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Report Finds Little Proof of Bullying, but Columbia Spat Likely to Continue

April 1, 2005
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A faculty committee investigating charges that Columbia University professors bullied pro-Israel students has issued its findings — but the controversy appears far from over. The report found just one incident where a faculty member “exceeded commonly accepted bounds” in responding to a pro-Israel student’s question about whether Israel warns Palestinians before it takes certain military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The report also found no evidence of statements by faculty that “could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.”

But pro-Israel students, including some who were interviewed by the committee and said their stories were ignored in its findings, blasted the report. They said that by focusing on only three instances of alleged intimidation — and particularly on accusations that had garnered the most media attention in recent months — the ad hoc committee had made plain its intentions.

“We’re ashamed that Columbia would undertake such a blatant whitewash,” said Ariel Beery, one of the co-founders of Columbians for Academic Freedom, a student group that has spearheaded the effort to publicize complaints about teachers in the Middle East & Asian Languages & Cultures department.

“They were more concerned with solving the problem that’s posed to the university’s image than addressing the injustices that were done to students,” Beery said.

In late October, the David Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group, screened “Columbia, Unbecoming,” a documentary it made about student allegations of intimidation.

In December, university president Lee Bollinger announced the formation of the committee to investigate the film’s allegations — such as the charge that assistant professor Joseph Massad asked an Israeli student who served in the army, “How many Palestinians have you killed?”

It was Massad who was reprimanded in the report for crossing the line of “accepted bounds” for giving a disparaging response to a questioner he considered too pro-Israel.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation league, called Thursday a “sad day at Columbia University.”

The report “protects the faculty, gives little credibility to the students, and comes up with no solutions at all to deal with the concerns about intimidation,” Foxman said in a statement. “The report’s finding that there was no anti-Semitism is a red herring, since no one in responsibility has ever charged the university with engaging in anti-Semitism. The issue is and has always been the alleged intimidation of pro-Israel students by faculty members. That issue is inadequately addressed by the report.”

Charles Jacobs, president of the David Project, blasted what he called “a biased report by a biased committee which ignored the facts to protect its own.”

“We expected an unfair report from a committee composed of friends and colleagues — and even a thesis advisor — of the professors it was supposed to investigate,” Jacobs said in a statement. “But the report is disgraceful, beyond our expectation.”

The American Jewish Committee, for its part, praised the report as “an important step forward.”

“We encourage all interested parties, inside and outside Columbia, to see the report as a point of departure, to look ahead, and to concentrate on the next positive steps to strengthen this leading academic institution,” the group’s executive director, David Harris, said in a statement.

The American Jewish Congress also praised the committee for “verifying some of the most serious student charges made against members of its Middle East Studies faculty,” but warned the university about allowing faculty members to push their political positions in the guise of academic freedom.

About 75 mostly Jewish students attended a news conference Thursday afternoon at the university’s entrance, arranged by Columbians for Academic Freedom.

“It’s not over, oh, no,” Aharon Horowitz, who appears in the video and is a co-founder of the student group, told JTA. “It’s not over until the students who’ve come forward with legitimate grievances are heard.”

Still, he said, “We recognize that our activism has brought the university to a place where issues that were not reckoned with a few months ago are now at the forefront of the agenda.”

The students were joined by at least two faculty members, who also took issue with the report.

“We will be gathering together to see what our next step will be,” Awi Federgruen, a professor in the business school and a member of the Columbia chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, told JTA. “The longer this festers, the more the brand of the university — which is a good brand — will be tarnished.”

Federgruen said that possible remedies that could be sought include a subsequent investigation by an outside committee, and discussions on how to ensure that “alternative narratives” on the Middle East are heard at the university. That was a reference to allegations that the MEALAC program offers a pro-Arab take, to the exclusion of other perspectives.

Citing 360 faculty members who have signed on to the scholars group’s list serv, Judith Jacobson, a professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia, said that there are “enough concerned Columbia faculty to do another internal review.”

Meanwhile, a block away, two students with a different point of view stepped into the melee, taking the side of the professors accused of harassing the Jewish students.

“Down with the Zionist witch hunt on Campus. Defend Prof. Massad & other victimized professors,” read a sign hanging from their card-table display, where the students also were distributing the Workers Vanguard newspaper, a fringe Socialist publication.

A student working at the table, who declined to give her name, said the report would “definitely not” put an end to the controversy.

In a letter addressed to the Columbia community, Bollinger said he will announce specific actions in response to the report in the next two weeks, adding that the school has begun formulating its reaction.

“Some solutions are clear,” he wrote. “We are developing new grievance procedures for students and faculty to help ensure that concerns are addressed in a clear, fair, and expeditious manner. We will also devise means to facilitate community-wide discussions of difficult and controversial issues of the day — the kinds of problems universities are meant to explore. Other plans will be laid out in time.”

Following the news conference, several pro-Israel students met for about an hour with Bollinger; the university’s chaplain, Jewelnel Davis; and the executive director of the school’s Kraft Center for Jewish Life, Simon Klarfeld.

Though the students wouldn’t discuss specifics of the meeting, Horowitz called it “very encouraging.”

“President Bollinger seems to be very aware of the issues and concerned with making this thing turn out right,” the student said.

Asked by JTA to respond to students’ concerns about the report, Columbia spokeswoman Susan Brown said the best response was the president’s invitation to the students to meet.

“He felt that it was an extremely positive, heart-to-heart conversation,” she said.

Indeed, Ari Goldman, a professor at Columbia’s journalism school, said he saw “some positive aspects” in the report.

“The university has examined it thoroughly,” he told JTA. “It’s dealing with its failures, and one of the failures is that teaching like this was tolerated — and I don’t think it will be tolerated anymore.

“Another failure,” Goldman continued, “was that students who complained weren’t listened to — and I think now they will be listened to, so that’s positive.”

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