaults on MEALAC have gotten so caught up in debating what this or that professor did or did not say that we have not adequately responded to the political claims made by the filmmakers and the reactionary media supporting them: that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are the same things and that critics of U.S. imperialism have something to apologize for. If we don't counter their political arguments, we put ourselves permanently on the defensive, and guarantee that these attacks on progressive professors on campus will continue in the future.

At the same time, by limiting our response to issues of "academic freedom," we have unwittingly provided the right's charges an entirely undeserved degree of legitimacy. Many students angered by the attacks on Columbia professors also argue that the left needs to admit that perhaps there is some basis for the accusations of intimidation of Zionist students in MEALAC. Setting aside the fact that none of the Zionists have provided actual evidence for any of their accusations, the idea that Zionists are intimidated either at Columbia or in the United States is patently absurd. Every major politician in the U.S. right now consistently proclaims their support for Israel's brutal attacks on the Palestinians, and Israel receives more U.S. aid than any other country in the world.

Meanwhile, those that proclaim their solidarity with the Palestinians are targeted for attacks by both the media and the government. At Columbia, Hillel, a Zionist student group, has its own $3 million building - the Kraft Center - and in fact is the only student group with its own building. We need to point out that the real intimidation that needs to be addressed at Columbia is that faced by pro-Palestinian professors, who've been subjected to death threats, media attacks, and constant harassment. In 1985, Professor Edward Said's Columbia office was firebombed; if it had been a famous Zionist and not a famous advocate of Palestinian rights that had been assaulted in this manner, we would still be reading about it in the pages of the New York Post.

Furthermore, the general inability to develop a clear understanding of the nature of the witch hunt at Columbia has led to confusion about the Columbia administration's relationship to the assaults. Because of the right-wing outcry following the release of the David Project film, Columbia President Lee Bollinger announced the formation of a University committee to investigate the MEALAC Department. Nonetheless, many students and faculty members have exhibited confidence that Bollinger and the Administration remain dependable allies in the fight to defend "academic freedom."

This assessment of the reliability of the Columbia administration flows from an understanding of the current situation that focuses on the conflict between Columbia and those outside the university who would impede our academic freedom. But this analysis represents a misunderstanding of the role of the Columbia administration. Columbia is a major recipient of grants and funding from both the U.S. government and a group of deeply politicized, right-wing alumni. Bollinger's major concern is maintaining these important sources of funding, and he (and the administration as a whole) is highly susceptible to political pressure from outside the university. Just two years ago, after facing intense pressure from wealthy, Zionist alumni, Bollinger publicly declared his belief that a faculty-sponsored petition demanding Columbia's divestment from Israel was "grotesque and offensive." He formed the new committee to investigate MEALAC not because there is any real validity to the Zionists' charges, but because of the pressure he faced from his wealthy donors, the right-wing media, and mainstream politicians.

In this context, it is imperative that we not maintain any illusions about the Columbia administration; we need to target Bollinger just as much as we need to target the Daily News or the City Council. Only sustained political pressure will ensure that pro-Palestinian professors like Hamid Dabashi (chair of the MEALAC Department) and Joseph Massad (who does not have tenure) don't face disciplinary action from the University.

In the absence of a confident left and pro-Palestinian movement, it is easy for defenders of MEALAC to feel defensive. In an atmosphere in which movements are small and haven't won major victories at any time in the recent past, it can seem both logical and more effective to limit our defense of MEALAC to the lowest common denominator, "academic freedom." However, in practice this has meant limiting the struggle to defend MEALAC and has ceded the political territory to the right wing. If we are going to take this current fight forward we need to broaden our horizons and develop a political understanding of why this is happening. Far from being an issue for within the Ivy walls, the attacks on MEALAC are one example of what's wrong with the "war on terror" and speak to the need to build a genuine anti-imperialist left. Certainly, it's clear that the right isn't going to stop their assaults on MEALAC; indeed, quite the opposite. In the aftermath of Bush's victory in November the right is feeling extremely confident.

Struggles like that currently being waged around MEALAC at Columbia can be an important testing ground for reactionaries who hope to use their "political capital" (to use Bush's phrase) to strengthen the domestic front in the "War on Terror." If we can organize a strong and sustained defense of left-wing professors on campus we can strengthen the left more broadly, and help to rebuild the much needed antiwar movement in this country.

Jonah Birch is an undergrad at Columbia University, and a member of the Campus Antiwatr Network (CAN). He can be reached at jmb2005@columbia.edu.
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