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Israel-Palestine war: Columbia professor faces calls for removal after op-ed analysis on war

In response, hundreds of academics and students sign letter supporting Joseph Massad, saying petition attacks 'right to academic freedom'
Columbia students participate in rally in support of Palestine at the university on 12 October 2023 in New York City. A counter-rally in support of Israel was also held by students across the lawn.
Columbia students participate in a rally in support of Palestine at the university in New York City, on 12 October (AFP)

Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia University in New York, is facing growing calls for his removal after penning an opinion piece outlining the political and geopolitical fallout of the ongoing Israel-Palestine war.

In the article, published on The Electronic Intifada, Massad discusses how the attack on Israel by Palestinian armed groups on 7 October had caught Israel off-guard, affected the political future of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and also affected US efforts for regional Arab governments to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

"As the fog of war slowly lifts, questions on the political consequences of the 7 October events will continue to weigh heavily on the minds of observers. How will the war affect the Netanyahu government?" wrote Massad, who is also a columnist with Middle East Eye.

After it was published, a petition began to circulate calling for Columbia University to fire Massad. The petition was started by Maya Platek, a Columbia student who previously worked for the Israeli military as a content writer, according to her LinkedIn profile.

The petition does not discuss the points made in the article. Rather, the petition accuses Massad of "condoning and supporting terrorism", says the professor "refuses to condemn Hamas" - a US-designated terrorist group and one of the several groups who launched the attack on Israel - and calls for Massad to be removed from his position at the university.

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"Moreover, many students have expressed that they feel unsafe in the presence of a professor who supports the horrific murders of civilians," the petition wrote.

The petition does not include that Massad wrote in his piece that the number of people in Israel killed shows a "horrifying human toll" of the war.

"Meanwhile, the Palestinian operation has resulted in more than 700 people killed in Israel and more than 2,200 injured – all in all, a horrifying human toll on all sides," Massad wrote in the piece.

Soon after the petition was launched, an open letter was written and released on Monday condemning the request to remove Massad as "incendiary and defamatory". The letter, seen by Middle East Eye, added that the misrepresentation of Massad's article is "fueling attacks against his academic freedom and personal safety".

The open letter has 414 signatories at the time of writing, including 268 faculty, students, alumni, and affiliates of the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University.

After the Palestinian armed groups launched their multi-pronged attack on Israel, the Israeli military responded with a bombing campaign and a full siege on Gaza.

The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor has said that in just over a week, Israel has dropped the equivalent of a quarter of a nuclear bomb on Gaza. At least 2,808 people have been killed, including 853 children and 936 women, as of 4pm GMT on Monday. At least 1,200, including 500 children, are missing and believed to be under rubble. 

Meanwhile, Palestinian armed groups have killed at least 1,400 Israelis, according to the Israeli military.

'Shatter my view of Columbia'

The petition is part of a growing divide on US college campuses since the Israel-Palestine war that began on 7 October.

At US universities, including Ivy League schools, students and professors are being attacked for putting out statements saying that Israel is responsible for the ongoing war, citing its ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories and the 16-year-long Israeli blockade of Gaza. A blockade is an act of war, according to scholars of law and warfare.

Follow Middle East Eye's live coverage of the Israel-Palestine war here

Another petition is circulating online, with close to 50,000 signatures as of Monday morning, calling on Yale University for the termination of Zareena Grewal, a professor of religious studies and anthropology.

The petition accuses Grewal of "condoning violence, advocating for a terrorist organization". The petition also includes unverified reports of the beheadings of Israeli children, which many mainstream media organisations and the US government backtracked from after initially reporting them.

The petition also accuses Grewal of considering "war crimes against civilians to be acts of resistance". However, according to a social media post of Grewal's, seen by MEE, in which she responds to a post about the killing of Thai workers in Israel and whether academics are defending these killings, the academic states the following:

"I haven't seen any scholars defending this in my feed I would never defend this. Explaining the rationale or defending the right to armed resistance of a colonized/brutalized people does not mean the colonized can do no wrong it illustrates how dangerous powerlessness is."

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At Harvard, students who signed a letter pinning responsibility for the war on Israel were doxxed online, with several sites listing their personal information including "full names, class years, past employment, social media profiles, photos, and hometowns".

The petition to remove Massad, which has 35,000 signatures as of Monday morning, has raised the alarm for some students on campus who came to Columbia precisely for its protection and promotion of academic freedom. 

"As a MESAAS (Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies) major, I can attest to Columbia’s MESAAS faculty being possibly the best in the nation due to the range of notable faculty including people like Joseph Massad," one Columbia student, who asked to remain anonymous, told Middle East Eye.

The student said they are taking one of Massad's classes and describes his course as "the most engaging and exciting of all my classes" and Massad as "the best professor I have".

"To see him lose his job to a revival of post-9/11 Bush-era rhetoric would altogether shatter my view of Columbia as an institution that promotes academic freedom," the student said.

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