Middle East Certitude

[The following was printed in the Columbia Spectator on March 10, 2003]

Middel East Certitude

While we edge ever closer to war with Iraq and members of our faculty take their positions on the front lines of debate, we should take a closer look at the services our University provides on the Middle East. It is common knowledge that the great majority of faculty members in Columbia University’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department signed the divestment petition last fall. In doing so, they chose to express their ideological views, which are certainly legitimate expressions of moral judgment.
In theory, the faculty has every right to hold any view as long as it provides its students with a balanced education. But, in reality, some make no such effort. One professor particularly outspoken about his one-sided approach, Assistant Professor for Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History Joseph Massad, has recently published in Al-Ahram–the same paper that aired visiting professor Tom Paulin’s support for shooting Jews in the West Bank. Massad has also recently passed his fifth-year review and will soon be up for tenure.
Massad makes no effort to hide his motivations–truly an admirable quality. On the first page of the syllabus for his class, Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Society, he bluntly states, “the purpose of the course is not to provide a ‘balanced’ coverage of the views of both sides, but rather to provide a thorough yet critical historical overview of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict to familiarize undergraduates with the background to the current situation from a critical perspective.” How something can be both thorough and critical while being unbalanced is anyone’s guess. One would think that we need a teacher in the classroom, not a critic.
The problem lies not in what Massad believes, but in his openly biased presentation in the classroom. The statements he issues are anywhere from questionable to fundamentally wrong, and there is no better example than the article he published in Al-Ahram, entitled “The Legacy of Jean-Paul Sartre,” in which he asks, “What is it about the nature of Zionism, its racism, and its colonial policies that continues to escape the understanding of many European intellectuals on the left?” The article is an attack on the greatest intellectuals of the past century–Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Etienne Balibar, and Slavoj Zizek–for decrying the anti-Semitism rampant in the Arab world and for recognizing the legitimacy of what he calls “the racist Jewish State.”
In the article, Massad asserts that anti-Semitism in the Arab world is no more than “a Zionist-inspired propagandistic claim.” If that were true, how would one explain Egypt’s airing of A Knight Without a Horse, a mini-series based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, during Ramadan, or the daily derogatory cartoons appearing in the Arab media, or the fact that Muslim clerics around the Middle East call the Jews “the sons of pigs and apes” in their weekly sermons?
If anything, Massad’s claim that there is no anti-Semitism in the Arab world should disqualify him from setting foot in a Columbia University classroom as a professor of Modern Arab Politics. Just as you would not trust a surgeon with shaky knowledge of the human anatomy, Columbia should not trust the minds of its charges to a professor with a limited knowledge of the body politic of the region he supposedly is an expert in.
But that is just the beginning: in the article, Massad asserts that there was a “practical collusion between Zionism and anti-Semitism” during the Holocaust, and says that the claim that Israel is democratic is no more than a “propagandistic image.” No matter that the first charge is particularly offensive to me as a grandson of a Holocaust survivor whose whole family was consumed in the Nazi ovens; the second charge on Israel should again disqualify Massad from teaching at Columbia.
The fact is that Israel is the only democracy in the Arab Middle East–it is the only country where Palestinians have full access to a true judicial system that gives any semblance of rights. That is not to say that Israel is perfect, and I would agree with many of the things Massad could say about the treatment of Palestinians. But to deny that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Palestinians can run for office and speak freely without the fear of the midnight knock of the secret police is just wrong. President Bollinger, in his lecture Democracy and Universities on Friday, Feb. 14, said that the greatest danger a democracy faces is the moral absolutism of certitude. Massad exemplifies this certitude.
The Palestinian issue is certainly important and should be discussed, but we must not forget that there are other issues in the Middle East to address as well, such as the lack of democracy, the uniform oppression of women and homosexuals, and the rise of terrorism, which continues to threaten our lives. Massad’s obsession with Zionism, his false claims, and the strong reaction that this debate has elicited from both sides have served to divide the campus and to divert our view on the Middle East from these incredibly important issues. Isn’t it time we moved on?


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