On October 8, 2023, Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history in Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, took to the Electronic Intifada, an online publication, to share his thoughts about the events that had unfolded only hours earlier on Israel’s southern border.

In an 1,800-word missive, Massad spares barely a word for the victims of Hamas’s massacre, acknowledging only that the “more than 700 people killed in Israel and more than 2,200 injured” constitute, alongside those killed and injured by Israel’s response, a “horrifying human toll on all sides.” He made no mention of Hamas’s specific atrocities, despite their being captured on video, nor did he condemn the fact that the terror group kidnapped and held hostage Israeli civilians, including women and children. Instead, the tenured academic, sounding like a breathless tween, referred to Hamas’s barbarities as “awesome” and “stunning,” and waxed poetic that they may even lead to the destruction of Israel.

It was hardly the first time that Massad’s hateful missives drew critical attention. In 2004, he was one of several professors featured in Columbia Unbecoming, a documentary shedding light on the university’s Middle East Department—then known by the acronym MEALAC, and now as MESAAS—and its rampant anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic bias. Several students interviewed for the documentary testified that Massad used his authority not to educate his students or encourage debate but rather to coerce them into seeing Israel as a singularly irredeemable and illegitimate aggressor.

As a graduate student at Columbia at the time, I was appalled by these charges. I spoke with Massad, who assured me that the allegations were fabricated and that he was nothing but a levelheaded scholar interested in justice and peace and the advancement of knowledge. Having grown up on the Israeli Left and devoted my teens to talk of coexistence and compromise, I wanted to believe him.

I was wrong to do so.

Columbia, sadly, never came to that conclusion. The university did form an ad hoc committee to interview the students who appeared in the film and found their allegations credible. Massad, the committee wrote in its report, had “exceeded commonly accepted bounds” of academic conduct by failing “to show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from his own.” Rather than act on these findings, however, Columbia obfuscated, stalled, and, eventually granted Massad the academic immunity he desired.

The details of Massad’s tenure bid remain unclear, but according to several professors familiar with the proceedings who asked to remain nameless—as well as to a lengthy report by Judith Miller addressing the controversy—the professor benefited from an almost unheard-of process, seemingly designed to guarantee a desired outcome. Massad’s first attempt at tenure, these sources confirm, failed after his tenure committee found his academic merits didn’t meet Columbia’s august standards. Rather than terminate his employment, as is customary in such cases, the school gave Massad an extended contract, as well as a second tenure committee, a rarity in academia. The professor who led the first committee, Miller reported, “refused to serve again,” and the Columbia trustees requesting a list of the professors who served on both committees were denied that information. Massad eventually received tenure in 2009, though Columbia, in a stark departure from both academic tradition and the principle of transparency that ought to guide a major university, kept the appointment under wraps.

Safely ensconced in his new, protected position, Massad continued to make inflammatory statements, including comparing one of Hamas’s rounds of aggression against Israel to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, with the terrorist organization playing the role of the beleaguered Jews and the Israelis cast as the new Nazis. Massad also reportedly took part in anti-Israel activism on and off campus. In a 2015 talk at Cornell, for example, he advised students on how best to excoriate Israel to their peers, opining that, while Europeans were moved by charges of colonialism, anti-Israeli activists in America should accuse the Jewish state of racism instead. And several current Columbia students and faculty confirmed that Massad often is seen at major and volatile anti-Israeli rallies on campus, frequently to advise and instruct the organizers.

Massad’s scholarly record is similarly detestable. Several students who had taken his class told me that Massad repeatedly made patently false claims, arguing, for example, that Zionism shares a Hebrew root with the word zayin, or penis, allegedly proving the movement’s phallocentric and patriarchal nature. He continued to claim this even after several native Hebrew speakers informed him that the two words were spelled differently and had no etymological connection. In 2008, he took to the pages of Art Journal, a publication of the College Art Association of America, to savage an Israeli art historian, Gannit Ankori, for supposedly appropriating the work of a Palestinian artist and historian, Kamal Boullata. Ankori sued for libel, and the CAA settled for $75,000, conceding that Massad’s review “contained factual errors and certain unfounded assertions.”

Sadly, in turning Columbia’s Middle Eastern studies program into a bastion of anti-Semitic propaganda, Massad is hardly alone.

Hamid Dabashi, Massad’s MESAAS colleague, has also spent the last two decades making incendiary comments about Israelis and Jews. “Rich and powerful” Zionists, he argued in a now-deleted 2018 Facebook post, controlled the American government. He repeated this assertion, a tenet of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, in several other social media posts, and when various media outlets reported on these missives, Dabashi scrubbed them. In a 2014 article for Al Jazeera, he compared Gaza with Auschwitz and Israelis with Nazis, one of several times he drew such supposed parallels. Like Massad, Dabashi, too, is active in anti-Israel campus activities, including moderating events by Students for Justice in Palestine, a group the university has since suspended for inciting violence against Jewish students.

