For weeks, Columbia University is roiled by claims of a hostile environment for Jewish students. Others counter that accusations of anti-Semitism are being used to shut down pro-Palestinian speech. Politicians weigh in. The university president is assailed for mishandling the situation.

The year is not 2024 but 20 years ago, and the drama is known as the “Columbia Unbecoming” controversy, after the name of a 20-minute documentary detailing accusations of bias, bigotry, and abusive conduct toward Jewish students by several faculty members. The dramas, separated by two decades, are not just similar in their outlines but feature some of the same principals.

Joseph Massad, the professor of Middle Eastern studies who was the focus of attention in 2004, is at the center of controversy again, having written an article published on October 8 which lauded the Hamas raids into Israel as an “awesome” act of “innovative Palestinian resistance.”

Bari Weiss, who was then an undergraduate and first emerged into the spotlight as part of a group that championed the film, is now the founding editor of the Free Press, which has covered the protests extensively. A prominent critic of progressive speech-policing on and off campus, she has been accused of hypocrisy because of her alleged attempts to “cancel” professors critical of Israel.

Today, Columbia has become the subject of a national conversation over raucous pro-Palestinian campus protests that have included undeniably ugly rhetoric and behavior directed at Jews. A protester was seen holding a sign that read, Al-Qassam’s Next Target (referring to the military wing of Hamas), with an arrow pointing at pro-Israel counter-protesters. A viral video showed a student organizer urging fellow activists to form a “human chain” to block “Zionists” who had entered the encampment; he was later suspended after another video turned up, in which he called for the killing of Zionists.

Joseph Massad is at the center of controversy again, having written an article published on October 8 which lauded the Hamas raids into Israel as an “awesome” act of “innovative Palestinian resistance.”

To those sympathetic to the “Columbia Unbecoming” project, this looks like chickens coming home to roost. Ariel Beery, an Israeli and self-described “pro-peace Zionist,” who graduated from Columbia in 2005 and produced the film, told me that Columbia’s prominence in the protests of 2023–24 was partly an outcome of the university’s weak response to the allegations in 2004–5. “Like any abusive relationship that is allowed to go unchecked,” he says, “Columbia’s leadership enabled the abusers and in doing so strengthened their hand against Israeli and Jewish students.”

University faculty protest the crackdown on pro-Palestinian students, April 22, 2024.

Writer and attorney David French, who, back in 2004, defended the students’ right to air their grievances as president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (now the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE), echoes this view. “If you had professors going back 20 years who had written things [about Israeli Jews] like ‘There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture,’” French says, “is it any surprise that we saw some of what we saw at Columbia?”

I’ll come back to that quote, from an essay by Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia and one of the faculty members implicated in the scandal. But first, some background on the scandal itself.

An Investigation or a “Whitewash”?

On April 18, 2002, the Columbia Daily Spectator reported that Massad, then an assistant professor in the Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures department (MEALAC), had called Israel a “Jewish supremacist and racist state” at a pro-Palestinian campus sit-in. (Massad claimed that he had been misquoted, but his own version differed only in precise wording.) Several other professors, including Dabashi, then chair of MEALAC, not only abruptly canceled classes to speak at the sit-in but encouraged students to attend.

After Rabbi Charles Sheer, the Jewish chaplain and director of the Jewish organization Hillel at Columbia and Barnard College, criticized the “coercive invitation” in a Columbia Daily Spectator column, Dabashi responded with a tirade that blasted Sheer for mounting “a crusade of fear and intimidation against … faculty and students who have dared to speak against the slaughter of innocent Palestinians,” and invoked the Spanish Inquisition.

As tensions grew, then Columbia president Lee Bollinger appointed a committee to look into the situation; in April 2004, it came back with an oral report that concluded that, while “there was no evidence of a systematic problem of the faculty abuse of students,” a “local problem” in MEALAC did seem to exist. No further action was taken.

Meanwhile, a group of Jewish Columbia students had started working on a documentary funded by the David Project, a Boston-based pro-Israel advocacy group launched by Hillel in 2002. Completed in 2004, “Columbia Unbecoming” was initially screened only privately, for a few university officials.

Then, on October 20, 2004, The New York Sun, a small, right-of-center daily that had previously covered the sit-in conflict, broke the story under the provocative headline Columbia Abuzz Over Underground Film. On November 3, “Columbia Unbecoming” was publicly screened on campus; some 400 students filled the auditorium, with many others unable to get in.

