Cal Tzedek: David and Goliath

Thursday, November 25, 2004

David and Goliath

Columbia University has buckled to the Goliath that is the David Project. A Haaretz article gives the details. According to the article:

"Columbia University president Lee Bollinger plans "specific steps" soon in response to allegations that professors and lecturers at the Ivy League university made vitriolic and malicious comments against Israel in classes."

"Professors" means Joseph Massad, who seems to have been the main target of " Columbia Unbecoming," a "film" "documenting" anti-Israel invective and anti-Semitism in the university's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture.

Here is a Jewish Week article which seems to genuinely seek out both sides of the story, and Massad's case certainly seems stronger. The comically named Congressman Anthony Weiner would like Massad fired, reportedly based only on "word of the project." (Columbia, it is important to remember, is a Federal University, and thus is accountable to members of the House.)

And here is Massad's rebuttal. He provides a link to a book review he wrote for Israel Shahak's Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel in which he is sharply critical of perceived anti-Semitic imagery and themes within it. Though I have not read Shahak's book, I tend to think the man is a jerk, and the points Massad brings up (and surely this is why he would include such a link here) seem to confirm the sincerity with which he repudiates anti-Semitism. Furthermore, that Shahak (and the other Israel Sh--, Israel Shamir) is adored by some (NOT all) anti-Zionists makes this criticism seem more courageous and more rooted in his personal convictions than in some sort of manipulative demagoguery.

And there's the rest of his rebuttal, which is rather eloquent, at least compared to some of the shrill accusations launched at him.

Now, the truth is that I don't know Massad, I haven't seen the film in question, etc.

What I do know is that I have now had three instructors who have all had extremely damaging accusations launched at them, and that no experiences that I have had with any of them have given the slightest bit of credibility to those claims.

The nature of these claims varied. One was relatively mild and commonplace. "So and so was completely one-sided. He said that Israel was a colonial project, but never, not once, mentioned terrorism. I was personally offended by much of what he said." I wasn't. The speaker of this paraphrased quote was an AIPAC member and prominent Hasbara activist. Indeed, an incident of intimidation by some party or another was once seemingly directed at him.

When our Israeli Graduate Student Instructor got an anonymous e-mail which said "I find it odd that ONLY the Zionist got an A [on a midterm]," the Professor in question condemned it in the strongest possible language and was visibly angry and disturbed. The e-mail was extremely offensive not so much because of what it suggested about the student (and the Professor made very clear that this was the lowest form of discourse), but because it clearly made assumptions about the G.S.I. and his academic scruples because he was Israeli. The bottom line is that, as much as the student might have disagreed with the Professor's historical narrative, there was nothing to intimidate him from expressing his opposing views and succeeding in the class.

The other two instructors have had their names smeared more prominently. One, was unsuccessfully "exposed" as a purveyor of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by a Dafka member. The Department of Near Eastern Studies, Hillel, and --according to a prominent Jewish professor on campus-- the Anti-Defamation League, all concluded that these accusations were unfounded. When this failed, the student tried what never fails: announcing to the Internet that this instructor had "fought for Saddam." In fact, he had fought against Saddam, and this is pretty well known as he is frequently called on as a consultant and contributor to prominent media outlets. Not once did I --with an incredibly Israeli name-- receive the slightest vibe of intimidation or contempt from him.

The third instructor might be the most infamous of all. He has more or less been accused not only of anti-Semitism, but also of treason and incitement to genocide. I have rejected the smear campaign against him based on my past experiences, my experiences with him, and a consideration of who benefits from and sustains this infamy. It's not pro-Israel groups, necessarily. The Israel Action Committee, as much as I mock their hasbara campaigns, tends to realize that it should not bite off more than it can chew, especially on a campus where the instructors in question enjoy considerable support. Rather, these smears come from those who seek to broaden semi-fascism into all walks of life: our friends at Little Green Footballs, Campus Watch, Front Page Magazine, Students for Academic Freedom, Fox News, and Protest Warrior. When any sort of idea is posited by these six organizations, it has zero credibility.

So what kind of organization is The David Project?

"We do not claim to have the solution to this tragic situation, but we believe that the path to peace begins with a fair and honest understanding of the conflict."

Good! I can support any group that recognizes the tragedy of the conflict and believes that justice and honesty are necessary in diffusing it. So I'm assuming they would concede that both sides have committed violence, both sides have acted in bad faith, both sides have failed their own people.

Not quite. Here's some of their "education."


-Distorted Frame: Israel “oppressing” the Palestinians.

-Reframe: Israel humanely defending itself from terror. Palestinians suffering because Arab leaders keep them in refugee camps and encourage them to become terrorists.

That explains it all! Phew! For awhile, I was worried that by occupying land and criminalizing mundane aspects of daily life like movement so that we can defend settlements that we don't need, we were harming Palestinians. Now I can rest.

Some more:

Distorted Frame: Israel’s imperfections singled out and magnified.

Reframe: Apply one standard of morality to all people. Israel is an oasis of freedom in human rights desert filled with despots — who fuel the Middle East conflict and global terror.

Okay, maybe I agree that so many countries other than Israel do so many things that are so much worse. I agree with this. I'm saying it. So those participating in the David Project have every right to be skeptical about people who criticize Israel, to question their motivation, etc. But when these criticisms come from Palestinians whose lives have been affected by Israeli policies, or Israelis who are expected to support those policies, then it is downright arrogant to demand that they "apply one standard of morality to all people," since, in this case, that clearly means "in a manner which obscures Israel's imperfections." Joseph Massad is a Palestinian. He has every right to "single out and magnify" what are pretty damn significant imperfections. No, one's ethnic background does not give one an inherent right or obligation to criticize or to praise something. But one's personal experiences do, to some extent, and they weaken the "Well Everyone Else Is Doing It" argument which the David Project is putting forward.

Plus, it amuses me how novel and original they think their approach is. Surely no one has ever brought up these points before! They call 'em like they see 'em! It's like they're saying what we're all thinking!

Finally, there are two maps: one of them is a close-up of Israel and the territories. This, we learn, is a "distorted frame," because it makes Israel look like some sort of Dinosaur eating the West Bank. The truth, we are informed, is that Israel is surrounded by 22 big bad Arab countries plus Iran, and they want to eat it!!!!!!!!

As campus activist and Visionary Scientist Chris Cantor pointed out, however, the same people who remind us of this at every opportunity are also the ones who remind us that "Egypt made peace, and Israel made painful concessions for that. Jordan made peace, and now Israel co-operates with Jordan. Israel is prepared to do anything for peace when its neighbors are willing and ready. Egypt and Jordan did it. Why can't the Palestinians?"

And why can't Syria? Israel's been extending an olive branch to President Assad for the past 56 years, and all he's been doing is turning up his nose at it...


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