Academic Integrity Travestied at Columbia Middle East
    Studies Conference

    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
    spheres.

    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
    Jewish."

    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 façade 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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