Posts Tagged Columbia

Columbia’s slippery boycotters

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on October 2.

Columbia, Alma MaterIn a post in late August, I asked whether Columbia University’s federally-funded Middle East Institute was boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education. Why? Its director, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, has signed a pledge by some Middle East studies academics “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.” Did that personal pledge extend to the Middle East Institute, a Title VI National Research Center under her direction?

I posed the question to David Stone, executive vice-president for communications at Columbia, and received this reply from him:

If an individual faculty member chooses not to participate in events involving Israel, that is a personal choice that has no effect on the programs of the Middle East Institute or the rest of the University. The Institute itself is home to a broad range of teaching and research including a number of fellowships and grants that support faculty and student research and study in Israel; and its faculty members are engaged in a variety of projects with Israeli scholars.

Alan Luxenberg, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, posed the same question directly to Abu-Lughod, and received this reply:

My decision does not affect the Middle East Institute where we welcome distinguished scholars and students from all over the world, fund language training for students in all Middle Eastern languages, support study abroad in all the region’s universities, and support, modestly, summer research for students in all the countries of the region, including Israel.

The Middle East Institute serves the Columbia community. It does not have any institutional partnerships with other universities, whether in the US or abroad.

I’m not surprised (or persuaded) by these answers. I think it’s telling that Abu-Lughod has not issued a public statement of her position, which might be deemed an unacceptable compromise by the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) cult. After all, if you really believe that Israel is South Africa (or worse), why not demonstrably abjure any administrative role in academe that compels you to treat it equally? What’s the worth of a boycott if it doesn’t mean sacrificing your access to something to advance a cause—whether it’s a home soda maker or the coveted directorship of a Middle East center?

But that’s neither here nor there. The taxpaying public has the right to expect that every signatory of the boycott pledge who runs a Title VI National Research Center issue an assurance that the boycott doesn’t apply during working hours. And the public has the right to expect an equal assurance from a university’s higher administration. Anything less than that should be automatically suspect, because it’s the bare minimum, and because it’s obvious that even these assurances don’t mean that there isn’t a stealth boycott underway.

A Title VI federally-funded National Research Center is committed by law to making sure that its programming will reflect “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions.” Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education, which administers the program, has failed even to define what this means. Consider this test case. On September 19, Columbia’s Middle East Institute co-sponsored (with the university’s Center for Palestine Studies) a panel entitled “The War on Gaza: Military Strategy and Historical Horizons.” (Notice the title, as though there wasn’t a war on Israel too.) It included three Palestinian-American boycotters: Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi, Barnard professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, and legal activist Noura Erakat. And that’s it. Read the live tweets from the session, and judge the tenor of the proceedings yourself. Did this event offer “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views,” and was it structured to “generate debate”? No. So just what must the Middle East Institute do now to assure that it meets its obligation?

My own view is that there’s nothing that a bureaucrat in Washington can do to assure that it does. No Department of Education official is going to detect a stealth boycott or do any serious follow-up on whether taxpayer dollars are going to political activists in academic guise. That means that the reform of Title VI, a creaking holdover from the Cold War, is impossible. If you think that Title VI, on balance, does more good than harm, you’re just going to have to accept that some of your tax dollars will go to agitprop for Hamas. If you think that’s totally unacceptable, you should favor the total elimination of Title VI from the Higher Education Act, now up for reauthorization. There is no middle ground.

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    Columbia boycotts Israel?

    Several hundred Middle East scholars have put out a letter pledging to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education. The organized association of Middle Eastern studies has rejected boycotts in the past, and is likely to do so again if the issue even gets tabled at the next convention. So the boycott of Israel in Middle Eastern studies is being organized along the lines of a personal pledge by individual scholars.

    Israeli institutions of higher education (including, presumably, the one over which I preside, Shalem College in Jerusalem), are deemed by these scholars to be “complicit in violating Palestinian rights.” The signatories thus pledge “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.” The pledge will remain in effect until these institutions call on Israel to end the Gaza “siege,” evacuate all territory “occupied” in 1967, and “promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.” In other words, it’s a boycott until Israel dies.

