Columbia Unbecoming

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Columbia Unbecoming is a 2004 documentary film that alleges anti-Israel sentiment and academic intimidation in the MEALAC department.

The film set off a lively debate which largely took place over the 2004-2005 academic year. Widely dubbed the MEALAC scandal, it centered on the question of what to do about allegations of intimidation by professors, as well as the meaning of "academic freedom".

The Film

The 40-minute short film was funded and produced by The David Project, a "non-profit organization whose mission is to promote a fair and honest understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict". The David Project focuses its work on monitoring college campuses for anti-Israel sentiment and Arab campus groups and professors.

The film features emotional recollections of Jewish students contending that professors in the MEALAC department inappropriately challenged, taunted, and silenced them while creating a hostile learning environment to those with pro-Israel sentiments. The majority of students interviewed in the film had never taken classes with the professors they accuse of intimidation.

Reactions to the Film

David Project Supporters

The screening of the film and media frenzy surrounding it led many to accuse Columbia of being an Anti-Semitic institution. It led Columbia students Aharon Horwitz, Daniella Kahane, Bari Weiss and Ariel Beery to found Columbians for Academic Freedom, which serves as an advocate for students who have suffered academic abuse and infringements upon their academic freedom. The CAF's efforts on the issue of academic intimidation led to the university instating a new grievance policy and ad hoc grievance committee to address the claims made in the film. The allegations of intimidation also served as a catalyst for a nationwide movement to confront intimidation and promote academic freedom.

Following worldwide reaction to the film, one of the most heavily criticized professors in the film, professor Joseph Massad received a number of hateful emails, voicemails, death threats, and calls for his resignation.

As the film and opinions of those who had and had not seen the film spread, the legacy of the film began to depart away from academic intimidation to a politicized one between Israel and Palestine. At a David Project sponsored conference entitled "The Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus", speaker Phyllis Chesler, professor emerita at the College of Staten Island referred to the Palestinian Solidarity Movement as "a group in my opinion that’s quite similar to the Ku Klux Klan, or to the Nazi party". Columbia student, Ariel Beery (who helped the David Project produce Columbia Unbecoming), quickly denounced many of the comments made at the conference as inappropriate and wrong: "much of what has been said today is not only unproductive, it is counterproductive... Anything that is said in order to disparage or to generalize or to characterize some type of people is wrong."[1]

In Defense of MEALAC

Following the initial reaction to 'Columbia Unbecoming' a number of Professor Massad's former students and students from the MEALAC department stepped forward in their defense. In October 2004, Jewish Week interviewed four of the seven students appearing in Columbia Unbecoming, along with a number of Israeli and Jewish-American students that took classes in the MEALAC department. They presented a far different perspective on Professor Massad and the MEALAC department than was presented by the film; they presented a professor and department that is critical of Israel, but devoted to creating a challenging free exchange on an issue that many are passionate, free of intimidation. [2]

The New York Civil Liberties Union voiced their support for MEALAC professors in a letter to President Lee C. Bollinger "students have the right to express their own views, it is not, except at the invitation of the professor, an open forum for students to express any views they wish at any time."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has argued that the NYCLU letter encourages severe limits on students' freedom of speech.

Columbia Antisemitic?

Ariel Beery, one of the major backers for the film states that "If there are students who feel they are being intimidated, then intimidation exists". Film interviewee, Noah Liben, provided this anecdote to Jewish Week, "During one exchange in class, when he defended Israel and asked if Massad understood his point, the professor “smirked and said that he didn’t," which led to the whole class “erupting in laughter," Liben said. Another student interviewed by both Jewish Week, Tomy Schoenfeld, stated that when "Schoenfeld approached Massad, the professor asked if he had served in the Israeli army. Massad then asked how many Palestinians Schoenfeld had killed." The difficulty that Columbia Unbecoming presents is the question of how much of the film presents actual intimidation and how much is emotional responses to having ones' views challenged.

Well into the controversy, President Bollinger charged Provost Alan Brinkley with creating an ad hoc grievance committee to address the claims made by the film. The conclusions of the committee can hardly be considered constructive as it concluded that while it is logically possible that classroom intimidation occurred, it is the responsibility of the professor and the students to retain the civility of dialogue. The committee also concluded that the grievance process was broken, a redundant conclusion as one of the aims of the ad hoc committee was to address that process.[3]

Following the length of the "scandal", the Columbia administration has admitted it did not handle the situation well. In the end, President Bollinger has been blamed for not acting promptly and in the interest of intimidated students as well as for not protecting faculty members from everyone. The issue is considered largely unsettled by all parties involved.

As a school within one of the most densely Jewish cities in the United States, it is Professor Robert Pollack's words that ring the clearest, "As the first Jewish dean of an Ivy League school, in 1982, and as the president of the board that built...Hillel, I can tell you this is not an antisemitic place. The question is, why am I not believed? Why do people pick the weak film over the strong reality of the place itself?" [4].

External links