The poster advertising the first Palestinian film festival at Columbia University seemed innocuous: a map of Israel with four white doves perched on tree branches and the numbers 1-9-4-8 running the length of the map.
But in the Middle East, and on college campuses these days, little is simple or innocuous, least of all a map.
On closer inspection, the map promoting last week’s festival, called "Dreams of a Nation," was in the colors of the Palestinian flag: red, black and green. And there was no West Bank: all of Israel was symbolically Palestinian.
For pro-Israel supporters the map dripped with political overtones, and perhaps anti-Semitism.
"This overt presentation of the Palestinian dream to erase Israel from the map, replacing it with one Palestine … [is hard evidence] of the Arabs’ true intentions to destroy Israel," declared Americans for a Safe Israel.
The group urged alumni and donors to complain to university president Lee Bollinger and President George W. Bush.
The three-day festival featured movies and academic panels presenting the plight of the Palestinian people and criticizing Israel.
Its organizer, Hamid Dabashi, chair of Columbia’s department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, defended the graphic. "The way I read it, [the red map] is the color of love," he said.
"I read it as a sign of love and peace in a land devastated by hate and war," Dabashi said, adding that the map did not specifically identify either Israel or Palestine.
The poster controversy came as Israel supporters at Columbia were criticizing the hiring last week of a Palestinian professor as the first to hold an endowed chair named for Edward Said, the controversial Palestinian-American English professor at Columbia.
Rabbi Charles Sheer, Jewish chaplain and director of Hillel at Columbia University and Barnard College, said the appointment of Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago affirmed his belief that Columbia’s Middle East department is biased against Israel.
"Columbia is not a healthy place to study the Middle East," Rabbi Sheer declared. "Right now at Columbia, you are only getting the Arabist point of view."
He called Khalidi "a reputable scholar with a balanced reputation who advocates a two-state solution."
Khalidi will become the director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, which conducts research and sponsors lectures and debates about Middle East issues.
Rabbi Sheer said he met last week with Lisa Anderson, dean of the School for International Public Affairs, which oversees the Middle East Institute. Anderson also chairs the national Middle East Studies Association.
Rabbi Sheer said Anderson agreed with him that the department is "one-sided."
"She was in agreement that right now one cannot find courses that present Israel in a balanced historical context," he said.
Rabbi Sheer said Anderson also agreed that the problem of biased Middle East departments "is endemic to the field [of Middle East studies] and not just at Columbia."
Last year, Martin Kramer, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, authored "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America," which outlined a systemic pro-Arab bias in the field.
In October, she praised Khalidi for his versatility as both a historian and an activist in contemporary issues, saying he would be best for the Said chair.
Rabbi Sheer said Anderson refused to disclose the 30 funders of the $4 million chair.
"What I would hope to see is some Jews come forth with similar funds and endow a chair on Israel studies," he said.
Khalidi could not be reached for comment. Considered a leading scholar, critics have called him an apologist for Islamic extremism.
A former president of the Middle East Studies Association, Khalidi began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1987 specializing in Arab history. He had come to Columbia two years earlier after teaching at Lebanese University and American University in Beirut.
David Cohen, Columbia’s vice president for Arts and Sciences, said "Rashid is probably the best scholar we could have gotten. We were hoping to get somebody who could really reinvigorate the Middle East Institute."
But Daniel Pipes, founder of Campus Watch, which monitors pro-Islamic bias in Middle Eastern studies, called Khalidi’s appointment "a real mistake."
"For Columbia it’s particularly egregious because he is one of a team of Palestinian falsifiers who are all giving us this propagandist, non-scholarly interpretation of the Middle East," Pipes said.
Pipes also chided as "bizarre" the university’s refusal to name the chair’s benefactors. "Something doesn’t smell right," he said.
Dabashi said he was happy about the Khalidi appointment.
He said the idea for the Palestinian film festival was an outgrowth of his decade-old Middle Eastern cinema course, which presents Turkish, Iranian, Israeli and Palestinian films together to break down cultural barriers.
"I always wanted to do this festival," he said in an interview. "The problem was there is no central place to obtain classic Palestinian films, which are "scattered all over the world."
Dabashi said the festival went smoothly, and he claimed 400,000 hits to his Web site, Dreamsofanation.org.
But Israel supporters were displeased.
"One of the ways anti-Israel elements are trying to win the public relations war against Israel is through arts and culture," said Shalom Mitchell, who edits the pro-Israel Web site israelinfocenter.com.
Columbia freshman Ariel Beery was shocked by the map promoting the film festival.
"This vision of the Middle East endorsed by MEALAC seems to suggest that there will only be peace once Israel ceases to exist," she wrote in a campus op-ed. The problem is "MEALAC … has consistently focused on the Palestinian side of the issue, not legitimately addressing the Israeli-Zionist narrative."
For his part, Dabashi says he advocates Arabs and Israelis "living in one country peacefully and happily."
"The purpose of the festival is an indication of a people who have not had a chance to express their ideas and hopes and humanity and dignity," he said. "It was never suggested or articulated it would come at the expense of any other people or culture."
- Rashid Khalidi
- George W. Bush
- columbia university
- the University of Chicago
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Charles Sheer
- Barnard College
- Lee Bollinger
- Lisa Anderson
- Hamid Dabashi
- professor at Columbia
- Edward Said
- New York
- west bank
- Staff Writer
- Middle East