Nearly 250 alumni, students, faculty, and community members called on Columbia University on Tuesday to discipline a professor accused of making antisemitic comments.
Hamid Dabashi, who teaches Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at the New York school, drew criticism earlier this month after he claimed Israel is behind “[e]very dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious act happening in the world.”
In a post shared on his Facebook page — which as of Wednesday was no longer publicly available — Dabashi also lambasted “opponents of the Iran Nuclear deal” as “diehard Fifth Column Zionists.”
The professor’s remarks — reminiscent of rhetoric used by former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, who in 2012 railed against the efforts of a “Zionist fifth column” in America to attack Iran — were denounced by a coalition of Columbia and Barnard College affiliates, as well as donors and other concerned citizens. They were joined by officials from national Jewish and Zionist groups, including StandWithUs, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Zionist Organization of America, and Students Supporting Israel.
“Professor Dabashi’s statements echo common anti-Semitic canards and meet the working definition of anti-Semitism that the State Department has been using for years,” the signatories wrote in an open letter to Columbia President Lee Bollinger and the school’s Board of Trustees.
They pointed to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by the US and 30 other member states, and includes “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”
Dabashi’s comments — compounded with his history of “depicting Israelis as Nazis, comparing Israel to ISIS, [and] accusing Israel of genocide” — “promote a hostile environment on campuses for pro-Israel and Jewish students,” they warned.
“Relieve Professor Dabashi of teaching responsibilities until he commits to recognizing and ending his anti-Semitic rhetoric,” the coalition urged Bollinger and the Trustees.
While affirming Dabashi’s right to espouse “his personal opinions on his own time,” they argued that the professor should not be allowed “to create a hostile environment on campus for Jewish, Israeli and pro-Israel students.”
They also encouraged administrators to confront Dabashi’s “anti-Semitic bigotry” by publicly condemning his postings, and affirming that “Jewish, Israeli and pro-Israel students, for whom Zionism and the right of Jewish self-determination are core values,” are as welcome as the rest of their peers.
The letter’s organizers — Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a group that fights antisemitism at universities nationwide — sent it along with the testimonies of several petitioners, including associate professor of surgery Paul Kurlansky.
One of the 35 faculty and staff signatories from Columbia and Barnard College, Kurlansky said that he had learned of Dabashi’s “virulent anti-Semitic pronouncements” with “horror.”
“I cannot imagine the impact that such behavior has on both Jewish students and all students concerned with human decency,” wrote Kurlansky, who serves as associate director of the Center of Innovation and Outcomes Research. “If faculty is to be vigilant (and appropriately so) lest the slightest remark be found offensive to our student body, how then is the University to deal with one in position of authority who is so openly hostile?”
Other faculty members called for Dabashi’s dismissal, or recommended that alternative sections of every class he teaches be offered to students. Several emphasized that the professor’s comments could not simply be dismissed on free speech grounds.
“While I respect every faculty member’s right to her/his view it should be based on facts and empirical evidence that would stand up to the scrutiny of a peer reviewed piece of research,” argued Trevor Harris, a Columbia Business School professor. “This is clearly not the case here.”
A postdoctoral fellow at Columbia who requested to remain anonymous asked why “the university would, rightfully, never hire a klansman as faculty and yet it tolerates this kind of anti-Jewish racist as a professor within its ranks?”
“Hiring anti-semites as professors is a practice that stems back to at least the time I was an undergrad, here in the college, in the early 90’s,” the fellow asserted. “Back then, I personally experienced vitriol and hate, in a core Middle-Eastern studies class, hurled at me by an anti-semitic professor who learned of my Israeli parentage.”
One Columbia Business School alumni likewise recalled experiencing antisemitism, hatred, and misinformation while on campus. “It colored (and unfortunately soured) my experience, but more significantly it diminished my respect and support for the university,” wrote Eveie Wilpon Schwartz, who graduated in 2003.
Current Columbia students have also expressed that they feel attacked because of their identity, including Dalia Zahger, an incoming senior who serves as president of her school’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel.
“As an Israeli student I feel targeted in this University by professors such as Dabashi,” she observed. “I expect the administration to AT LEAST help me by condemning him when needed.”
Her comments echoed concerns shared by Adele Stolovitz, president of the Israel advocacy group Aryeh at Columbia, who told The Algemeiner earlier this month that Dabashi’s comments threatened “Jewish, Israeli, and Zionist students.”
“Many Zionist students at Columbia have become desensitized to hearing anti-Israel rhetoric in our classrooms and on our University-wide social media,” Stolovitz said. “But the prevalence of these bigoted views in our forums does not negate the vileness of Dabashi’s statement.”
Rabbi Yonah Blum, the co-director of Chabad at Columbia University and a signatory of the ACF letter, similarly noted at the time that he had “seen a dramatic uptick in the amount of students who are seeking shelter from the intimidation they are feeling on campus due to increasing anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comments and incidents in the classrooms and on campus.”
These testimonies helped spur Victor Muslin, head of the Columbia/Barnard ACF chapter, to organize the letter to Columbia’s administration, in an effort to show that concern over the prevalence of antisemitism and anti-Zionism was “spilling outside the confines of the campus.”
“We need to stop pretending as if faculty’s hateful rhetoric — even if done outside of the university walls — magically is irrelevant to how they act, what they teach and how they grade,” he told The Algemeiner. “These activist professors do not magically transform into fair and tolerant scholars when they step through the door of a classroom.”
Dabashi and representatives of Columbia did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Two weeks ago, a coalition of 65 groups led by the AMCHA Initiative, an antisemitism watchdog, petitioned Columbia’s administration to express their “deep concern about the extraordinarily hostile climate for Jewish and pro-Israel students” on campus.
In a letter to Bollinger, they pointed to a report filed in March by Columbia’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel, which claimed that anti-Zionist students “have monopolized the conversation on campus relating to the Israeli-Arab conflict and have systematically maligned, harassed and silenced” Zionist voices. An administrator at the university previously said that the complaint was reviewed, but did not warrant any action.
“Now is the time,” the signatories wrote, “to take steps to ensure that all Columbia students — including those who identify as Zionists because of their religious belief, ethnic identity, national origin, or political persuasion — are free to express their opinions, beliefs and identities and to fully participate in campus life.”