A history of intimidation at Columbia

March 29, 2016

With new smears again being directed at supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, Monique Dols, a student at Columbia University between 2000 and 2008, uncovers a history of pro-Israel campaigns on campus, designed to harass and intimidate activism and scholarship about Palestine.

SINCE THE beginning of 2016, the Palestine solidarity movement has been picking up steam at Columbia University. More student groups, faculty and individuals than ever have been drawn into the movement and are publicly taking a stand for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

The growing movement is catching the attention of those who are sympathetic to anti-racist struggles of oppressed people--but it has also come under fire from pro-Israel forces both on and off campus. And apparently, they will stop at nothing to slander the Palestine movement, outrageously claiming that the Palestine movement makes them feel "unsafe" and "silenced" on campus.

The Zionist attempts to whitewash Israel and censor debate at Columbia are unfortunately not new. There is a long history of Zionists trying to curb speech and academic freedom surrounding the issue of Palestine at Columbia University.

TAKE THE case of the late Edward Said, a former professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia and internationally acclaimed Palestinian public intellectual. In July 2000, he and his family visited South Lebanon after it was liberated from 18 years of Israeli occupation. While visiting, Said and family visited the infamous al-Khiam prison, where Israel imprisoned, tortured and killed an unknown number of Lebanese people.

The late Edward Said casts a symbolic stone of resistance toward Israel from Lebanon
The late Edward Said casts a symbolic stone of resistance toward Israel from Lebanon

Said then visited Fatima's Gate, the border crossing used by Israeli forces moving in and out of Lebanon. While there, Said threw a rock towards the border as "a symbolic act of joy that the occupation had ended," he later explained. Throwing stones had come to symbolize the lopsided resistance to Israeli occupation, as seen when Palestinians throw rocks against the tanks and bulldozers of the oppressors.

In response, Zionist organizations spearheaded an attack on Said back in the U.S., using the same false pretense we hear today--his symbolic act was threatening to the safety and well-being of Israelis. Never mind that people throwing a rock towards the Israeli border at Fatima's Gate can hardly even get close enough to reach the border fence, let alone get hit an Israeli soldier on the other side of it.

Some of Said's own colleagues at the university called for his suspension or dismissal and outrageously categorized his act as "abhorrent and primitive" and as a "gratuitous act of random violence." Even news articles on the topic couldn't avoid racist caricatures, with headlines such as "Edward Said accused of stoning in South Lebanon"--as if Said had stoned someone to death.

After months of a campaign to paint Palestinians as the aggressors and Israelis as the victims, Said was eventually vindicated, and Columbia University finally issued a statement explaining that it would not censure its celebrated faculty member. "To my knowledge, the stone was directed at no one; no law was broken; no indictment was made; no criminal or civil action has been taken against Professor Said," Jonathan Cole, provost and dean of faculties at Columbia, told reporters.

The campaign against Said coincided with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000. The mass rebellion of Palestinian people brought worldwide attention to the Palestinian struggle and raised big questions about the role of the U.S. in the region--even prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks.

In the years following 9/11, the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and later Iraq, and the political establishment undertook a sustained campaign of Islamophobia and racism towards Arabs. In 2002, professors at Columbia University launched a petition for divestment from companies that manufacture and sell arms to Israel, but were pushed back. All the while, the destruction of Palestine kept grinding on.

Domestically, thousands of Arabs and Muslims were detained, tortured and the numbers of racist attacks in the U.S. skyrocketed. Millions of people protested and marched around the world to stop the Iraq war, but ultimately failed.

IT WAS in this context of diminished civil liberties and heightened racism that the David Project, a well-funded pro-Israel think tank based in Boston, launched a McCarthyite witch hunt at Columbia.

In fall 2004, the David Project released a propaganda film called Columbia Unbecoming, in which notoriously pro-Israel Jews on campus claimed they had been subjected to harassment and intimidation. The movie, which was released to the press months before it was screened or viewed publicly at Columbia, showed 40 minutes of unsubstantiated testimony of pro-Israel students who were bothered by hearing discourse that they disagreed with.

The movie was used to launch a campaign of harassment against pro-Palestinian professors from the Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department.

In the film, a former Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldier-turned-student at the School of General Studies recounted being in an Arabic class where a teacher defined the word "prevent" in Arabic. The professor reportedly used the word "prevent" in a sentence to demonstrate meaning: "The IDF prevents Palestinian ambulances from crossing through checkpoints."