Parts of the film, which consists almost entirely of interviews with students, dealt with allegedly extreme anti-Israel rhetoric from Massad, Dabashi, and other MEALAC faculty. But its primary focus was on claims of abusive treatment toward dissenting students, which is not protected by academic freedom. In a particularly notorious incident at an off-campus lecture, Massad had allegedly badgered an Israeli student by asking if he had served in the Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.) and demanding to know how many Palestinians he had killed.

“Columbia Unbecoming” was initially screened only privately, for a few university officials. Then The New York Sun broke the story under the provocative headline Columbia Abuzz Over Underground Film.

In another episode, during a discussion of the April 2002 battle between the I.D.F. and Palestinian militants in the Jenin refugee camp, Massad allegedly berated a student who asked about Israeli troops issuing warnings before bombing in civilian areas and threatened to eject her from the class, shouting, “I will not have anyone sit through this class and deny Israeli atrocities!” (This incident was described by an eyewitness in the film, with other details later provided by the student on the receiving end of the alleged verbal abuse.) Soon after the film’s release, Massad denied both incidents.

Two other complaints concerned MEALAC professor George Saliba. One student said that he urged his class to join him in the April 2002 sit-in after delivering a rage-filled and “pretty scary” rant about Israeli crimes. Another described a bizarre moment in an after-class argument about the validity of Jewish and Palestinian land claims: “He came real close to me, and he moved down his glasses, and he looked right into my eyes, and he said, ‘See, you have green eyes. You’re not a Semite.’ He said, ‘I am a Semite, I have brown eyes. You have no claim to the land of Israel.’” Saliba later denied this allegation.

Bollinger called the alleged incidents “disturbing and offensive” and pledged protection for the academic freedom of students and faculty alike. Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Columbia for taking the charges seriously. Representative Anthony Weiner (of later infamy) urged that Massad be fired.

On December 9, Bollinger announced a new, five-person faculty committee to investigate the allegations. Around the same time, a group called Columbians for Academic Freedom, formed by several students involved in the film, joined by Weiss, announced that they were concerned about a “whitewash.”

Bari Weiss, far left, and Ariel Beery, second from left, at a press conference organized by Columbians for Academic Freedom, 2005.

The group and other critics pointed out that two of the committee members had signed a petition urging Columbia to divest from companies that sell arms to Israel. A third had blamed Israeli policies for fueling anti-Semitism and compared the occupation of the West Bank to the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. Another member, Lisa Anderson, had been Massad’s dissertation adviser and mentor. (While First Amendment attorney and Israel supporter Floyd Abrams was also involved, he acted only in an advisory role.)

After the committee issued a report that conceded isolated problems but cleared the professors and rejected claims of pervasive bias in the MEALAC department, a New York Times editorial in April 2005 argued that Columbia had “botched” the job by stacking the panel with known partisans. The late Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, one of the most consistent civil libertarians who ever lived, wrote a column about the report titled “Columbia Whitewashes Itself.”

Rhetoric and Recriminations

The “Columbia Unbecoming” story has its complexities. A Jewish student raised in Israel and in the United States who had taken Massad’s class on modern Arab politics told The New York Jewish Week that he strongly disagreed with Massad’s views but found him “approachable, stimulating and challenging.” Even the Israeli student Massad allegedly grilled about his Palestinian body count said that he generally liked the MEALAC department and had enjoyed a class with Dabashi.

Although Dan Miron, one of MEALAC’s few pro-Israel professors, told The New York Sun that he had heard student complaints about the department for years, there were no allegations that anyone’s grades had suffered in political retaliation, and no students had complained of mistreatment to university officials or to Hillel.

It must also be noted that some of the professors’ critics were extremists themselves: polemicist Daniel Pipes, who blogged about the affair on his Web site Middle East Forum, praised Michelle Malkin’s book In Defense of Internment, which not only called for post–September 11 profiling of Muslims but defended the Japanese-American internment during World War II. (A few years later, Pipes also joined in right-wing efforts to hype Barack Obama’s supposed Muslim connection.)

