Smoldering Fires at Columbia · 01 March 2006

By Sol Stern -

By Sol

Now, all's quiet on the Columbia University front.

Last year's ferocious campus battles over serious and documented allegations of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in MEALAC, the university's Middle East Studies Department, seem a distant memory to most people. Partly this is due to the graduation of several of the brave Jewish students who were willing to step into the lion's den and expose the intimidation they witnessed in the classroom. It's also because Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has waged a very effective campaign to smother the fires. First, he appointed an investigation commission stacked with academics sympathetic to the anti-Israel politics of the accused professors. The commission's report, focusing only on allegations of improper classroom behavior, mildly slapped Professor Joseph Massad on the wrist for the one incident in which it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he verbally abused a student who dared question his anti-Zionist rants. The conflict was then further defused by giving Professor Massad and two of MEALAC's other anti-Israel zealots sabbaticals in the academic equivalent of "use a gun, get a paid vacation."

Bollinger smothered the fires, but didn't extinguish them. That would have taken an act of heroism. So, effectively, it's back to the status quo ante with regard to the university's position on questions of academic integrity and academic freedom. To Columbia, it is perfectly legitimate that the Middle East Studies Department be dominated by professors who state in their classrooms that their "scholarship" has led them to conclude Israel is a racist state and Zionism an outlaw ideology. The only kind of behavior the university has now cautioned such professors against is to get personal with any student misguided enough to question their conclusions. And certainly don't be so crude as to call a student a "racist" and threaten to throw her out of your classroom.

In any event, it's unlikely that anything like last year's confrontation will come up again at Columbia. The truth is that most committed pro-Israel students, including those with enough of a background in the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict to stand up to the likes of a Professor Massad, will, as a matter of academic self-preservation, stay away from the MEALAC menagerie. These students understand what the administration can never admit: Middle East studies at Columbia is enemy-occupied territory. The students also know something else that the administration can never acknowledge: this conquest was made possible by the life and work of one of Columbia's most honored Professors of the last century, the late Edward Said. Even though Said - a chaired Professor of English - had no academic qualifications in the study of the Middle East or Islam, his books, principally Orientalism, became canonical in MEALAC and virtually every other Middle East studies department in the country.

It is argued by MEALAC's defenders at the university that the very effort to shine a light on the current abuses of academic integrity in the department is an example of McCarthyism. But it was really Professor Said who started it all. As Middle East scholars Martin Kramer and J.P. Vatikiotis, have shown, Said's Orientalism was in many ways a McCarthyite blacklist drawn up against a previous generation of Middle East scholars. For example, someone like Bernard Lewis (who has forgotten more about Islam than Said ever learned) was accused by Said of being an agent of Imperialism, Zionism, and even Western intelligence. Said called scholars who dared express concern about the anti-Western extremism of political Islam "guns for hire." A New York Times article Said published in 1993, just a few months after the first World Trade Center bombing, mocked the "The Phony Islamic Threat" conjured up by these Orientalist writers and academics.

Said's epigones in the MEALAC department have carried on the Saidean tradition. You can judge their works not by the few incidents of intimidation against the contrarians who sometimes show up in their classrooms, but by the quality of mind of the students who stick with the MEALAC program. Sometimes this is evident in the smallest of things, such as a recent opinion article by a MEALAC senior in the campus newspaper, Spectator. Ostensibly, the piece is about the opening of an Israeli themed cafe in the Hillel Jewish Center which advertises itself as a tolerant, diverse place open to all, Jews and non-Jews alike, and sporting the motto, "not just a cup, but a just cup." But don't be fooled by the pretensions at inclusiveness, says our MEALAC trained cultural critic. What we really have here is not just another coffee shop, but rather a sinister example of Orientalist arrogance, of contempt for the "other." Thus, "the café's Moroccan tents and Israeli undertones implicitly call to mind the ongoing discrimination against Eastern Jews in Israel, the Western colonial and neo-colonial attempt to exotify the 'Orient,' and the Jewish state's occupation and refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes."

When I first read this and similar post-colonialist and Saidean outbursts that run through the article, I thought I had stumbled on to a brilliant undergraduate parody of the reigning ideology of Orientalism on the Columbia campus similar to the famous hoax perpetrated on the radical postmodernist journal Social Text by the physicist Allan Sokol. My suspicion was strengthened by what seemed like the writer's wink in referring to Said's Orientalism as "Columbia's unofficial core book." But after investigating further, I discovered that no parody was intended. Frances Kreimer, the author of the article, is everything she says she is: a senior majoring in MEALAC and concentrating in "Human Rights," a nice Jewish girl from Philadelphia whose mother is a Reform rabbi.

Wherever he is, Edward Said must be looking down (or up) on his campus and smiling. So does his anti-Western academic revolution move ahead, one student and one cup of coffee at a time.