Wednesday, April 06, 2005
In Defense of Academic Freedom
Columbia University, April 4, 2005
Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures
I would prefer not to speak.
I would prefer not to have to remind you that Palestinian rights have been trampled by
the Israeli army, Israeli law and Israeli governments for the past 54 years.
I would prefer not to single out the state of Israel and those who support its “right to
I would prefer not to ask them to explain what that right to existence means, and whether
it includes the right to exist as a violent state that discriminate among its citizens on the
basis of religion and race.
I would prefer not to have to explain that racism and colonialism take many forms, most
of which intended to do good, spread the wealth, and defend our values, our civilization,
our democracy. I would prefer not to remind you that, uh, it did not turn out that way.
I would prefer not to tell you what Aristotle already knew: that “tyranny is rule by one
person for the benefit of the monarch, oligarchy is for the benefit of the rich, and
democracy is for the benefit of the poor” (Politics 1274b)
I would prefer not to remind you that until this country works for the benefit of the poor, it
will not be a democracy, in the Greek or any other sense. I would also prefer not to
inform you that, true to his political and corporate aspirations, President Bollinger is not
working for the benefit of students or faculty. He is ruling and managing us, distributing
goody points for the benefit of a private corporation. Along with his administration, he is
ruling and managing a not so efficient business institution that believes that “bigger is
better,” as is gentrification, paternalization, and vivisection, while systematically ensuring
that academic freedom will not include the freedom to speak out on behalf of Palestine
(although it does include the freedom to verbally and publicly assault your Arab or
Muslim colleagues, as well as the freedom to post your presidential “opinion” on the
home page of said corporation, all in the spirit of “open debate”).
I would prefer not to point out that the report of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Anti-
American Pedagogic Practices is only the more recent of a series of tragicomic steps
that insist on going in the wrong direction. Let me repeat this one.
I would prefer not to remind you that Columbia is one of the foremost centers of Jewish
Studies in the country, a center that, created in 1980, has chosen NOT to make the
difference between Israel and Jewish Studies, thus publicly settling the scholarly issue
as to making a distinction between Zionism and Judaism. I would also prefer not to
inform you that the search to fill the seventh chair in Israel or Jewish studies on campus
has now been authorized. I would prefer not to confirm that Israel Studies is one of the
fastest growing field in American universities today.
I would prefer not to engage in comparisons and equivalences, especially those that
may bring to your divided attention that not a single position in Arabic, Islamic or Middle
East Studies has been created at Columbia University since September 11, 2001. It may
be unrelated, of course, but the same goes for a variety of fields that may be considered
urgent to address, such as African studies and African literatures, and there are others.
I would prefer not to tell you that things are pretty bad, and don’t worry, they could be
worse. I would prefer not to share with you the news that, in fact, they will get worse.
They already have.
I would prefer not to tell you that Joseph Massad’s scholarship and teaching, not to
mention his politics and his personal and professional integrity are impeccable and
exemplary. I would prefer not to have to tell you that there have been sustained, at once
insidious and explicit, attempts to silence him, as there have been attempts to silence
Edward Said and others before and after him. I would prefer not to tell you that
CampusWatch has been winning in defining the issues – I would prefer to talk about
something else – and that Columbia University is collaborating, as it has collaborated in
the past and is still collaborating with numerous neoliberal, neocolonial interests
throughout the world.
I would prefer not to have to defend Joseph Massad and not to speak up in defense of
academic freedom, nor to speak up for Palestinian rights.
But I will.
I would prefer not to speak.
But I will.