Academic Freedom and the Teaching of Palestine-Israel: The Columbia University Case, Part II

VOL. 34


No. 4
P. 75
Special Document File
Academic Freedom and the Teaching of Palestine-Israel: The Columbia University Case, Part II

A. Joseph Massad, Statement to the Columbia University Ad Hoc Grievance Committee, New York, 14 March 2005 (excerpts). . . . . . . 76

B. Columbia University Ad Hoc Grievance Committee, Final Report, New York, 28 March 2005 (excerpts). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90


C. New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Letter to Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger concerning the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee, New York, 6 April 2005. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100

D. New York Times, “Intimidation at Columbia” (editorial), New York, 7 April 2005 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105

In October 2004, press reports of a film featuring interviews alleging intimidation of Jewish students by pro-Palestinian faculty at Columbia University placed the university at the center of a controversy that soon was to become a cause celebre. The film, entitled Columbia Unbecoming, was never shown publicly but was selectively screened in various versions to assorted journalists, political figures, and Columbia University officials. Though few others actually saw the film, it brought to a head a polarization that had been growing since spring 2002, when pro-Israeli monitoring groups such as Campus Watch and the action oriented nationwide Israel on Campus Coalition were set up to combat the anti-Israel sentiment fueled by Israel’s siege of the West Bank (see Special Document File in JPS 134). The Boston-based David Project, producer of Columbia Unbecoming, is an associate member of the coalition. As of early 2002, professors with outspokenly critical views of Israel have been closely monitored.

In an effort to defuse the crisis that gripped the campus and that could adversely affect fundraising, the Columbia administration in January 2005 appointed a five-member ad hoc faculty committee to look into the abuses alleged in the film and any others that might be brought forward. The specific incidents investigated by the committee all involved faculty in the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), and most especially Dr. Joseph Massad, assistant professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history (and a member of the JPS editorial committee) who had been spotlighted in the film. In the committee’s report released in late March 2005, Massad was alone among the accused faculty members to be criticized: the committee found it “credible” that he had “responded heatedly” to a student in a spring 2002 classroom incident. Another complaint against Massad, though also found “credible,” was judged to fall into a “grey zone” since it occurred not on campus but at an event the “time, venue, and sponsorship” of which could not be determined. (Massad’s response to the Ad Hoc Committee can be found at Also of note: After the committee report was released, twenty students in Massad’s spring 2002 course wrote to the university specifically refuting the accusing student’s claims. This letter is posted on twentystudentpetition.html.)

Though the MEALAC case ostensibly dealt with faculty misconduct (the exclusive mandate of the ad hoc committee), few questioned that the real issue was academic freedom or, crudely stated, the extent to which the PalestineIsraeli conflict can be taught from a non-mainstream perspective in American universities without censorship. It was for this reason that the MEALAC case was closely followed in universities across the country, where the same issues are being debated. In an open letter to Columbia University, some fifty of its faculty in sixteen different departments noted that within a university context “neither faculty nor students have a right to be shielded from disagreeable or unfamiliar ideas, the production of which is integral to the mission of the university.”

JPS is running four documents related to the MEALAC case. In addition to the key sections of the ad hoc committee report, these include Massad’s testimony to the committee, which furnishes a record of the lengths to which pro-Israeli monitoring organizations are prepared to go in pursuit of their objectives, a letter from the New York Civil Liberties Union, which offers a critique of the committee report, and a New York Times editorial on the report and the Massad case in general.