The Right-Wing Stealth Attack at Columbia University

Watch what you say—or else

by the New York City Writers Group

Revolutionary Worker #1268, February 20, 2005, posted at

"There is a growing sense of siege on university campuses around the country."

Joan Wallach Scott, professor of social science, Institute for Advanced Study; speaking at a panel discussion,
"Defending Academic Freedom in an Atmosphere of Terror," Feb. 9, 2005

At Columbia University in New York City, professors in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) have been singled out for attack by right-wing forces with help from the media and politicians. The attack has taken the form of an inquiry into allegations of intimidation of students. Professors have been accused of being biased and anti-Semitic and of having silenced students whose views differ from theirs (in particular around the Palestinian/Israeli conflict).

Columbia alumni and donors have reportedly called administrators, threatening to withdraw funding because of the accusations against the MEALAC professors. A special ad-hoc committee was established to hold hearings throughout February for students to raise their concerns about being "bullied" and "insulted" by these professors.

But the accusations are not simply from "victimized students." And whether or not these professors are generally polite and encourage debate is not the true concern of those attacking them.

What is at the heart of this is whether these professors—and professors nationwide—will be allowed to teach in ways that contradict and criticize U.S. government policy as well as the state of Israel, its oppression of Palestinians, and its backing from the U.S. And along with that is the question of whether college students will be taught how to think creatively and critically—or how to more uniformly march in step with the dominant ideology and politics.

Assault on Dissent and Critical Thinking

Right-wing moves against intellectuals are not confined solely to universities. Scientists and others are being forced—under the threat of withholding of federal funding or investigation/audit by the state—to censor their work and even cease the kind of work they need to do. And this goes hand-in-hand with the whole assault on questioning, critical thinking, and dissent throughout the nation. (See the article in this issue of the RW about the attacks on Ward Churchill, a professor at University of Colorado.)

Columbia University is one of the key places where the right-wing forces have focused on. These forces had launched such attacks before but had not made the kind of headway they have with the current assault.

Like other Ivy League universities, Columbia attracts intellectuals who are well-known and respected in their field. In particular, Columbia has become a leading center in establishing the Palestinian voice and experience in academia. And, because of Columbia’s prestige and reputation, and its influence in shaping academic discourse, it would deliver staggering and far-reaching blows nationwide if these right-wing forces make serious headway there. This could set a dangerous precedent of censorship and putting professors on the defensive. Ivy League schools impact policy, research, and intellectual centers in significant ways, so the effects will be felt far beyond the campus walls.

Edward Said, Columbia professor of English and comparative literature, played a key role in introducing the "Palestinian narrative" into the academia and brought prestige to Columbia and MEALAC. Said, who died in 2003, was a world-renowned scholar and author and an outspoken advocate for the Palestinian people. He helped push the Palestinian struggle to the fore of many minds in this country and internationally. His death has changed the terrain, creating openings for the forces now attacking the professors in MEALAC.

MEALAC gained notice from the government last year when Republicans were trying to push a bill called the International Studies Higher Education Act through Congress. Republicans have been trying to pass this for five years, and are trying again this year. This bill would reauthorize about $80 million in funding for international and foreign language study, allocating more resources to programs that emphasize national security and, more significantly, create government oversight over curricula and research. MEALAC was one of the biggest and most influential opponents of the bill.

Dark Ages in the U.S.

"To me, these are Dark Ages. This is not the United States I moved into in 1976. I don’t recognize it. I’m in sort of moral shock."

Columbia Professor Hamid Dabashi, New York Times , Jan. 18, 2005

It all began to unfold sometime in late October 2004, when the news media was shown a film titled "Columbia Unbecoming" produced by a pro-Israel group in Boston called the David Project. The film features a handful of students who claim they were mistreated by MEALAC professors. The film, like secret evidence, was never shown publicly at Columbia or to the professors. It was exhibited in Israel, however, and to select U.S. media. Almost immediately, the New York Sun,the Daily News and the New York Post began ranting and raving about these "un-American" professors.

Adding to the right-wing assault campaign is Campus Watch, whose founder, Daniel Pipes, is well-known for his right-wing views and has close ties with David Horowitz, who heads up the reactionary Students for Academic Freedom. Campus Watch has helped pioneer the tactic of encouraging students to monitor and report on the political views of their liberal-minded or leftist professors who, they claim, are intimidating students who disagree with them. But the groups that are heading this assault are just fine with intimidating people, as long as it’s in line with their objectives.