Yet for all the caveats, it seems clear not only that the environment in MEALAC was deeply and one-sidedly politicized but also that several professors were using their scholarship as a vehicle for ideology and activism. What’s more, the committee’s curt dismissal of the issue of anti-Semitism seems questionable.

Massad’s ostensible condemnations of anti-Semitism are coupled with rhetorical trickery in which Arabs and Muslims (“the new Jews”) are the real victims of anti-Semitism while Israeli, and Zionist, Jews are the real anti-Semites. Massad also charges that Zionists have deliberately helped stoke anti-Semitism in Europe in order to drive Jews to Israel, citing the complicated history of Zionist groups’ accommodations with German authorities (primarily intended to help Jews leave Germany and keep at least some of their assets) to spin an absurd and repugnant narrative in which Zionists become accomplices in the Nazis’ rise to power.

Massad had allegedly badgered an Israeli student by asking if he had served in the Israel Defense Forces and demanding to know how many Palestinians he had killed.

Or consider Dabashi’s 2004 essay “For a Fistful of Dust: A Passage to Palestine,” which “Columbia Unbecoming” quoted as ascribing to Israeli Jews a “vulgarity of character.” Dabashi claimed misrepresentation, since the film replaced “these people” in his text with “Israeli Jews” without indicating the alteration, and it omitted the context of his interactions with aggressive airport-security agents on a trip to Israel.

But the language is in fact clearly directed at Israeli Jews in general. “What the Israelis are doing to Palestinians,” Dabashi writes in the same passage, “has a mirror reflection on their own soul.” Even the left-wing, generally pro-Palestinian magazine The Nation acknowledged that Dabashi’s “shrill and careless” language could “easily be construed as anti-Semitic.”

Certainly, such writings and their authors are protected by academic freedom. French says that FIRE would have defended the professors against any attempt to punish them for their views—just as, in 2002, it had defended University of South Florida computer-science professor Sami Al-Arian, threatened with dismissal because of “disruption” created by his outspoken pro-Palestinian advocacy.

But they are certainly not protected from harsh criticism, as the New York Civil Liberties Union (N.Y.C.L.U.) seemed to suggest in its December 2004 letter to President Bollinger, defending the professors and asserting that they must have latitude “to suffer no recriminations” for their ideas, which prompted FIRE to get involved on the students’ side.

There is a certain irony in the fact that several students who appear in the film complain about being “uncomfortable” and wanting to explore the Israel-Palestine debate in a “safe” setting, language that mirrors the sort of “woke-speak” conservatives love to mock. But the irony cuts both ways, since progressives often ridicule critics of cancel culture for wanting to be shielded from pushback, and the N.Y.C.L.U.’s plea for the Columbia professors seemed to ask for exactly that.

And what of Weiss’s alleged turnabout over censorship, a charge laid out by Glenn Greenwald in the Intercept in 2018? Greenwald does, I think, demonstrate that Weiss did not merely advocate “for the rights of students to express their viewpoints,” as she has claimed, but also accused some professors, particularly Massad, of anti-Semitism and bigotry. In a 2015 article, Weiss expressed her disapproval of the decision to grant him tenure.

Yet Greenwald’s case is undermined by an extremely skewed account of the controversy. He treats the Columbia self-exoneration as gospel, omitting the serious questions about its impartiality. He also invokes the N.Y.C.L.U.’s defense of the professors but omits the fact that FIRE—which Greenwald himself recently praised on X as “the only major US group defending free speech on a non-partisan and principled basis”—broadly sided with Weiss, and that Hentoff, who praised Greenwald’s early civil-liberties advocacy, was also in her corner.

Johnson, who blogged about the controversy at the time, shares concerns about a conservative version of speech-policing in the name of emotional safety. But he also stresses that the issue at Columbia 20 years ago was not merely student discomfort but “unprofessional conduct by faculty in the classroom.”

Would a more serious response from the university administration then—such as steps to enforce professional conduct and/or bring more ideological diversity into Middle Eastern studies—have changed the present-day situation at the school? Johnson is doubtful, pointing out that today, “anti-Zionist zeal among the Columbia faculty has spread far beyond the Middle East Studies department” and is driven primarily by students.

Beery, for one, sees things differently. Twenty years ago, he says, the university “made the grave error of circling the wagons at a time where honest introspection and dialogue could have been better for all.”

Cathy Young is a contributing writer at the Bulwark and a columnist at Newsday