Controversy At Columbia: A View From Inside The Institution

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In the past year there have been press reports of a problem at Columbia University. The New York Sun has been the leader in exposing the details but the New York Post has also gotten involved. The New York Times has mostly stayed away, its coverage, when there’s been any, marked by superficiality and its famously skewed “balance.”

The basic details are that courses covering the Middle East are obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are wildly biased against Israel; and that Israeli and other Jewish students have encountered a very hostile reception, even in Arabic language classes, when they have dared challenge the version of events being presented to them.

The university appointed first one then another committee to investigate, but their mandate has been limited to the specific episodes of harassment. The structural problems with the major offending department (Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures, or MEALAC) were explicitly excluded from review. Moreover, the composition of the most recent committee appears to have been overtly stacked in favor of those being investigated. No concessions have yet been made, despite the ongoing controversy. The university’s strategy appears to be aimed at waiting out the press’s interest, slapping the offending professors on the wrist (at best), and mollifying the Jewish community by appointing a single professor to head an Israel studies institute.

A very few of the very many Jewish professors at Columbia have been moved to oppose the systematic anti-Israel bias that pervades Columbia`s teaching and to argue for the inadequacy of the “settlement” that appears to be in the offing. We have affiliated ourselves with Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a national organization. (We have, in fact, become its most active chapter.) Our first task has been to try to understand, in a fundamental sense, why our institution and most universities are the way they are.

The truth begins to emerge when one realizes that universities are real organic communities of human beings. Like most communities, universities have common beliefs that help hold them together. I call those beliefs a “secular religion,” and it is about the same at every campus in the Western world. This religion – let’s call it Alienated Leftism – has firm beliefs regarding many social questions. Because of the centrality of these beliefs to the campus “faith” and the difficulty of ever proving anything right or wrong in any social science, the temptation can become irresistible to convert social science (and humanities) departments into “theology” faculties. Everyone in those departments must support the common view or risk being cast out for something very similar to heresy.

Those of us who work in disciplines that are perceived as peripheral to the heart of academic life (law, medicine, business, etc.) get a little more wiggle room. Most of us really have no idea of the pressure to conform that exists in the social sciences and humanities and of the moral – and temporal – power that the insiders, the various “theologians,” “saints” and “martyrs” that populate those departments, can wield.

Most Middle Eastern studies departments are populated by scholars from the minorities and non-Western societies that constitute the special protected classes, the “widows and orphans,” of Alienated Leftism. These scholars function prominently as the human embodiments of the academic secular religion. As such they are uniformly and virulently anti-Zionist – and, of course, anti-American. They may not be challenged for these views or even for their scholarly deficiencies, when present. The public manifestation of those views is the purpose for which they are hired. Their job is to be the saints of “Alienated Leftism,” and any attempt to challenge them only confers upon them the dual status of martyr.

Universities don’t make a habit of publicizing their cultural differences to the surrounding communities that support them. However, the situation in the Middle-Eastern-studies corner of our local branch of the academy escaped to the public’s attention because of the above­mentioned episodes of harassment. It seemed reasonable to many of the trustees, alumni, donors and other “outsiders” who have now gotten involved that affiliated Jews and others of pro-U.S. or pro-Israel views at Columbia needed a place to learn about the Middle East where they would not encounter hostile bias or ill treatment. But what many have not understood is that this problem cannot be eliminated without breaking the intellectual monopoly that exists within MEALAC.

This need is not limited to MEALAC or to Columbia`s affiliated Jews. Homogeneity of views is the rule in academic departments teaching the humanities and social sciences. Such homogeneity, in general, leads to smugness, which escalates to arrogance, and then produces intolerance and harassment of those who disagree. There is no question, however, that the problem has been particularly acute in MEALAC. The only cure is the cultivation of intellectual diversity in the staffing of the department. With the breaking of the stifling intellectual orthodoxy that dominates Columbia and similar institutions, true intellectual diversity would also begin to bubble up from within. This wholesale unraveling is the ultimate nightmare of the apparatchiks who rule the present order.

Importantly, experts of any ethnicity can perform this vital function. There are, specifically, many examples of Arab and Iranian scholars whose recruitment could be considered a triumph: for Columbia, for the United States, and above all for the students (and many examples of Israeli scholars whose recruitment would provide no such benefit).

To date, this proposed solution has been explicitly rejected by the administration. President Bollinger’s March 23 address on this subject was quoted by The New York Times as follows:

“We should not accept the idea that the remedy for lapses is to add more professors with different political points of view, as some would have us do,” Mr. Bollinger said. “The notion of a balanced curriculum, in which students can, in effect, select and compensate for bias, sacrifices the essential norm of what we are supposed to be about in a university. It`s like saying of doctors in a hospital that there should be more Republicans, or more Democrats. It also risks polarization of the university, where liberals take courses from liberal professionals and conservatives take conservatives classes.”

Doctors don’t teach politics, of course. It seems those who do teach politics at Columbia will remain those who are willing to present only the current unipolar, therefore unpolarized, view of it. But in the interest of self-preservation, they apparently will be expected to avoid those most arrogant improprieties that attracted the current unwelcome attention.

The Columbia chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East put together an all-day conference on March 6 whose purpose was to encourage Columbia professors to break out from the fear of social ostracism that has suppressed the expression of independent views here and to encourage the meaningful reform whose necessity has now become so evident. We clearly have much work still ahead of us.

We would like to make one thing absolutely clear: We do not endorse any attempt to seek the firing, or the restriction of the freedom of expression, of those with whom we disagree. This is a straw man, likely deliberately raised. We believe that the solution to the problem of bias, intolerance, suppression and harassment in MEALAC can only come through expanding the department with scholars who hold different views, including pro-American and pro Israel views, not by any attempt to hold the current professors to anyone else`s standards of academic objectivity or civil discourse. Such attempts would be futile in the current environment and would attract the cynical charge of McCarthyism, an accusation that we reject and that is clearly more appropriately made against the institutional regime that we oppose.

Dr. Neil S. Shachter is a cardiologist and lipid metabolism researcher at Columbia University. In 2002 he organized the first large international scientific meeting in Israel since the start of the intifada. The meeting is now an annual event.

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Controversy At Columbia: A View From Inside The Institution

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