Opinion | Letters to the Editor

Letter to the editor: Former Vice-President Dirks defaming the department

To the Editor:

The undersigned faculty members of the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University feel outraged after reading the assertions made by Nicholas Dirks, our former colleague and the newly appointed chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview recorded by the Public Affairs office at Berkeley on the eve of a meeting of the Regents to approve his appointment ("In Conversation: Chancellor-designate Nicholas Dirks," UCBerkeleyCampuslife).

While discussing the divestment petition at Columbia in 2002 (which, to set the record straight, called on Columbia to divest, not from "all things Israel," as mischaracterized by the interviewer, but from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other companies that supply military hardware used by Israel against the civilian population of the West Bank and Gaza), Chancellor Dirks referred to "all sorts of other controversies that developed about the climate for Jewish students on Columbia's campus." He described this climate as hugely not just anti-Israel, but by implication anti-Jewish, and anti-Semitic, and connected this issue with "the nature of instruction in the department of Middle East studies."

Our sense of outrage stems from Dirks' denial of the fact that the very committee set up by then-Vice President Dirks found no evidence whatever for concerns about the climate for Jewish students let alone about the nature of instruction in our department. We feel affronted by the fact that the Chancellor's defaming the department means that he now rejects the committee¹s finding and seems instead to accept as true the false accusations leveled against us by an external hate group that has since been exposed and discredited.

Signed (in alphabetical order):

Muhsin Al-Musawi
Gil Anidjar
Partha Chatterjee
Hamid Dabashi
Mamadou Diouf
Wael Hallaq
Sudipta Kaviraj
Mahmood Mamdani
Joseph Massad
Brinkley Messick
Timothy Mitchell
Sheldon Pollock
Frances Pritchett
George Saliba

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Anonymous posted on

None of these people have been Jewish undergraduates in MESAAS, so by their own standard of postmodern, postcolonial authenticity, none of them can speak as to the climate for Jewish students in their own department.

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Anonymous posted on

I'm not sure where he attacks these people. They seem to be reading something into what he said that isn't actually there. From http://newscenter.berkeley.edu...

"At Columbia, we’ve had serious controversies around issues having to do not just with Middle East politics, but in fact with the teaching of Middle East studies. And so the first and most important thing that I bring to these kinds of occasions is the need to accord every participant the maximum respect possible, but then, of course, to try to find ways to establish the grounds of dialogue. At the same time that we always are seeking to make sure that students feel safe, that they feel that they aren’t being personally attacked. They feel they aren’t being attacked on the basis of their religion or their ethnicity, their identity in any — form — it might be relevant. And so the first thing that we need to do is to make respect the foundation of the way we engage issues, whether with faculty or with staff and most of all the students. I hope that my commitment to dialogue, to negotiation, to talking with students and, indeed, to openness about everything that we do will perhaps be helpful in situations at Berkeley where there are sometimes passions and even tempers that can grow at a pace with the needs that we have as an institution to bring communities together and resolve our differences and our disagreements in an amicable way.

"Truth is, I do not support divestment as a strategy for the university. I don’t support divestment with respect to Israel. At the same time, many of my colleagues felt very strongly about this and many of them signed a petition. And it circulated widely at the time which was 2002. And there were, after that, all sorts of other controversies that developed about the climate for Jewish students on Columbia’s campus, about the nature of instruction and the department of Middle East studies, and indeed about the general atmosphere at Columbia more generally.

We felt that we needed to make very clear that we were committed to a classroom environment in which students felt that they could think anything they wanted to think about political issues that might come up in their instruction. We have students from all kinds of backgrounds for whom we have to be deeply concerned about their experience on campus. We’ve had students who have been concerned, for example, about the fact that as Muslims they haven’t had open access to prayer rooms for the kind of regular daily prayer that is part of their religious observance. So the question of respect that you asked me about before is a question that has to run deep in terms of our relationships with students from all backgrounds. And we have to be attentive, also, to the larger context within which the kinds of things that students experience sometimes get magnified on a college campus, where there are pressures, obviously, on some communities more than on others, and some groups more than others. So we’ve worked very hard to be as open as we could possibly be and as responsive as we could be.

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Anonymous posted on

I don't see how saying that there was a controversy in any way endorses one side or the other. Obviously, there was a controversy. Otherwise there wouldn't have been a task force.

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Anonymous posted on

To say "serious controversies," however, does indicate some degree of respect for those raising the allegations against the department. I imagine that letter writers would prefer that Dirks entirely dismiss the concerns.

