Disputes between students and professors at Columbia University over how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taught have escalated into national news, with partisans on both sides claiming to fight on behalf of academic freedom and against intimidation.
Last October, aggrieved Jewish students put together a half-hour film called "Columbia Unbecoming" through a pro-Israel group based in Boston called The David Project. In the film some of the students describe conduct by professors at Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department that they felt constituted intimidation and smacked of anti-Semitism.
The accusations got much attention, in The New York Timesand elsewhere. One Israeli accused Professor Joseph Massad of asking him, "How many Palestinians have you killed?" Another student said she asked Massad whether it was true Israel sometimes give warnings before it bombs so that people wouldn’t get hurt, and the professor replied: “If you're going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!" The accused professors denied the incidents had occurred, or said the accusers’ versions were twisted beyond recognition.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger appointed a panel to investigate. In late March, the panel's reportfound that while no professor was guilty of anti-Semitism, student complaints about how they were treated when they dissented from a professor's view were not dealt with in a timely or thorough fashion.
One name not mentioned in the report, though, was Professor Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at the university. His was the one case that spread beyond the Morningside Heights campus into the city’s public school system and even into mayoral politics.
The New York Sun began this particular controversy on February 15, when it reported Khalidi’s involvement in a teacher training program on the Middle East for the city’s public school teachers. The newspaper said that Khalidi’s “professorship is named in memory of Edward Said, a divisive scholar, and is paid for in part with a donation from the United Arab Emirates,” and said that Khalidi had called Israel a “racist” state with an “apartheid system,” a charge Khalidi denies.
When the Sun contacted public officials for comment, Congressman Anthony Weiner(D-Brooklyn), a candidate for the Democratic nomination for mayor, said : "For my money, this guy shouldn't even be teaching at Columbia, let alone being recruited to train our Board of Ed teachers.” (He told me later, though, that he had not said that Khalidi should be dismissed by Columbia.)
The case against Khalidi did not involve his conduct as a teacher trainer, about which nobody complained. In fact, Mark Wilner, an assistant principal at Midwood High School in Brooklyn who took Khalidi’s training course on the Middle East, later told the Forward that “his session was completely apolitical,” focusing on geography and demography.
Nevertheless, the day the Sun’s initial report appeared, Chancellor Joel Klein barred Khalidi from the teacher training program. “Considering his past statements, Rashid Khalidi should not have been included in a program that provided professional development for [Department of Education] teachers and he won't be participating in the future,” the Department of Education said in a statement.
Bollinger reacted to Klein’s action against Khalidi by pulling Columbia out of the training program for public school teachers entirely.
Khalidi himself e-mailed me that the teacher-training program “has been going on successfully for over 12 years. They have never paid it the slightest attention until the gutter press and publicity-hound politicians raised the matterâ€¦From his own statements, it is clear that Rep. Anthony Weiner has no idea what I have said or not said. This is no surprise if he relies on the gutter press for information about my views, as he apparently does. He has misrepresented and taken out of context what I have said, as have the trashy newspapers on which he relies for his â€facts,’ and for publicizing his own outrageous anti-Arab statements.”
Weiner did not reply to Khalidi’s specific charges, but said, “you are perfectly free to say hateful things, but that doesn’t mean you are entitled to a city contract.”
When the Forward pressedWeiner to be specific about things Khalidi had said that troubled him, Weiner said, “I am by no means an expert on the guy’s work, but what I have seen anecdotally on this guy is troubling.”
When I did my own pressing, Weiner’s office e-mailed me three quotes they said that Khalidi made that the Congressman thought justified the professor’s dismissal by the Department of Education:
1) "Occupation and settlements are the basic sources of violence in this conflict, and only if they are ended can the violence be halted. It cannot be simpler than that,” Khalidi wrote for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in “Challenges and Opportunities” in 2002.
2) References to Israel being a "racist" and "apartheid" state. That America has been "brainwashed by Israel." (Interview for the Miami Herald, October 2000)
3) "For these American Likudniks and their Israeli counterparts, sad to say, the tragedy of September 11 was a godsend: It enabled them to draft the United States to help fight Israel's enemies." ("Attack Iraq: The real reasons" In These Times magazine, Jan 27, 2003.)
I was unable to verify the second quote from the Miami Herald and Khalidi has denied making any such statements. Indeed, he is quoted in the Forward as saying that there are “scholars who will not talk about these things without using the word racist, but I am not one of them. I do not think Zionism is racist. When we talk about some of the contemporary laws, there are policies that I consider racist and discriminatory.”
Asked if as mayor he would try to dismiss a teacher if he objected to his or her statements made outside of school hours, Weiner said, “if someone’s hateful ranting outside the classroom raises questions about his credibility in the classroom, the chancellor would have it in his rights to question his academic qualifications.” He added, “It is all of our obligations to find a balance between freedom of speech and our obligation to speak out when someone says something very hurtful or tries to intimidate students.” Elaborating on this idea at a conference at Columbia in mid-March on “The Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus,” Weiner said that “free speech does not come without equal part responsibility. There is a rise of anti-Semitism that is almost indisputable on college campuses.”
Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress, however, told the Forward, “It’s not as if we’re rejoicing that Khalidi gets an audience. But we don’t think the way to go about it is by treating Khalidi as if he is not qualified to teach on the Middle East.”
At a recent press conference outside the Department of Education, the New York Civil Liberties Unionwas joined by playwright Tony Kushner and some student leaders from Columbia to protest Klein’s dismissal of Khalidi.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, “When a government agency seeks to punish or to retaliate against an individual based on the individual’s political views or association, which amounts to â€viewpoint discrimination,’ [it] raises serious First Amendment issues.”
Kushner called Klein’s decision “shameless.” He said, “even if Professor Khalidi’s views resembled those that have been attributed to him by his critics--and they do not--firing a teacher on the basis of his or her political beliefs is impermissible. Chancellor Klein certainly knows this.”
Whatever Klein knows, he is not saying. The only response that the Department of Education would make to our inquiry on the Khalidi matter was the statement (without elaboration), “This is a matter of providing professional development for teachers who are instructing our children.”
If Khalidi were an employee of the public schools, it is extremely doubtful that the Department of Education would have any recourse against him whatsoever for expressing his views outside of school hours. As Ron Davis of the United Federation of Teachers points out, “our teachers are covered by the First Amendment. What a teacher says off school grounds when they aren’t working is strictly up to the individuals.”
But when you are dealing with non-government employees who either volunteer in the schools or do so under contract, it is a grayer area. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which did a lot of AIDS education in the schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was once banned from doing so by a vote of the Board of Education after one of their more sexually explicit brochures was discovered on a table at a school health fair.
But Khalidi was not accused of unbecoming conduct as a teacher trainer. The Department of Education is not revealing what regulations or standards he violated, if any.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM. Â