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Poison Ivy By: Douglas Feiden
New York Daily News | Monday, November 06, 2006


In the world of Hamid Dabashi, supporters of Israel are "warmongers" and "Gestapo apparatchiks."

The Jewish homeland is "nothing more than a military base for the rising predatory empire of the United States."

It's a capital of "thuggery" - a "ghastly state of racism and apartheid" - and it "must be dismantled."

A voice from America's crackpot fringe? Actually, Dabashi is a tenured professor and department chairman at Columbia University. And his views have resonated and been echoed in other areas of the university.

Columbia is at risk of becoming a poison Ivy, some critics claim, and tensions are high.

In classrooms, teach-ins, interviews and published works, dozens of academics are said to be promoting an I-hate-Israel agenda, embracing the ugliest of Arab propaganda, and teaching that Zionism is the root of all evil in the Mideast.

In three weeks of interviews, numerous students told the Daily News they face harassment, threats and ridicule merely for defending the right of Israel to survive.

And the university itself is holding investigations into the alleged intimidation.

Dabashi has achieved academic stardom: professor of Iranian studies; chairman of the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department; past head of a panel that administers Columbia's core curriculum.

The 53-year-old, Iranian-born scholar has said CNN should be held accountable for "war crimes" for one-sided coverage of Sept. 11, 2001. He doubts the existence of Al Qaeda and questions the role of Osama Bin Laden in the attacks.

Dabashi did not return calls.

In September in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, he wrote, "What they call Israel is no mere military state. A subsumed militarism, a systemic mendacity with an ingrained violence constitutional to the very fusion of its fabric, has penetrated the deepest corners of what these people have to call their soul."

After the showing of a student-made documentary about faculty bias and bullying that targets Jewish students, six or seven swastikas were found carved in a Butler Library bathroom last month.

Then after a screening of the film, "Columbia Unbecoming," produced by the David Project, a pro-Israel group in Boston, one student denounced another as a "Zionist fascist scum," witnesses said.

On Oct. 27, Columbia announced it would probe alleged intimidation and improve procedures for students to file grievances.

"Is the climate hostile to free expression?" asked Alan Brinkley, the university provost. "I don't believe it is, but we're investigating to find out."

But one student on College Walk described the campus as a "republic of fear." Another branded the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department the "department of dishonesty."

A third described how she was once "humiliated in front of an entire class."

Deena Shanker, a Mideast and Asian studies major, remains an admirer of the department. But she says she will never forget the day she asked Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics, if Israel gives warnings before bombing certain buildings so residents could flee.

"Instead of answering my question, Massad exploded," she said. "He told me if I was going to 'deny the atrocities' committed against the Palestinians, I could get out of his class."

"Professorial power is being abused," said Ariel Beery, a senior who is student president in the School of General Studies, but stresses he's speaking only for himself.

"Students are being bullied because of their identities, ideologies, religions and national origins," Beery said.

Added Noah Liben, another senior, "Debate is being stifled. Students are being silenced in their own classrooms."

Said Brinkley: If a professor taught the "Earth was flat or there was no Holocaust," Columbia might intervene in the classroom. "But we don't tell faculty they can't express strong, or even offensive opinions."

Yet even some faculty members say they fear social ostracism and career consequences if they're viewed as too pro-Israel, and that many have been cowed or shamed into silence.

One apparently unafraid is Dan Miron, a professor of Hebrew literature and holder of a prestigious endowed chair.

He said scores of Jewish students - about one a week - have trooped into his office to complain about bias in the classroom.

"Students tell me they've been browbeaten, humiliated and treated disrespectfully for daring to challenge the idea that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish nation," he said.

"They say they've been told Israeli soldiers routinely rape Palestinian women and commit other atrocities, and that Zionism is racism and the root of all evil."

One yardstick of the anti-Israel sentiment among professors, critics say, is the 106 faculty signatures on a petition last year that called for Columbia to sell its holdings in all firms that conduct business with Israel's military.

Noting that the divestment campaign compared Israel to South Africa during the apartheid era, Columbia President Lee Bollinger termed it "grotesque and offensive."