    I looked down the list of signatories, and mostly saw the usual suspects. Columbia, of course, is heavily represented. The boycotters include such tenured Columbia radicals as Rashid Khalidi, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Hamid Dabashi, Gil Anidjar, Mahmood Mamdani, George Saliba, Brinkley Messick, Timothy Mitchell, and Wael Hallaq. In fact, no university has more senior faculty boycotters signed on this letter than Columbia.

    But one name in particular caught my eye: Lila Abu-Lughod, professor of anthropology. I remembered that she had become director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute a few years back. Why is that significant? The Institute she directs is a Title VI U.S. Department of Education-supported National Resource Center (NRC) for the Middle East. An NRC is supposed to “maintain linkages with overseas institutions of higher education and other organizations that may contribute to the teaching and research of the Center.”

    The question I now have is whether this (taxpayer-subsidized) academic unit of Columbia is boycotting Israeli academe? Or are we to believe that Professor Abu-Lughod is only boycotting Israeli institutions personally, but is prepared to cooperate with them officially? Columbia should issue a clarification, and give a public account of the overseas institutional linkages the Institute does have, so that we can see whether a de facto boycott of Israel is in place at Columbia. You can even pose the question yourself, to Columbia’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, right here.

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      “Gaza = Auschwitz”

      First published in Mosaic Magazine, August 26, 2014.

      Five years ago, during an earlier Israeli operation in Gaza, the British novelist Howard Jacobson explained why “call[ing] the Israelis Nazis and liken[ing] Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto” goes far beyond mere “criticism” of Israel:

      Berating Jews with their own history, disinheriting them of pity, as though pity is negotiable or has a sell-by date, is the latest species of Holocaust denial. . . . Instead of saying the Holocaust didn’t happen, the modern sophisticated denier accepts the event in all its terrible enormity, only to accuse the Jews of trying to profit from it, either in the form of moral blackmail or downright territorial theft. According to this thinking, the Jews have betrayed the Holocaust and become unworthy of it, the true heirs to their suffering being the Palestinians.

      Experts call this Holocaust inversion. Based in the claim that Israel now behaves toward the Palestinians as Nazi Germany behaved toward the Jews, it originated in post-World War II Soviet propaganda, and from there spread to the Soviets’ Arab clients. It is now fully embedded in the Arab-Muslim world, where it grows and mutates in symbiosis with outright denial that the Holocaust occurred or a radical reduction of its genocidal scale, ferocity, and number of victims. Holocaust inversion has a graphic omnipresence in cartoons all over the Arab and Iranian press, where Israelis are regularly portrayed in Nazi regalia. Elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond, it has surfaced in the rhetoric of populist demagogues and the media. In Turkey’s new president and long-time prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it now has a champion in a head of state. In Europe, Holocaust inversion is busy spreading beyond its original locus of infection and finding a home among intellectuals and activists, especially on the Left.

      Thankfully, the disease is still rather hard to find in America, where it festers in only a few dark places. Some of those places, regrettably, operate as institutions of higher learning, and in one of them—Columbia University—a number of professors, mainly instructors in Middle East studies, have distinguished themselves in the black art of defaming Israel as a Holocaust emulator. Only a decade ago, Columbia was compelled to investigate departmental instructors who had been accused of intimidating their students with extreme anti-Israel diatribes. Not only did the university absolve its professors, however, it even granted tenure to the one faculty member against whom its own investigators found a student’s claims to be “credible.” Encouraged by this green light, the extremists have been tunneling under Morningside Heights ever since, fortifying their positions and waiting for a signal to emerge firing.

       

      The recent war in Gaza has supplied the signal. Columbia now boasts three American exponents of the process described by Jacobson as “habituation to a language of loathing.”

      The first is Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature. Almost exactly ten years ago, Dabashi sized up the security personnel working at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport—a “fully fortified barrack,” he called it—in these words:

      Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people, the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture.

      Now, ten years later, Dabashi hasn’t lost his capacity for demonizing Jews. In an article entitled “Gaza: Poetry after Auschwitz,” Dabashi borrows a title and what he imagines is a license from the post-Holocaust theorist Theodor Adorno to make his key point:

      What are Israelis? Who are Israelis? They are Israelis by virtue of what? By a shared and sustained murderous history—from Deir Yassin in 1948 to Gaza in 2014. . . . After Gaza, not a single living Israeli can utter the word “Auschwitz” without it sounding like “Gaza.” Auschwitz as a historical fact is now archival. Auschwitz as a metaphor is now Palestinian. From now on, every time any Israeli, every time any Jew, anywhere in the world, utters the word “Auschwitz,” or the word “Holocaust,” the world will hear “Gaza.”