A key front of attack by these right-wing forces is to accuse the professors of anti-Semitism—and even links to "terrorism"—for taking a critical stand against the state of Israel and U.S. backing for Israel. One outrageous example was at a recent pro-Israel event on the Columbia campus sponsored by the David Project. Speaking at the event was Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard professor who is a proponent of the use of torture by the U.S. against "terror" suspects. Dershowitz, who has been part of the reactionary chorus against the MEALAC professors, said, "The faculty of MEALAC go further than merely being anti-Israel; they actively encourage Islamic terrorism."

These witch hunt tactics are having an intimidating effect. Professor Joseph Massad, a Jordanian-born Palestinian, felt forced to cancel his course, "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies," this semester. He is one of the main targets of the "Unbecoming" film, receiving the most "complaints."

In addition to Professor Massad, Professor George Saliba, the director of Graduate Studies at Columbia’s MEALAC who teaches Arabic and Islamic science, and Professor Dabashi are featured in the film. Professor Dabashi, who is Iranian, has been "criticized" for canceling a class to attend a Palestinian rally and is reportedly targeted principally for his published political viewpoints.

Not surprisingly, the air that has been whipped up, polarizing Columbia, has unleashed racist sentiments from others on campus. Professor Massad has been swamped with threatening hate mail calling him things like "camel jockey" and "Islamic fascist." He told the New York Times that non-enrolled hecklers attend his lectures to provoke him. According to the Times, one faculty member in the medical school sent an e-mail message to a targeted professor saying that he is a "pathetic typical Arab liar" and should leave the country. There have also been death threats.

Rachid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, has a taped phone message that says: "Khalidi, Columbia alumni love Campus Watch because they keep an eye on thugs like you. We have our eye on you. You’d better watch out." As Khalidi told the New York Times , "There is a dearth of proper debate in the media and politics about the Middle East. The only place where these views can be found is in academia. They want to shut down this last window."

Massad is the only one of the professors under attack who is not tenured, so his position at the university is more vulnerable. He recently wrote in an essay: "The Campus Watch website appears to be the first salvo in a much larger campaign targeting U.S. universities and especially academics doing work on the Middle East who have critical views of the policies of the state of Israel and of U.S. Middle East policy. Since then, there have been more protracted campaigns, the latest of which is one targeting me that is spearheaded by a Boston-based Zionist group called the David Project and the right-wing newspaper the New York Sun . The campaign has led a congressman to ask Columbia to fire me."

Groups like Campus Watch and the David Project have effects on many levels. Administrators on different campuses are reportedly taking pre-emptive measures (some willingly, some not) to silence certain professors, and professors themselves are feeling pressured to self-police or self-censor. Professor Hamid Dabashi told the New York Times he has become self-conscious about what he says and has canceled several public appearances. He said he still feels a duty to spread criticism of things he doesn’t believe in. "But," he said, "I’m wondering for what? A two-headed monster is being made out of me."

Campus Watch, Horowitz, and the David Project rant and rave that Columbia and universities like it are liberal bastions that need to be made "balanced"—because, they say, those with conservative viewpoints are being "persecuted" and these "victims" need defense and protection. But while these people whine about how they are persecuted, it’s hardly the case that their views are in the minority or suppressed in academia and the country overall. Who’s the president and the ruling party, anyway? And since when has radical thought been carrying the day on college campuses?

What’s happening at Columbia is part of a nationwide witch hunt that seeks to equate dissent with "treason" and "terrorism." Increasingly, universities are finding themselves under the threatening microscope of right-wing forces—and this is having a tremendously dangerous impact. The forces on the side of reaction have great momentum and backing from high places, and they have clearly only just begun. They have ambitious goals to silence critical thinking on campuses, eliminate debate on issues deemed "controversial" and "beyond the pale."

This has potentially tremendous implications in every field—whether it be those speaking out against U.S. wars in Iraq and elsewhere, scientists who refuse to stop investigating diseases that primarily affect gay communities, or others who are considered not "with the program" of Bush and Company and outside the bounds of traditional morality. What kind of future would that be? What would it mean if critical thinking and inquiry were eliminated, or largely squashed, in areas that are supposedly dedicated to that purpose? What would that mean for every other part of society?