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Partisan Professor By: Greg Yardley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 03, 2003


Professor Rashid Khalidi has now begun his new position as Columbia University’s Edward Said Professor of Middle East Studies, and chair of Columbia’s Middle East Institute.  His acquisition was considered quite a coup for Columbia, since Professor Khalidi is highly-regarded by his peers and has a lengthy list of publications.  The negotiations to lure him away from his former post at the University of Chicago took years.  His new colleagues are, by all reports, quite pleased.  They shouldn’t be.  The circumstances of his appointment, taken together, reveal a biased department incapable of adequately teaching students about the modern Middle East. 

Rashid Khalidi is a strong and outspoken supporter of the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the Palestinians’ qualified right to murder Israelis.  In a speech to the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in June 2002, Khalidi said that while killing Israeli citizens is wrong – he does not publicly support suicide bombers – “the ones who are armed, the ones who are soldiers, the ones who are in occupation, that's different.”  His support for the murder of soldiers – “resistance,” as he put it – is combined with a curious exasperation with American media coverage.  In another speech, this one to the American Committee on Jerusalem, Khalidi claimed that “Israel has killed three times as many innocent civilians as have Palestinians, for all the media hysteria about suicide bombers,” and while his figures are debatable, his comment on ‘media hysteria’ is a disgrace.  The American public has suffered greatly from terrorist mass murder; they have a completely legitimate interest in similar incidents committed abroad.  A Palestinian bomb on a crowded Israeli bus differs only from 9/11 in scale; both of these incidents are unambiguously evil, both miles removed from the accidental, tragic death of a Palestinian civilian by Israeli soldiers in pursuit of terrorists.

Perhaps these views are to be expected from an admirer of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.  He dedicated his 1986 academic study on the PLO, ‘Under Siege,” to ‘those who gave their lives … in defense of the cause of Palestine and the liberation of Lebanon.”  Critics of the book claimed it inappropriately downplayed PLO violence.  What Khalidi downplays for Palestinians he exaggerates for Israelis; for instance, he often describes Israeli as an “apartheid system,” even though Arab parties hold seats in Israeli’s parliament and Arabs there have more civil rights than in any neighboring, Islamic state.  

Khalidi own political predilections make him a good match for the Edward Said Chair.  The recently deceased Said was one of the most influential scholars of the last twenty years and America’s most prominent advocate of Palestinian statehood.  Said’s major work, the 1978 Orientalism, blamed the problems of the Middle East largely on the West, stemming from the three connected evils of imperialism, racism, and Zionism.  While Orientalism often ignored evidence that ran counter to its thesis, it still became the field of Middle Eastern Studies’ canonical text.  Like Khalidi, Said could, at times, sound relatively moderate, condemning Palestinian terrorism in general (although refusing to condemn specific, individual acts) and encouraging Palestinian democracy, but ultimately, he thought “what they [the Palestinians] do by way of violence and terrorism is understandable.”  This moral lapse became personal action in June 2000, when Said, visiting Israel, threw fist-sized rocks at an Israeli Defense Force post in an attempt to injure the occupants, while cameras snapped away.  Said has been involved in other ethical lapses – for instance, an article by Justus Weiner in the September 1999 issue of Commentary showed that Said lied in his early memoirs about being a Palestinian refugee.   Despite these blots on his record, Said enjoyed a very successful academic career as professor of comparative literature at Columbia.  During his tenure, he helped bring other, similarly partisan scholars to the school.

Should Khalidi have been appointed to the Edward Said Chair?  Determining that requires further context.  While Khalidi’s statements often indicate poor moral reasoning, he wouldn’t be the first professor to have problematic morals.  Even though most Americans would probably find his personal politics reprehensible, the principle of academic freedom requires tolerance of unpopular views in the university, even extremist ones.  As long as he gave his students a fair treatment of all schools of thought and he allowed them to reach their own conclusions, Khalidi’s presence in an otherwise mainstream university department would be relatively unobjectionable – even a stimulus to debate.  