      Once again, there is the conflation of Israel with “murder”—and not just murder but, in a new step for Dabashi, a “sustained murderous history” that has finally achieved Holocaust-class status: in Gaza, he writes, Israel has created an Auschwitz. As a “historical fact,” the real Auschwitz—the one where 500 totally innocent Jews perished for every single innocent or guilty Palestinian killed in Israel’s recent operation—is now merely “archival.” Now, the world’s most infamous death camp has become a “metaphor” for a place where, as it just so happens, the population grows by almost three percent per year. Such is the abyss of ignorance, bigotry, and casual mendacity inhabited by Columbia’s chaired professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature.

      Next up is Joseph Massad, associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history and the man who, having compiled the clearest record of classroom intimidation at the very time he was being considered for promotion to permanent faculty status, stood at the center of the last Columbia scandal. Then, in his struggle for academic survival, Massad had protested to the university’s investigating committee that the “lie . . . claiming that I would equate Israel with Nazi Germany”—the essence of one student accusation—“is abhorrent. I have never made such a reprehensible equation.” In a moment that won’t be remembered as Columbia’s finest, President Lee Bollinger and his board, succumbing to the bullying of radical faculty members, granted him tenure.

      By 2009, after another Gaza flare-up, Massad no longer had any need for dissimulation. The professor who had found “reprehensible” the equation of Israel with Nazi Germany published an article entitled “The Gaza Ghetto Uprising.” Illustrated by the famous image of a surrendering child in the Warsaw ghetto, the article invoked an alleged Israeli plan to “make Israel a purely Jewish state that is Palästinener-rein,” and characterized the Palestinian Authority—or, rather, “the Israeli-created Palestinian Collaborationist Authority”—as “the judenrat, the Nazi equivalent” in this scenario. Al Jazeera ran a pathetic response by an American Jewish critic of Israel who scolded the author for damaging the Palestinian cause.

      Last year, Massad penned another effort, “The Last of the Semites,” carrying the equation back in time. It was, he, postulated, their “shared goal of expelling Jews from Europe as a separate unassimilable race that created the affinity between Nazis and Zionists all along.” Massad ended the article by anointing the Palestinians as the true “heirs” of the pre-Holocaust Jewish struggle against anti-Semitism. So great was the revulsion caused by this piece of Holocaust inversion that its publisher, Al Jazeera, pulled it for a time.

      Massad views each Israeli-Palestinian crisis as an opportunity to extend the range of his “language of loathing.” The Nazi analogy no longer sufficing, he has now seized upon the latest conflict in Gaza to promote yet another loaded trope: Israel as the international Jew engaged in child sacrifice. In an piece devoted to the role of foreign volunteers in the Israeli military, Massad slips in a crucial phrase denouncing these “international Zionist Jewish brigades of baby-killers.”

      There’s an irony here, and a tragic one. During Columbia’s investigation of the complaints against him, Massad was most vigorously defended by an unlikely student supporter, who once showed up on campus in a sandwich board inscribed “I served in the Israeli army. I love Massad.” The student, who insisted that “nobody calls me a baby-killer when I go to office hours,” later committed suicide, and is memorialized at Columbia through a summer travel scholarship for students in the Middle East program. With Massad’s own airing of the “baby-killer” canard, the professor has now betrayed the ghost of his most ardent Jewish defender.

      And then there is Rashid Khalidi, holder of the Edward Said chair of modern Arab studies and a professor of a somewhat higher class. While Dabashi and Massad find it difficult to place their effusions in publications other than the death-to-Israel Electronic Intifada or the angry-Arab Al Jazeera and Ahram Weekly, Khalidi has entrée to the elite liberal New York press. He also knows enough not to try his editors’ patience with naked examples of Holocaust inversion. Yet here he was, in a piece for the New Yorker, creeping up to the edge. Decrying the “collective punishment” being meted out to Gaza, Khalidi introduces his telltale allusion: “The truth of ghettos . . . is that, eventually, the ghetto will fight back. It was true in Soweto and Belfast, and it is true in Gaza.”