That didn't stop 12 Mideast and Asian studies professors - almost half the department - and 21 anthropology teachers from signing on, a review of the petition shows.

To identify the Columbia faculty with the most strongly anti-Israel views, The News spoke to numerous teachers and students, including some who took their courses; reviewed interviews and published works, and examined Web sites that report their public speeches and statements, including the online archives of the Columbia Spectator, the student newspaper.

Their views could be dismissed as academic fodder if they weren't so incendiary.

Columbia's firebrands

In the world of Hamid Dabashi, supporters of Israel are "warmongers" and "Gestapo apparatchiks."

The Jewish homeland is "nothing more than a military base for the rising predatory empire of the United States."

Nicholas De Genova, who teaches anthropology and Latino studies. The Chronicle of Higher Education calls him "the most hated professor in America."

At an anti-war teach-in last year, he said he wished for a "million Mogadishus," referring to the slaughter of U.S. troops in Somalia in 1993.

"U.S. patriotism is inseparable from imperial warfare and white supremacy," he added.

De Genova has also said, "The heritage of the victims of the Holocaust belongs to the Palestinian people. ... Israel has no claim to the heritage of the Holocaust."

De Genova didn't return calls.

Bruce Robbins, a professor of English and comparative literature.

In a speech backing divestment, he said, "The Israeli government has no right to the sufferings of the Holocaust."

Elaborating, Robbins told The News he believes Israel has a right to exist, but he thinks the country has "betrayed the memory of the Holocaust."

Joseph Massad, who is a tenure-track professor of Arab politics. Students and faculty interviewed by The News consistently claimed that the Jordanian-born Palestinian is the most controversial, and vitriolic, professor on campus.

"How many Palestinians have you killed?" he allegedly asked one student, Tomy Schoenfeld, an Israeli military veteran, and then refused to answer his questions.

To Massad, CNN star Wolf Blitzer is "Ze'ev Blitzer," which is the byline Blitzer used in the 1980s, when he wrote for Hebrew papers but hasn't used since.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can be likened to Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, he once declared.

"The Jews are not a nation," he said in one speech. "The Jewish state is a racist state that does not have a right to exist."

Massad didn't return several calls. On his Web site, he says he's a victim of a "witch hunt" by "pro-Israel groups" and their "propaganda machine."

George Saliba, a professor of Arabic and Islamic science. His classroom rants against the West are legendary, students have claimed.

One student says his "Islam & Western Science" class could be called "Why the West is Evil." Another writes that his "Intro to Islamic Civilization" often serves as a forum to "rail against evil America."

A recent graduate, Lindsay Shrier, said Saliba told her, "You have no claim to the land of Israel ... no voice in this debate. You have green eyes, you're not a true Semite. I have brown eyes, I'm a true Semite."

Saliba did not return calls.

Rashid Khalidi, who is the Edward Said professor of Arab studies. He's the academic heir to the late Said, a professor who famously threw a stone from Lebanon at an Israeli guard booth.

Columbia initially refused to say how the chair was funded. But The United Arab Emirates, which denies the Holocaust on state TV channels, is reported to have provided $200,000.

When Palestinians in a Ramallah police station lynched two Israeli reservists in 2000 - throwing one body out a window and proudly displaying bloodstained hands - the professor attacked the media, not the killers.

He complained about "inflammatory headlines" in a Chicago Sun-Times story and called the paper's then-owner, Conrad Black, who also owned the Jerusalem Post, "the most extreme Zionist in public life."

Reached at Columbia, Khalidi declined to comment on specifics.

"As somebody who has a body of work, written six books and won many awards, the only fair thing to do is look at the entire body of work, not take quotes out of context," he said.

Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor of anthropology, romanticizes Birzeit University in the West Bank as a "liberal arts college dedicated to teaching and research in the same spirit as U.S. colleges."

But it is well-established that Birzeit also is the campus where Hamas openly recruits suicide bombers, stone-throwers and gunmen.

As in her published works, Abu-Lughod gave a carefully nuanced response when reached Friday by The News:

"The CIA has historically recruited at Columbia, but that's not the mission of Columbia. The mission of Birzeit is to educate students, and they're working under very difficult circumstances to do that."

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