This fact bothered the IDF veteran--despite the widely reported reality that Palestinian ambulances were regularly targeted by Israel during the Intifada. Israel publicly defends this practice by claiming self-defense.

The last time I checked, challenging your own assumptions is supposed to be part of the point of college, but rather than looking critically at his support for a military that systematically targets hospitals and ambulances in the name of self-defense, the ex-IDF soldier asserted he had been intimidated by the professor's statement of fact.

ANYONE WHO did not have a Zionist ax to grind could see that the movie was actually about curbing pro-Palestinian speech on campus. But unlike the period before 9/11, when the university administration hesitatingly defended Said, this time Columbia folded.

As a result of the Zionist and media pressure, Columbia established an Ad Hoc Grievance Committee to "examin[e] student complaints of intimidation in the classroom by faculty in the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC)." The effect of this McCarthyite committee was to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among pro-Palestinian faculty and students on campus.

While the committee largely found the claims to be unfounded, its report singled out one professor, Joseph Massad, who at the time was untenured and had been at the center of a three-year-long campaign by Zionists to try to get him fired.

As Professor Massad wrote of the impact of the committee's findings:

Even though the report acknowledges that there has been an ongoing organized effort at intimidation, by forces both external and internal to the university, of Middle East faculty at Columbia, especially me, and that this has been going on for years, the committee fails to see how its very establishment and the manner in which it established its findings makes it part of this campaign of intimidation.

The objective of this campaign is to silence all dissenting scholarly voices, indeed to silence scholarship per se on the Palestine/Israel conflict. As scholarship on the conflict has largely uncovered the scale of the atrocities and historical wrongs that Israel and the Zionist movement have visited and continue to visit on the Palestinian people, the witch-hunters won't have any of it.

It is high time that Columbia faculty stood up to this internal and external campaign that seeks to suppress our academic freedom and to destroy the institution of the university. If we fail to act now, the repercussions will indeed be grave for all of us.

AS DOCUMENTED by Palestine Legal as well as Jewish Voice for Peace, the pro-Israel lobby regularly uses false claims of anti-Semitism to curb academic freedom and pressure university administrations to sanction professors and students who speak out in favor of Palestinian rights.

The claims are increasingly couched in terms that seek to disarm progressive activists on campus, mimicking the language of identity politics to assert that Jewish students feel "unsafe," "silenced" or "marginalized." But the reality is that the forces involved simply don't want to have their racist views about Palestinians challenged by simple facts, scholarship or activism on campus.

In the spring of 2014, the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) had its pro-Palestine banner removed from a building at Barnard after Zionists claimed that it made them feel unsafe.

This strategy was also used at New York University when the SJP slid fake eviction notices under dorm room doors to draw attention to Israel's destruction of Palestinian homes. And it was employed against at the University of California-Berkeley in a well-orchestrated anti-BDS campaign. Echoes of it can now be heard again at Columbia when Zionist students claim to feel victimized by the word "intifada."

Pro-Israel students who claim intimidation and marginalization have very strong and powerful supporters in their corner--including Hillary Clinton, who recently equated the BDS movement with anti-Semitism in a speech to AIPAC, pledged to fight back against BDS and called on all pro-Israel students in the room to not let anyone "silence" them.

Israel defenders who claim to be silenced by the Palestine movement are akin to white South Africans claiming to be marginalized by the movement against apartheid--or pro-segregation white Americans who said they were "intimidated" by the civil rights movement. It's a reasoning based in a racist logic that presumes violence to be somehow innate to Palestinians--and then is followed by slanderous claims of anti-Semitism.

The reality is, of course, a mirror image--Israel is by far the most violent party to the conflict, killing Palestinian civilians on a horrific scale, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. And the BDS movement is a nonviolent movement calling for divestment from a state that defines its citizens in racist terms and denies basic internationally recognized civil rights to the Palestinians it oppresses.

The defenders of Israel have resorted to these tactics because the BDS movement is gaining steam and is beginning to loosen the grip of pro-Israel propaganda that has dominated U.S. politics for decades.

We are still at the beginning of this process, and it will require years of effort for us to turn the tide. But widespread support for Palestine among left-leaning political and cultural groups at Columbia--and the growing consensus that Palestinian liberation is a shared goal on the left--is a good sign.

In order to further develop the movement, we will need to continue the public education campaigns about BDS. And while doing this, we need to counter the spurious claims against the movement for what they are: attempts to undo the advances of the movement and deflect attention from Israel's crimes against the Palestinian people.

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