It all started with a simple question

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:57

    Young woman finds herself in the middle of academic storm By Linda Keay Goshen — A young woman born and raised in Goshen has found herself in the midst of a famous academic battle that has been covered in many national newspapers, numerous blogs, and even a short film. Deena Shanker is a graduate of Barnard College/Columbia University, where she majored in Middle Eastern and Asian languages and cultures. She spent her senior year in college embroiled in a controversy involving three professors whom students accused of teaching anti-Israel curriculums and intimidating any student who challenged them. Shanker said one of these professors, Joseph Massad, a Jordanian-born Palestinian, yelled at her in class back in 2002 and ordered her to leave. She said he was upset at a question she had asked about Israel’s military incursions into the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “I asked if Israel gave warnings before bombing,” said Shanker. “I said, ‘Isn’t it true that Israel sometimes gives warnings before they bomb on the West Bank?’ He blew up and told me that if I wanted to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians then I could get out of the classroom.” Shanker worked for Straus Newspapers last summer as an intern. In September she gave an interview at the Moon Doze Café in Goshen, just before leaving for a new job as a project assistant at a Manhattan law firm. “Professor Massad was saying that people are so sheltered and they never heard these things before,” Shanker said. “So I said, Sheltered? I’m from Goshen, New York. I think I fall under the sheltered category, but it’s not like these were ideas I had never heard before. I heard a lot of new ideas when I got to college. I didn’t call them all intimidating. I was just saying that being sheltered has nothing to do with anything.” Accounts of what happened in that fateful class differ. A group of students gathered 20 signatures on a petition saying they were all in the classroom that day and that it never happened, Shanker said. “It was a crazy class,” she said. “I mean it was a really crazy class. If people say they don’t remember it, they probably don’t remember it because there was so much crazy stuff. It was a hostile environment to be in.” Columbia charged an ad hoc faculty committee with investigating complaints that pro-Palestinian professors had harassed pro-Israel Jewish students. The committee’s report, published in March, found “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.” But it did say Shanker’s complaint was the “most serious incident” reported to the committee. It found “credible that Professor Massad became angered at a question that he understood to countenance Israeli conduct of which he disapproved, and that he responded heatedly. While we have no reason to believe that Professor Massad intended to expel Ms. Shanker from the classroom (she did not, in fact, leave the class), his rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds.” Professor Massad and his two embattled colleagues, Professor George Saliba and the department chair, Professor Hamid Dabashi, are now on leave. Shanker said she is surprised. “It’s too bad they all just got up and left,” she said. “They’re really the core of the department. Dabashi’s the chair. Who’s in charge now? It’s as if Cheney and Bush and Condoleeza Rice just got up and left. Who would take over? They should really deal with this problem.” She said the difficulty really stems from the department’s lack of offerings on Israel — only one Zionist literature class and none on present-day Israeli politics or history. “I admit that it was probably very frustrating for Professor Massad in the class with the same three or four kids raising their hands constantly and arguing with him,” she said. “The real issue is there are students who are not comfortable in the department. And they ended up taking it out by asking the professor 100 questions in one classroom because they felt, I felt, as somebody who identifies with Israel, I felt victimized by the way the country was being portrayed and so I defended something that I believed in. But he definitely never gave out the impression that he was intimidated by our questions. He always had an answer every single time. He encouraged people to ask questions.” The problem became inflamed a year ago when the David Project, a Boston-based pro-Israel group, showed the news media a short film titled “Columbia Unbecoming.” It featured the testimonials of Jewish students at Columbia who felt intimidated by what they perceived as the college’s anti-Israel bias. “The David Project came onto campus and started talking to people,” Shanker said. “I didn’t even know what the David Project was until the video came out and I saw somebody talking about what happened to me. I started saying, ‘Hey, that was me, I know that story.’ But the David Project contacted me. I actually didn’t want much to do with the David Project. I don’t particularly think that this was handled very well. “It’s really a shame that it blew up the way that it did,” she continued. “To be honest, I really blame the David Project for bringing this to the national media, that The New York Times would cover it. Whatever, I’ll talk to the media, but this is not my battle to fight. I graduated. As much as I would like to help [the department], I’m sure they don’t want my help anyway. “The truth is that Prof. Massad’s class really did give me an entirely new perspective that I really value. That’s why I hate the way this whole thing has blown up to make me look like I want to have Professor Massad fired. I don’t want anything like that. I don’t agree with a lot of his views but I think he has a lot of important views. Just from taking his class and reading enough of what he’s written, he’s clearly a very smart man. I was thinking if I could go talk with Professor Massad, not just be a name in the paper, that he would see I really in no way would make this up just to hurt him and maybe we could try and solve it before it escalates even further.” As she prepared to leave for her new job at the law firm, she recalled an earlier ambition. “I used to be very idealistic and wanted to go into working with the Middle East and doing something for peace, but I don’t think that’s going to happen because I don’t think there’s really ever going to be peace in my lifetime,” she said. “I mean, we can’t even get along in a department at a school in the U.S. It’s so depressing.” Professor Joseph Massad responded that he is on sabbatical this semester and that, “I will be back in the Spring.” Defending his position is the group Censoring Thought, which has posted on its web site that Massad’s stated purpose of his course is, “...not to provide a ‘balanced’ coverage...but rather to provide a thorough yet critical overview of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict.” Criticizing Massad’s viewpoint is journalist/MSNBC consultant Steven Emerson, who said, “Massad has inverted reality. He is not the victim. He was the one who intimidated his students who did not agree with his fierce pro-Palestinian advocacy.” Columbia University’s response is that the three professors are on sabbatical. Requests for reason and duration of those absences were not answered.