      Soweto and Belfast? Where’s Warsaw? It’s there, hovering in the background, as was pointed out by two political scientists examining the increasingly popular use of “the language of genocide and the Holocaust with reference to Gaza”:

      An example of this trend [they write] is a growing use of the word “ghetto,” a term associated directly (but in no way exclusively) with the Holocaust to describe the Gaza Strip. . . . While [Rashid] Khalidi does not directly compare the Gaza violence to the Holocaust (he uses the examples of Belfast and Soweto), the image of a fighting ghetto is strongly associated with the Warsaw ghetto.

      Indeed, a few days after his article appeared, Khalidi confirmed just which ghetto he meant by denouncing “the siege, the blockade, the starvation of these people” in Gaza. The Nazis did indeed starve the Warsaw ghetto, and famine killed thousands. But not a soul has died of starvation in Gaza, and if stunted growth in childhood is a measure of poor nutrition, Gaza’s rate is lower than that of any Arab state but Qatar. Philip Gourevitch, also writing in the New Yorker, characterized Khalidi’s ghetto-referencing piece as an instance of “magical thinking.” He was being charitable.

       

      Beyond these three cases, another Columbia-related episode is worth noting. Probably the cleverest of the anti-Israel lot on Morningside Heights is Nadia Abu El-Haj, associate professor of anthropology at Barnard College. A few years back, she, too, won a bruising tenure battle. But in her case, the outcome was never in doubt because (unlike Massad) she trod lightly. “I’m not a public intellectual,” she said at the time. “I’m drawn to archives, to disciplines where the evidence sits for a while. I don’t court controversy.” This, despite the fact that her entire “academic” project is aimed at casting Zionism as the fabrication of a totally specious national identity. “Israel is a settler-nation,” she writes, “that is, a project of European colonial settlement that imagined and believed itself to be a project of national return.” Those deceiving Zionists—they even duped themselves into thinking they were going home!

      Much too smart to indulge in Holocaust inversion, Abu El-Haj hit upon an alternative in a recent contribution to the London Review of Books:

      The IDF’s tactics [in Gaza] recall the logic of the British and American firebombing of German and Japanese cities during World War II: target the civilian population. Make them pay an unbearable price. Then they will turn against their own regime. When Israel attacks hospitals in Gaza, when it wipes out extended families, when it mows down children running on a beach, it is engaged in a premeditated act.

      No Auschwitz or Warsaw ghetto for Abu El-Haj. But Dresden and Tokyo—why not? So what if Israel, unlike the Allies in World War II, warns civilians of impending strikes and, again unlike the Allies, eschews area bombardment and incendiary bombs? So what if one night of bombing over Tokyo killed 50 times as many as Israel’s month-long campaign in Gaza?

      When you see four boys dead on a Gaza beach, Abu El-Haj wants you to “recall,” with her, the 40,000 civilians killed in Hamburg. (Sorry, the actual figure was 42,000—but what’s another 2,000 here or there? Either way, the entire toll in Gaza fits into the margin of error of one firebombing in World War II.) Might the Israelis, in their targeting, ever commit something as human as a mistake, even a negligent one? No, they’re far too inhuman for that: when they kill, it’s always “premeditated.” “Nothing Unintentional” is the delicate title of Abu El-Haj’s article, which might as well have been called “Baby-Killers.”

      There is such a thing as legitimate criticism of Israel, and there is such a thing as crossing the line into demonization and, to put it plainly, Jew-baiting. The analogies spewed by Columbia’s tenured professors are of the latter kind, and are obscene. Jew-baiting covers a wider range than anti-Semitism, and Holocaust inversion is its favorite technique. Jew-baiting is the demand that Israel and its supporters explain why Gaza isn’t like a Nazi extermination camp or a starved ghetto for the doomed, or why a targeted air campaign isn’t just like the incineration of Dresden. That it should be practiced so openly by tenured professors at New York’s Ivy League home is a scandal, and a warning.

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        Start with two Palestinians

        In an interview in February 2003, Edward Said said this:

        An outrageous Israeli, Martin Kramer, uses his Web site to attack everybody who says anything he doesn’t like. For example, he has described Columbia as “the Bir Zeit [university] on the Hudson,” because there are two Palestinians teaching here. Two Palestinians teaching in a faculty of 8,000 people! If you have two Palestinians, it makes you a kind of terrorist hideout. This is part of the atmosphere of intimidation that is McCarthyite.

