Studies Departments Must Ditch Anti-Semitism

Columbia University should defend academic freedom and reconsider hiring activists in place of educators

David Randall

A Columbia student petition to remove Joseph Massad from the Columbia faculty has received more than 47,000 signatures. Massad, a tenured professor in Columbia’s department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, described Hamas’ slaughter of unarmed Israelis, including babies, as a “resistance offensive” to “Israeli settler-colonialism and racism toward the Palestinians.” The petitioners argue that support for terrorist mass murder is sufficient cause for revocation of tenure. Academic freedom proceduralists argue that tenure is an iron-clad protection for all free speech: the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), for example, believes that, “A tenured appointment is an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation.”

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) generally supports individual academic freedom, although we believe the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure provides a better framework for academic freedom than does the AAUP’s later statements. My own provisional judgment is that Massad is an odious figure whose academic freedom protects his tenured position at Columbia University, although it does not protect him from just condemnation by his colleagues, his administration, and every human being possessed of common decency.

But the AAUP statement of principle brings to light a broader question: should Columbia University discontinue its department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS)?

Joseph Massad is not the real problem at Columbia University—MESAAS is.

The question, after all, is not so much what Massad espouses, but why he was hired in the first place, and the general climate of MESAAS. Massad was investigated 20 years ago for creating an anti-Jewish climate in his classroom. MESAAS, in addition to failing to condemn Massad for his immoral statements, is home to other virulent opponents of Israel, whose opposition can only charitably be distinguished from Jew-hatred, such as Rashid Khalidi. MESAAS remains embedded in a discipline whose primary professional organization, the Middle East Studies Association, has endorsed a boycott of Israeli universities. Massad’s presence at Columbia University as a tenured professor suggests that the entire MESAAS department is so steeped in anti-Israel advocacy, and discrimination against Jewish students and professors, that the program should be discontinued.

Such a step would be very grave and should be substantiated—ideally by a distinguished investigating committee, whose conclusions would command broad credibility. This committee must be staffed by experts from outside of Columbia University, who possess no conflict of interest that would incline them to exculpate Columbia. Equally important, this committee must include active critics of the entire Middle East Studies discipline, since the argument for program discontinuance is intimately bound with the argument for the politicization of the professional discipline. The committee can and should include thoughtful figures who are sympathetic to MESAAS, but it must possess a substantial proportion of members who are willing to contemplate a recommendation to discontinue MESAAS—and who are willing to write a majority or minority report making that recommendation, even if they fail to achieve consensus.

The committee’s remit should include not only how to reform or discontinue MESAAS, but also what Columbia University should do to remove the tolerance of Jew-hatred. The committee should consider reforms including public safety regulations that eliminate the “heckler’s veto,” intellectually diverse speaker invitations to campus, and the rescinding of administrative endorsement of doctrines such as “decolonization” and “intersectionality” that have been used to facilitate institutionalized Jew-hatred at Columbia.

Columbia may choose to ignore a recommendation for program discontinuance. But then it will have to explain to the public why it has chosen to continue a program that has merited such severe condemnation.

To remove Joseph Massad from Columbia University would likely violate his academic freedom, and it certainly would be ineffective. Columbia’s illness is far deeper than one intemperate professor; it is an entire department, and an entire administration, in which characters such as Massad are routine. Columbia’s institutions and culture should be reformed root-and-branch, to root out every administrative tolerance for or complicity in Jew-hatred. Columbia’s trustees would do well to install a president willing and able to take on that task. In the interim, however, I believe that a committee along the lines I have suggested is the most effective means by which to ensure that Columbia does not continue to populate the university with a myriad of Massads, whose inveterate malice disgraces any institution of higher education.


Photo by Chenwei Yao on Unsplash

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