But that doesn't seem to make sense. At no point did the report appear to dismiss the concerns as "false accusations leveled against us by an external hate group."

On an entirely different note, the professors' claims that "he described this climate as hugely not just anti-Israel, but by implication anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic" misrepresent what Dirks actually said to a pretty egregious degree.

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CU_Alum posted on

All Prof. Dirks said was that there had been a controversy. He didn't explain how it was resolved, which leaves the impression that there was a real problem. I can't fault the MESAAS faculty for reminding us of the committee's findings or for wanting to get the word out. But there is a difference between reminding people about what happened and making this type of accusation.

Dirks did not say the climate was anti-Israel, either in MESAAS or at CU generally. He did not say there was a problem at all. He just said there had been a controversy and that it's important to respect students of all backgrounds. There was no "denial" of the committee's findings, so there is nothing for the faculty to feel "outraged" or "affronted" about.

Given past events, I understand the MESAAS faculty's sensitivity to any suggestion that the department or its members are biased. I would want to respond to Dirks' statement too if I were in their shoes. But my response would be to clarify what happened and not to accuse Dirks of something he clearly did not do.

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Omar Farahat posted on

This transcript is missing the part where he claimed that the atmosphere in Columbia was "anti-Israel, and by implication, anti-Semitic." A very convenient part to drop. The full video can be watched here: http://mondoweiss.net/2012/12/...

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Anonymous posted on

Thank you O My Farthead.

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Sababra posted on

False. As even MW points out in your link, Dirks was speaking about how students felt about the atmosphere, not claiming that the atmosphere was one way or another.

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Anonymous posted on

Full report of the ad hoc committee here: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/new....

Note that is was chaired by his much more able and successful predecessor, Prof. Ira Katznelson. Rumor has it he was asked to continue on as EVPAS, but wanted to continue on with his research. Dirks was apparently their 4th or 5th choice or something.

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Anonymous posted on

BARRYYY

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Anonymous posted on

barry=legendary from beyond the grave truth to power

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Anonymous posted on

barry is my homeboy... i wish

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Anonymous posted on

Yea there's nothing wrong at Columbia, like the head of the Palestine Studies Program, Maryam Zohny, sharing a Hamas poster on Facebook (http://blog.adl.org/tags/marya...

This is a joke, I went to Columbia and the teaching environment fostered there was not one that embraced critical thinking in regards to anything related to Israel. A program director that has no problem with Hamas tells you all you need to know.

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Omar Farahat posted on

So... you say that a program director HAS to "have problem with Hamas", yet you're lamenting critical thinking.

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Anonymous posted on

Your taste in camels is not the same as mine.

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Anonymous posted on

SEEMS LIKE THESE ARAB PROFESSORS ARE JUST HATERS. ISRAEL IS THE MOST MORAL COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. ITS MORAL TO A FAULT. I.E. HANDING OUT FLYERS BEFORE BOMBING TERRORISTS. EVEN THE USA IS TYRANNICAL TOWARDS HUMAN RIGHTS WHEN COMPARED WITH ISRAEL WHOSE HUMANISTIC APPROACH TO DEALING WITH PEOPLE WHO ACTIVELY PURSUE ITS DEMISE IS UNPRECEDENTED IN HISTORY.THERE WILL ALWAYS BE ANTISEMITISM. ITS MORE PALATABLE WHEN IT'S NOT COVERED BY A VENEER OF PROTECTING THE "VICTIMS." HENCE, IN SOME WAYS MODERN "LIBERALS" ARE WORSE THAN NAZI'S.

LET'S CALL A SPADE A SPADE.

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Anonymous posted on

"HENCE, IN SOME WAYS MODERN "LIBERALS" ARE WORSE THAN NAZI'S."

You have to be kidding. This is just about the dumbest thing I have ever read. Wonder if Jews in 1940's Germany would be happier seeing (1) a group of soldiers sent by the Nazis coming into town or (2) a group of soldiers sent by that liberal Franklin Roosevelt coming into town?

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Alumnalina posted on

I was a grad student in Anthro during those years. I am am American Jew. I never once experienced anti-Semitism on campus in 9 years. I did experience first-hand the hatred, racism, intimidation, even bomb threats received by those opposing the Iraq invasion and the illegal occupation of Palestine (most of whom signed this letter). Looking at the racist comments about camels on this feed, and seeing the edited transcript that makes Dirks look less like the amoral opportunistic rat he is, I see that little has changed. If even Brink Messick, who was Dirks' right hand man all those years, is dumping him, you know he's really stepped in the poo, so to speak.

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