Like Dabashi, George Saliba, another of the department’s professors, has canceled classes to encourage students to attend on-campus anti-Israel events and rallies. In 2002, when the university’s Hillel rabbi, Charles Sheer, objected to Saliba’s using his academic position not to teach but to indoctrinate, Saliba savaged him in the Daily Spectator, the campus newspaper. The rabbi’s criticism, he wrote, is “making one feel that we have been miraculously transported to some medieval theocracy, where a religious authority is re-instituting the inquisition.” Saliba was another of Columbia Unbecoming’s subjects, with one student recounting how he berated her and told her she couldn’t possibly be a true Semite because she had green eyes.

Given such a record of wild bias against Jews, few were surprised when, earlier this year, Columbia’s Middle East Institute—which is affiliated with MESAAS and counts Massad and Dabashi as faculty—welcomed a new addition: Mohamed Abdu.

In January, Abdu gave an interview to a socialist podcast and declared his support for Hamas, a group that the State Department designates as a terrorist organization. He later took to social media to confess his involvement in organizing an anti-Israel student protest to disrupt visiting lecturer Hillary Clinton’s talk. Lest anyone have any doubt where he stood, Abdu went on Facebook to set the record straight: “Yes, I’m with the muqawamah (the resistance), be it Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad,” he wrote in a post four days after Hamas attacked Israel, rejecting the “false reports accusing Arabs and Muslims of decapitating the heads of children and being rapists.” Abdu’s statements, it should be repeated, were all publicly known and reported before Columbia decided to hire him.

Conversations with several Jewish students and faculty members familiar with MESAAS confirmed that the department is still seen as a hotbed of incitement and discrimination. Shai Davidai, a Columbia Business School professor and the only subject to speak on the record, confirmed what his colleagues would only share in private out of concern for their employment. “Students come to Columbia wanting to learn about the Middle East,” he said, “but they understand right away that if they don’t take a certain side, they won’t get a good grade. They are being denied the education they desire and paid for because of these professors.”

This, Davidai explained, was precisely the logic of intimidation writ large. “The idea of terrorism,” he said, “is that you don’t have to act many times; you just need to instill the fear that you’re capable of acting.” By making it clear to students that they won’t tolerate anyone who dares question their dogma, Davidai added, MESAAS professors like Massad, Dabashi, Saliba, and others have created a culture of fear among the university’s Jewish students, making them believe that Columbia is a categorically anti-Israel environment and that their opinions or attempts at free inquiry are unwelcome. The students I spoke with confirmed this feeling, saying that Jewish students know to avoid MESAAS classes and faculty like the plague.

This state of affairs is, of course, deeply problematic. At best, these professors have produced an atmosphere antithetical to the core ideals of higher education, favoring suppression and groupthink over the unfettered exchange of ideas. At worst, they’ve turned their department into a machinery of persecution directed at Jewish and Israeli students and faculty members.

What is to be done?

Davidai is pessimistic. “As long as everything is solvent and doesn’t give them too much bad PR,” he said about the university’s administration, “they won’t do anything.” The faculty members I talked with agreed with this assessment, characterizing the administration’s response to the decades-long problem of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias as little more than cleverly crafted statements, without much concrete action.

But the university can take one sensible step, rooted in academic tradition and Columbia’s institutional culture: it’s called receivership, an administrative act by which a university, convinced that an academic department is failing to meet its academic goals, takes over the department, and appoints and empowers a new chairman to make necessary changes.

In the early 2000s, Columbia put its storied English department into receivership, despite its being one of the university’s more profitable centers. Sensing that faculty were too focused on internal struggles and insufficiently attuned to pursuing excellent teaching and scholarship, the university recruited a professor from the University of Pittsburgh, Jonathan Arac, to come in and set things straight. It worked.

The same process twice befell Columbia’s anthropology department. Reporting on the latest instance, overseen by an academic named David Cohen, Lingua Franca, the late, great magazine devoted to academic and intellectual life, celebrated the measure’s success: “To house his enhanced faculty (the five new full professors plus another five of junior ranking), Cohen had the anthropology department’s offices completely refurbished. The receivership was over. It was a remarkable—and to all appearances, successful—brain transplant.”

So far, Columbia has shown no sign of being serious about addressing its anti-Semitism problem. The only faculty member currently under investigation is . . . Davidai. Placing MESAAS under receivership would allow an external and objective scholar to take over the troubled department, examine seriously the allegations against its faculty, reassess its offerings and curricula, and ensure that Columbia delivers what any fine institution of higher learning ought to—an academic experience free of fear and favor. It would, in short, enhance academic freedom and help uproot indoctrination and intimidation from the classroom.

Receivership has worked before at Columbia to fix far less glaring issues. If the university wants to go beyond deflections and denials and address the anti-Semitism problem at its root, it has a proven tool at its disposal. Other than indifference, or bias, it’s hard to imagine why the university won’t use it again.

Photo: Bruce Yuanyue Bi/The Image Bank via Getty Images


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