One of the functions of faculty is to provide institutional memory and continuity. Students come and go in four years, give or take, and very few know much about events on campus before they arrived. For example, few students on the Columbia campus remember the brouhaha set off by the showing of the documentary film, “Columbia Unbecoming,” in 2004-2005. So I invite you to come with me on a stroll down Memory Lane.
The events that led up to the production of the film actually began earlier. As I have managed to piece bits of information together, here is my understanding of how the film came about. Following 9/11, a number of Columbia students realized that they knew very little about the Arab/Muslim world and decided to take advantage of the course offerings in what was then called the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC). A number of the students were Jewish, and several had visited or lived in Israel. They were neither naïvely nor rigidly pro-Israel—they were honestly open to other points of view. However, they expected their professors to be knowledgeable about the facts and willing to entertain other points of view as well. They were therefore shocked at the blatant demonization of Israel and ad hominem rhetoric that they encountered from several professors, and further dismayed at the refusal of the faculty and administration to address their complaints. When the David Project offered to film the students’ accounts of faculty and student anti-Israel bias, they accepted, and the result was "Columbia Unbecoming." The students showed the film only to very carefully screened audiences in the beginning for fear of reprisals. But inevitably, the media became aware of the film and insisted on seeing it. After a considerable amount of adverse publicity, the Columbia administration organized an ad hoc committee of faculty to hear the grievances and to issue a report. The report proved to be an overall exoneration of the faculty, with the exception of a gentle slap on the wrist for Joseph Massad, then an untenured assistant professor, who had been the object of the most complaints. Subsequently, through a review procedure that had allegedly contained irregularities, Professor Massad was awarded tenure.
I have reviewed this history because it helps to account for the impressions held by some outsiders that Columbia is not a good place for Jewish students. The recent conference held by Students for Justice in Palestine did little to refute that impression. Like many other campuses, Columbia has faculty and students who denounce Israel and its defenders, but Columbia is also a supportive environment for students from a vast array of backgrounds. As I have said previously: Calling attention to Israel’s imperfections, like calling attention to French, U.S., or Saudi imperfections, is perfectly valid. However, criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitic (and therefore indicative of ethnic hatred) if it involves claiming that the Jewish state of Israel is inherently racist (a Jewish state is no more inherently racist than are the several Christian states or the many Islamic states), holding Israel to a standard of behavior not applied to any other democratic nation, directing at Israel accusations associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., blood libel), comparing contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, or holding individual Jews/Israelis collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel. To the extent that professors (or students, or other members of the campus community) cross that line, the campus environment becomes a hostile one for Jews.
I apologize for repeating myself, but I think it is important to distinguish between acceptable criticism and expressions of ethnic hatred.
The author is an associate professor of clinical epidemiology in the Mailman School of Public Health. She is a co-coordinator of the Columbia chapter for the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.