It’s a wonder that MEALAC professor Joseph Massad isn’t a hoax perpetrated by conservative activist David Horowitz. No doubt Horowitz excites over academics who so perfectly epitomize everything wrong with the academy, and whose published works read like dossiers from Campus Watch. But politics and the problems surrounding the intersection of politics and academia shouldn’t preclude a close and critical examination of Massad’s work, especially since, for Massad, politics is so preclusive of basic intellectual and academic sense. He might be David Horowitz’s best asset. But that isn’t why Columbia’s academic credibility hinges on Massad’s tenure bid ending in failure.
Massad’s work is characterized by illogical extremes and by a knee-jerk paranoia of anything even vaguely Western in its origins or goals. If he weren’t a professor, his argument in Desiring Arabs that a cabal-like “Gay International” (in which agents of neo-imperialism like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are card-carrying members) is using an invented notion of “homosexuality” to demonize the Moslem world would be denounced as veiled homophobia—especially since reviewer Brian Whitaker writes that “Massad offers no evidence to substantiate his claim.” This is a demented argument, especially considering all the work that’s been done on the emergence of gay identity in the Middle East. But it’s incredible what you can get away with when you’ve got “Associate Professor of Arab intellectual history” attached to your name.
Indeed, the extent to which “academic freedom” can act as a shield for the most unfounded, anti-scholarly rhetoric is one of the few substantive lessons that can be gleaned from Massad’s body of work. With this in mind, his “magnum opus” is a 2002 article for New Politics entitled “On Zionism and Jewish Supremacy,” itself a study in how an important examination of a provocative and difficult question—in this case, whether the Zionist project is inherently racist—can degenerate into an intolerant and wildly anti-academic rant.
In the article, Massad notes the “ideological convergence between anti-Semites and Jewish supremacists.” He bases a claim that “Zionism’s project is nothing short of turning the Jew into the anti-Semite” on an Israeli newspaper article in which a Washington, D.C. rabbi states, “The U.S. no longer has a government of [non-Jews], but an administration in which the Jews are full partners in the decision-making at all levels.” To a reasonable reader, this is an innocuous and even factual statement. To Massad, it helps prove that “Jewish supremacists” promote a worldview whereby “Jews will be supremacists over the native Palestinians who they conquered and must continue to conquer; they are also said to be supreme on a global scale.”
The logic is tough to follow but inflammatory nonetheless: Massad is accusing “Jewish Supremacists” (basically, every Zionist Jew, regardless of nationality) of endangering the greater Jewish community through wanting their people to be “supreme on a global scale.” Basically, Massad argues that Zionists generate anti-Semitism through confirming to an anti-Semitic stereotype. But it’s a stereotype that Massad finds valid—to him, a goodly percentage of Jews really are living, breathing anti-Semitic caricatures.
But he doesn’t stop with his Protocols-like critique of Zionism. In the article’s final paragraph, Massad calls for “the continuing resistance of Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories to all the civil and military institutions that uphold Jewish supremacy.” This is significant, since he earlier describes how everything from “Jewish symbolism” to “ceremonial national days” to “Jewish society in Israel” is an instrument of “Jewish supremacy;” doubly significant because the article was published in the winter of 2002, during the violent early days of the Second Intifada.
Massad is effectively saying that anything “Jewish” in Israel (which, to Massad, means practically everything), is fair game to whoever is “resisting” it. This is an offensive position, although I suppose the violent or nonviolent destruction of “Jewish society” might be theoretically defensible if you advocate a similar fate for other ethnic, national, or religious groups. But two paragraphs earlier, Massad writes that after the future dissolution of the Zionist government, “the Palestinians can either have a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza or ... opt for a binational state in all of Mandatory Palestine.” While Jewish nationalism is supremacist and racist, Palestinian nationalism and statehood is not. Far from it—in fact, Palestinian national ambitions are so urgent that they warrant the erasure of the social and national structuring of a country of seven million people. Meanwhile, Jewish national ambitions are insignificant when they aren’t racist, although Massad seems to take this discrepancy for granted and, unsurprisingly, makes no attempts at justifying it. He doesn’t oppose nationalism per se—just Jewish nationalism.
Incredibly, Massad manages to top himself in a 2002 essay for the Journal of Palestine Studies entitled “Deconstructing Holocaust Consciousness” (available on JSTOR), in which he makes the appalling claim that “the majority of American Jews are so assimilated into ‘whiteness’ that they are no longer Jews ... except by name.” Although Massad cites a 1998 book by Karen Brodkin as proof, he doesn’t see this statement—essentially, that American Jewish identity is at best a socio-cultural flight of fancy—as being quite problematic enough to closely interrogate or even casually examine. I would hope that someone granted tenure at Columbia wouldn’t gloss over something like this en route to an even more ludicrous argument; that he wouldn’t, for instance, use the assumed illegitimacy of American Judaism to slam Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry for providing too much of a “Zionist understanding” of the Jewish experience.
It’s disconcerting that a tenure candidate with no expertise in modern American Judaism would be so baselessly dismissive of it. But his much more disturbing dismissal is of the entire notion that controversial issues can be discussed without having to resort to cheap insinuation and borderline intolerance. Supporters of Israel should welcome the pointed challenges that the most provocative and well-reasoned anti-Zionist discourses present. But nobody should welcome a scholarship in which poisonous and intellectually flimsy methods of argumentation act as stand-ins for the careful, academic thought process that universities are supposed to encourage and reward. And nobody should welcome the day when our University determines that the world’s most important issues deserve nothing more than the immature and polemical treatment that Massad gives to them. We’re not about to give Bill O’Reilly a full professorship. Massad doesn’t deserve one either.
The author is a sophomore in List College.