That said, Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures (MELAC) is anything but ‘mainstream’ – it’s so biased in favor of one and only one school of thought, the university’s become known, after the infamous Palestinian school, as ‘Bir Zeit on the Hudson.’  Before Khalidi was hired, MELAC already had three outspoken advocates for Palestine – Hamid Dabashi, Joseph Massad, and George Saliba.  These professors have all already made statements similar to or even more extreme than Khalidi’s, often in class.  For instance, in his lectures Hamid Dabashi reportedly compared Israeli attacks on Hamas militants in Jenin, which killed a total of fifty, to the Nazi Holocaust, which killed six million Jews.  Joseph Massad has stated in a variety of forums that “a Jewish state is a racist state” that does not have the right to exist.  And George Saliba, who teaches about Islamic science, has been criticized by his students for frequent off-topic political rants in class.  All have cancelled their scheduled classes, normally attended and paid for by students of all political persuasions, so they could go attend pro-Palestinian political demonstrations.  Many more professors in MELAC, while not as outspoken, have signed a divestment petition calling for Columbia to abandon its investments in Israel.  The only faculty member of the Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures department to favor the Israeli side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, nominally, Dan Miron, the Leonard Kaye Chair of Hebrew and Comparative Literature, who is only at Columbia part of the time.  In other words, when Khalidi was hired, his views were more than adequately represented in his field.

Khalidi’s political views, and the peculiar way they mesh well with the rest of his department’s, would be also be less objectionable if he was hired through an open and competitive job search.  However, Khalidi was hired without the usual job search.  No advertisements for the Edward Said chair were ever placed; Khalidi never had to compete with other candidates in interviews or public lectures.  No professor with an opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differing from Khalidi, Dabashi, Massad, Sabila, or dean Anderson had an opportunity to even apply, let alone be considered.  The administration at Columbia will no doubt defend that practice, since it’s a common way to fill endowed chairs – when a university has an opportunity to recruit someone they consider particularly prestigious, they often discard the usual way of doing things and just offer their desired candidate a post.  But common practices aren’t always defensible.  Khalidi’s appointment by a department already politically uniform and a dean that shared its views reeks of high-level patronage based on political perspectives.  Even if the professors did not intend to perpetuate a bias, they should’ve kept the process open to other candidates to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.  Instead, the hiring and negotiations were conducted as secretively as possible.  There was no rush; negotiations to pluck Khalidi from his last job at the University of Chicago took years.  Interim director of the Middle East Institute Gary Sick had to be asked to stay on another year while the hiring took place. Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs could’ve conducted an open job search with ease.  But they didn’t bother – apparently, once they’d decided Khalidi was the man for the job amongst themselves, there was no need to bother with pretences.

Of course, even the most ideological pack of professors can’t hire someone to an endowed chair without securing funding.  A position like Khalidi’s requires millions of dollars in dedicated endowments.  We don’t know who provided these endowments, because Columbia won’t tell us.  Only a couple of approximately twenty donors have publicly confirmed donations.  However, even these few have disturbing connections to foreign governments.  One philanthropist who donated, Rita Hauser, was connected to the Palestinian Authority by her former law firm, registered as an agent for the Palestinian Authority up until 2001.  Another, the Olayan Charitable Trusts, is the American charitable arm of a Saudi Arabian corporation.  A critic of the Khalidi appointment, Martin Kramer, has seen what purports to be a full list of donors, and he reports that in addition to many usual supporters of the Palestinian cause, there is at least one foreign government on the list.  This is disturbing for many reasons – because the donors obtained a professor who shared their political preferences, because foreign governments may have an agenda beyond promoting scholarship, and because the Middle East Institute, which Khalidi chairs, will be receiving approximately nine hundred thousand dollars from the taxpayers over the next three years.  These donors may have known in advance that it was Khalidi they were funding – according to one Khalidi supporter at Columbia, at least one donation came in after Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs began its two-year long negotiations with Khalidi.  To the outsider, it looks like these donors purchased an activist professor who agreed with their political views.  That’s not how a university should be running.

Normally, we’d expect the university’s higher administration to step in and prevent such obvious political gerrymandering.  This won’t happen at Columbia.  The person who recruited Khalidi and did most of the fundraising for his post is Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and currently the President of the Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA).  MESA is a very ideologically uniform organization, united in its opposition to the American government and American foreign policy – especially America’s efforts to fight terrorism.  For instance, MESA has launched a boycott of the National Security Education Program, a government scholarship program designed to produce national security experts for the American government.  Thanks in part to this boycott, the House Subcommittee on Special Education actually had to hold hearings on “International Programs in Higher Education and Questions of Bias.”

Lisa Anderson, as president of MESA, is in no position to objectively vet the decisions of Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies faculty; the supervisory position of dean requires an outsider, not a close colleague.  Recently, anonymous sources claimed an endowed chair in Israeli Studies was proposed to the same Lisa Anderson.  Donors were reportedly in place; but Anderson decided to reject the proposal after discussions with her colleagues – the very same professors in the Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures department that pushed so hard for Khalidi and the Edward Said Chair.  The aborted Israeli Studies chair, never mentioned publicly, shows just how easy it is for scholars of Middle Eastern Studies to shut out opposing views behind the scenes.

The pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias doesn’t stop at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.  Columbia University spends next to none of its own money on courses where modern Jewish politics, history, and culture are taught.  Dan Miron of MELAC, often cited as the ‘balance’ to the department’s propagandists, occupies the Leonard Kay Chair for Hebrew and Comparative Literature, funded by a set-aside endowment established  for that exact purpose.  In the history department, Professors Michael Stanislawsky and Yosef Yerushalmi are funded by similarly endowed posts – respectively named after Nathan J. Miller and Salo W. Baron.  In the religion department, Professor David Weiss Halivni is the Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Classical Jewish History, another endowed post.  Columbia doesn’t have to pay a dime for these professors’ salaries – it all comes from the endowment income.  If it wasn’t for the generosity of the donors that made these positions possible, there’d be hardly a course on all of Judaism at Columbia.

The bias prevalent at liberal arts faculties isn’t easy to fight, because most of the faculty don’t believe left-wing bias really exists or is even a problem.  Because they themselves don’t consciously discriminate in their classes or on their hiring committees, they assume others do likewise, and criticism from outside the university is just dismissed as conservative sour grapes.  However, subtle bias abounds.  Some faculty are only interested in radical theorists, and dismiss scholars not utilizing them; others suspect conservatives aren’t doing enough critical thinking, and therefore aren’t suited for the job.  Many value conformity a bit more than they should.  These faculty support and defend the minority who openly use their positions to advance their political causes, overlooking both the increasing acceptance of subjective ‘advocacy teaching’ as a pedagogical method and the growing number of well-documented examples of indoctrination in the classroom. 

As studies of voter registration show, this overtly-ideological minority of professors has been remarkably successful – leftists and liberals vastly outweigh conservatives almost everywhere in the humanities.  Similarly, defenders of Palestinian terror dominate Middle Eastern Studies faculties.  These leftists reject all criticism of their actions; for example, Rashid Khalidi, confronted by Daniel Pipes on an August 29th showing of MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, stated that he shouldn’t have to defend himself from Pipes’ criticism, since the charges had no merit.  Elsewhere, Khalidi described Pipes’ Campus Watch, which monitors and critiques Middle Eastern Studies, as “a McCarthyite attempt to silence the very few voices that speak out about the Middle East, and to impose by fear a uniformity of view on the campus debate.”  Those who think Middle Eastern Studies is quite uniform enough already are dismissed as “academic outcasts from the Middle East field, who seem to be driven both by their extreme pro-Israeli views, and their resentment at the fact that they have never managed to obtain the respect of their peers.”  Harsh words, but typical for Columbia’s faculty – Hamid Dabashi called Pipes and his associates “non-entities;” while Joseph Massad called Pipes a “failed academic.”  The namesake of Khalidi’s chair, Edward Said, claimed Pipes and other critics of today’s Middle Eastern Studies were only out to obtain “profitable consultancies, frequent TV appearances and book contracts.”  But none of these professors’ attacks directly address their critics’ charges against them – is there systematic bias in the field of Middle East Studies?  If professors on hiring committees are applying ideological litmus tests to new applicants, being a ‘failed academic’ might just be the result of discrimination.  There’s a reason why Khalidi isn’t addressing the substance of Pipes’ criticism – he can’t.  Of all the examples of left-wing discrimination on campus, it’s hard to find one more egregious than Khalidi’s hiring, the appointment of a biased professor to the head of a biased department funded by biased donors solicited by a biased dean. 

Tenured academics aren’t nearly as accountable to the public as they should be, considering the massive amounts of taxpayers’ money that fund public and private universities alike.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t fight bias in the liberal arts.  University administrations like Columbia’s pay attention to their alumni and donors; nothing gets their attention more than the cessation of donations.  And initiatives like Students for Academic Freedom’s Academic Bill of Rights, which states that “no faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs,” will help ensure that supporters of no political orthodoxy, leftist or conservative, will be ever be able to abuse their positions and dominate the academy in the future.  Khalidi and his colleagues will continue to smear all their critics as McCarthyites, just as faculty in Colorado are protesting and smearing the Academic Bill of Rights.  Despite these attacks, everyone who cares about true academic freedom must not let up.  The hostility of Khalidi and company show that our criticism is working.




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