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Spring 2005
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The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage
by Stefan Kanfer
The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.
 
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The Columbian Cartel
Stefan Kanfer
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An ugly tradition continues at Columbia University.

In 1918 Herbert Hawkes, dean of Columbia College, decided that Jews were all right in their place, and that their place was a tiny fraction of the student body. He had his reasons: these folks not only bred like flies; they were also too, too pushy. “It is a fact,” wrote Hawkes, “that boys of foreign parentage who have no background in many cases attempt to educate themselves beyond their intelligence. Their accomplishment is over 100 percent of their ability on account of their tremendous energy and ambition. I do not believe however that a college would do well to admit too many men of low mentality who have ambitions but not brains.”

Ah, those were the days. All a dean had to do was invent a fact, proclaim it gospel, and—voilà—the Hebrews had to look elsewhere for education. Hawkes’s quota system lasted well into the 1940s. Among those barred was Richard Feynman, who pushed on to M.I.T., Princeton, and, eventually, the Nobel Prize.

But these days, Columbia is too worldly to exhibit such overt prejudice. Instead it has enshrined in its pantheon of faculty greats the late Edward Said—who lied about his deprived childhood in Jerusalem (he grew up in a rich Cairo suburb), proclaimed solidarity with violent Palestinians (and once threw rocks with them toward Israeli soldiers), and even accused Israel’s founders of being Hitler’s collaborators. Columbia seems to have viewed Said’s fantasies as a revelation, elevating him to the pinnacle of the school’s academic life.

When Said died two years ago, the university lost a leader to carry on its hallowed practices. But not to worry; lose a dragon’s tooth and ten will take its place. Columbia’s Edward Said Professorship of Modern Arab Studies and Literature, created in his honor, receives generous funding from the United Arab Emirates. The UAE’s unelected president, one Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, also funded the now-folded Zayed Center, a “think tank” that promoted Holocaust denial, pushed the hoary (but perennially lethal) anti-Semitic czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and theorized that Usama bin Ladin was actually a CIA agent.

The cat jumped completely out of the bag last year, after a documentary about anti-Semitism at Columbia began screening privately (and the New York Sun began reporting on the problem daily). A revised version of Columbia Unbecoming is now available through the David Project, the movie’s Boston-based producer. In the film, students registered in the university’s department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) speak of an atmosphere of anti-Semitism that suggests Cairo rather than New York City. Among the outrages: faculty members characterizing Palestinians as the “new Jews” and “Israelis” as the “new Nazis,” and a professor of Arab politics refusing to answer a question from an Israeli student, instead snapping: “How many Palestinians have you killed?”

Columbia president Lee Bollinger professed concern about the revelations in an early version of Columbia Unbecoming and appointed an ad hoc committee to investigate. But the group featured friends and relatives of the accused professors—one of whom had signed a petition calling for disinvestments in Israeli stocks and bonds. As the film notes, the committee findings wound up covered with whitewash. Many of Columbia’s faculty, however, criticize Bollinger for failing to stand firm against McCarthy-style anti-intellectual “intolerance and repression,” the New York Sun reports.

In a final comment on the pro-Islam bias of the Middle East faculty, a student concludes: “They teach everything in the context of one special, small struggle, when there are 23 countries out there where minorities are being oppressed, where women are bound to their homes, where homosexuals are being put in jail. They’re ignoring the rest of the Middle East in favor of a small dimension of it.”

But as all alumni know, tradition is what makes a university great. Of course, it’s also what can make it contemptible, but what is that to Columbia? For its administrators, there are obviously bigger things than tolerance and truth. Sheiks with money, for example—and professors without honor.

 

 


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