        Flash forward seven years later, to last week’s formal inauguration of the new Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. From its website:

        Founded in January 2010, the Center for Palestine Studies is the first such center to be established in an academic institution in the United States. Columbia University is currently the professional home to a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine and Palestinians, as well as to award-winning supporting faculty in a variety of disciplines.

        So how did Columbia go so rapidly from “two Palestinians teaching in a faculty of 8,000 people!” to “a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine and the Palestinians”? Don’t be shocked, but Edward Said was out to deceive in that 2003 interview. Obviously there were more than two Palestinians back then. But I didn’t invent the nickname Bir Zeit-on-Hudson because of their number. It was meant to evoke precisely the atmosphere of intimidation—anti-Israel intimidation—that would later come to light in the “Columbia Unbecoming” affair.

        Now that Columbia boasts of being home to “a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine” (who “will have a national and global reach”), Bir Zeit-on-Hudson hardly sounds far-fetched. By that, I don’t mean a “terrorist hideout”—those were Said’s words, not mine—but a redoubt of militant Palestinian nationalism in the guise of scholarship. And I mean militant: the affiliates of the new center aren’t only engaged in the positive affirmation of Palestinian identity, but are activists in the campaign to negate Israel. This is obviously the case in regard to Joseph Massad and Nadia Abu al-Haj—their field isn’t Palestine studies, it’s anti-Israel studies—but it’s increasingly true of the new center’s co-director, Rashid Khalidi, Columbia’s Edward Said Professor, an enthusiastic spokesman for the PLO in its terrorist phase and a severe critic of the same leadership in its present phase.

        For now, Khalidi is cleverly doing what Said did with his “two Palestinians” shtick. “We have absolutely no money,” Khalidi said at the launch (attended by an overflow crowd). “What our little modest center will be able to do may be some narrow, specific things,” he reassured a journalist from the Jewish Forward. I’m not buying it, and I think that the moniker Bir Zeit-on-Hudson is too modest to convey the scope of the ambition behind this project. So I’m working on an alternative. For a preview, click on the thumbnail or here.

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          Why I’m (still) grateful to Columbia

          This is how I opened my lecture on U.S. Middle East policy to the Columbia University International Relations Forum on November 16.

          As some of you may know, I’ve been a long-time and often sharp critic of certain decisions made by Columbia University. There’s a saying, that honest criticism is hard to take, especially from a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger. In other words, it doesn’t much matter, but for what it’s worth, my criticism hasn’t been that of a stranger. I’ve commented as a professional academic, as a Columbia alumnus, and as a Columbia University Press author, who remembers this great university as a place of diverse approaches and the highest standards.

          The standards I recall were personified by the late J.C. Hurewitz, with whom I studied here almost thirty-five years ago. For the younger of you in this audience, that name will mean very little, perhaps nothing. But for many years, Hurewitz dominated the teaching of the Middle East at Columbia, for which he set a very high bar. I took my first course with Hurewitz along with fellow student Lisa Anderson, who later succeeded him as director of the Middle East Institute and went on to serve as dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. She precisely and elegantly described Hurewitz in these words:

          The motif in J.C. Hurewitz’s professional life has been a belief in the possibility and desirability of fairness.… His commitment to an abstract notion of fairness as a value, both moral and pragmatic, was particularly striking in worlds—Middle Eastern politics, academics, government—where the primacy of personal bias or political inclination has been far more common.… There were, of course, those who believed the effort to be misguided, who said and continue to say that objectivity is impossible and dispassion irresponsible. Hurewitz did not say he was trying to be objective in any absolute or scientific sense, however: indeed, epistemological questions are of no interest to him and he has great respect for the passions of others. He strove to be fair.

          This is not the occasion to ask whether Columbia still elevates those who strive to be fair. I do want to take the opportunity to note that my best recollections of Columbia are the moments when J.C. Hurewitz seemingly floated above partisanship to achieve a higher insight on some highly contentious issue. This is a standard that’s not easy to maintain, and I sometimes fail to maintain it myself. But I learned enough here to know that partisanship, while sometimes a personal imperative, is never a scholarly virtue, and certainly should never be mistaken for scholarship. For that distinction, learned at a different Columbia at a different time, I’m still grateful.

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