Academic Integrity Travestied at Columbia Middle East
by Terri Ginsberg
March 14, 2005
On Sunday, March 6, Columbia University hosted a conference called
"The Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus."
Despite its repeated and advertised calls for "balance" and "objectivity"
in academic scholarship, the gathering exemplified nothing of academic
integrity. The conference was sponsored by U.S. organizations which
support the Israeli right wing, including Scholars for Peace in the Middle
East, Columbians for Academic Freedom, The David Project, Jewish
Business Student Association, and Koleinu: Columbia Law Students for
Israel, and all participants hailed solely from the political Right on the
issue of Israel/Palestine. Each presentation expressed support for U.S.
and Israeli military manipulation of the Middle East as well as for anti-
Arab racism and legislation that would censor dissenting speech,
deemed "oppressive" and "antisemitic," in both the academic and public
The merging of a neoconservative agenda with the language of
liberation is disconcerting, to say the least: it places a blatant bid to
foster the idea that neoconservatives, who openly seek to mold the
world into a mirror-image of an oligarchic U.S., are in fact "progressives."
The best and most incendiary example of this was the presentation by
Phyllis Chesler, a recognized feminist best known for her 1972 book,
"Women and Madness," and more recently the author of the
neoconservative "The New Anti-Semitism," a book that charges all critics
of Israel with being antisemites. Chesler starred at the "Academic
Integrity" conference, emphasizing her feminism while decrying
"multiculturalist" insistence on equality for Palestinian women. Insisting
that she is feminist, anti-racist, and pro-gay, Chesler then declared
herself (and the audience) victims of that purported majority of feminists,
African Americans, and gays whose propensity to question her pro-
Likud views belies as self-serving, she claimed, their status as alienated,
struggling, and deserving of sympathy from the U.S. mainstream, and
whose movements should now be monitored for undue influence.
Chesler and subsequent speakers related this phenomenon to the
situation of Palestinians, who were likewise accused of exploiting their
status as occupied to wring unwarranted sympathy from Americans,
while marginalizing Jews.
The inversion of victimhood became salient during the course of the
conference, when Palestinian and Jewish objectors, whose opinions
were apparently unwelcome at the "balanced and objective" event,
challenged Chesler's characterizations. In response, the audience
shouted death threats at the objectors. In one instance, after a
Palestinian-American man explained that he had been shot twice by
Israeli soldiers, an audience member yelled, "If I had been one of those
soldiers, you'd be dead"; in another, a Jewish objector was blocked from
leaving the room and similarly threatened. In response to these audible
pronouncements, conference attendees roundly applauded, and
conference organizers took no action against them. A New York Times
photographer who attempted to capture the incident was immediately
prevented from doing so. Upset and shaken, she wondered aloud
whether her work had been pre-empted because she "didn't look
This travesty of academic discussion was convened to support a
campaign of attacks on professors in Columbia University's Middle East
and Asian Languages and Cultures Department (MEALAC). "Columbia
Unbecoming," a video funded by the David Project which makes claims
about faculty intimidation of students in MEALAC courses, was screened
at the conference. Much like the conference, "Columbia Unbecoming"
presents a disingenuous cry of victimization. Nothing it alleges about
professors' conduct can rightly be considered "intimidating" or a
violation of pedagogical decorum. In fact, "Columbia Unbecoming"
makes not one credible argument: it comprises merely a loose
patchwork of unsubstantiated interviews with ostensible MEALAC
students, and decontextualized quotes from the targeted professors'
writings. No wonder that, although the video has sparked a firestorm of
media coverage and accusations, it is closely guarded by its sponsors
and remains unavailable for public consumption.
The events which transpired at the Columbia conference would be
comical if they weren't so foreboding. The David Project and its cohorts
are working hard to squelch all criticism of Zionism and Israeli policy. In
the name of "fighting antisemitism," they even seek to silence the
growing number of Jews at Columbia University and around the world
who have come to oppose the israeli occupation of the West Bank,
which includes East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Their campaign
draws upon the general rise in discrimination against Arabs, Muslims,
and South Asians and increasing attacks on civil liberties in the U.S. and
elsewhere. Oppositional student voices at Columbia have started
referring to the campaign as "the new McCarthyism."
Enter U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner and neoconservative
ideologue Martin Kramer, whose presentations at the conference
revealed efforts underway to capture the real plum: reauthorization of
Title IV in the U.S. Senate. Reminiscent of HUAC-era Hollywood, the likes
of Kramer have been lobbying Congress for passage of new Title VI
legislation that would establish independent monitoring of university
courses on issues that "affect homeland security," especially Middle
East and international policy studies.
This proposed legislation would in effect remove all decision-making
power over curriculum development and faculty hires and review from
faculty and turn it over to outside appointees. Apropos of Kramer's
presentation, an International Educational Advisory Board would ideally
serve to eliminate higher educational departments and programs
involving international studies that are deemed "anti-American,"
replacing them with private research institutes stocked with scholars
situated firmly on the political Right. It would also review syllabi and
course materials, including article footnotes, to check for and eliminate
perspectives critical of Israeli and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The obvious unprofessionalism of the Columbia conference and the
amateurish "Columbia Unbecoming" video are a faÃ§ade of ineptitude
obscuring a well-organized, deep-pocketed threat. At best, they
constitute a subversive propaganda campaign aimed to dumb down the
populace on many crucial foreign and domestic policy issues. Far worse,
they represent a fierce attack on universities, on critical thinking, and on
the study of political structures in our increasingly fragile and volatile
world. Censorship, racism, and death threats to dissenters, cleverly
disguised as resisting the "intimidation" of conservative students by
"antisemitic" professors, are not merely signals being sent by the "The
Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus"
conference: they are directives issued straight from the top.
Terri Ginsberg was most recently Adjunct Professor of Jewish Studies
at Dartmouth College.
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