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April 1, 2016 7:39 am

Columbia University Gives Platform to Anti-Israel Blasphemy

avatar by Mara Schiffren

The Columbia University campus in New York City. Photo: Columbia.

The Columbia University campus in New York City. Photo: Columbia.

When protesters at a pro-Israel event at UC Davis unfurled a banner reading “1948=1492,” thereby drawing a connection between Israel’s founding in 1948 and Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492, it was “intersectionality” in action. Anti-Israel activists have appropriated this academic theory, which holds that oppressive social structures reinforce each other at every level, resulting in heightened oppression.

Illustrating this trend, the Center for Palestine Studies (CPS) at Columbia University recently held a lecture titled, “Palestine Re-Covered: Reading a Settler Colonial Landscape,” by Abdul Rahim al-Shaikh. Al-Shaikh is an associate professor of philosophy and cultural studies at Bir Zeit University, and a Fulbright Visiting Senior Scholar at CPS. The audience of approximately sixty people continued to trickle into one of the smaller semi-circular lecture halls in Jerome Greene Hall, even as al-Shaikh began. He opened with the aforementioned “intersection” between 1492 and the Zionist return to the land of Israel in the mid-nineteenth century:

The moment of 1492 is an intersection between the conquest of America and the conquest of Palestine. . . . 1492 is occupied by the threshold of the longstanding amalgam between the neo-American colonial enterprise and Zionism. Since then, the idea of America and the idea of Israel managed to form the power that realized the Zionist myth.

By employing the magic of intersectionality, al-Shaikh blamed Israel for an event that took place 456 years before its rebirth. Evoking “the myths of history being the West, and the West being history,” he claimed that Columbus’ colonization of the Indies both prefigured and predetermined the linguistic conquest of Palestine, later resulting in “geographic amnesia” among Palestinians towards their own land.

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Al-Shaikh declared that Columbus’ baptizing of native people in the Indies was the equivalent of the program by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to revitalize the Hebrew language in Israel by renaming “hills, valleys, streams, and bridges” throughout the land:

Long before social and cultural engineering was employed in modern nation states, Columbus . . . gave personal baptized names . . . to the Indians.  By the same token . . . in 1952, Ben Gurion was also in charge of determining Hebrew alternative words for foreign words.

During the question-and-answer period, Nadia Abu El-Haj, CPS assistant director and a Barnard College anthropology professor, pointed out the incomparability of these events. By denying that the Indians possessed language, she maintained, Columbus was effectively denying them personhood, whereas Ben-Gurion was merely implying that the Arabs were non-indigenous. Al-Shaikh, however, doubled down, insisting that the word Ben-Gurion used for the inhabitants was “zar,” which “means alien, literally alien, who is not an earthly being.”

In fact, the primary meaning of “zar,” a biblical word with a long history of common usage, is “stranger” or “immigrant alien.” Al-Shaikh’s contention was at best, incorrect, and at worst,disinformation for a presumably non-Hebrew speaking audience.

Throughout his talk, al-Shaikh was extremely sensitive to how the use of language shapes consciousness — which in his case meant the employment of propaganda. To that end, he employed the term “war criminal” repeatedly when referring to Israeli politicians Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, frequently called Rehavam Ze’evi “the fascist” minister of tourism, and asserted often that Palestinians whose families were uprooted during the War of Independence were “ethnically cleansed.” Such examples exemplify the active fashioning of perception through the use of language as part of his stated project of “counter cultural engineering.”

To illustrate “a Palestinian audio-visual response to the Zionist project,” al-Shaikh showed the audience a late 2015 music video by Palestinian heartthrob Mohammed Assaf, winner of the second season of “Arab Idol.” Assaf, whom al-Shaikh described simply as “a simple young man,” sang passionately of the murderous campaign of knife attacks in Israel as mobs of young Palestinian men hurtled rocks at Israeli targets and engaged IDF soldiers. The lyrics were unabashedly violent:

Oh motherland, these are your sons. They rose to fight the occupiers . . . The resistance will win.  And victory will come and Al-Aqsa will be free . . . Some were martyred, some were injured, their blood blossomed. And our precious blood is still spilling; [it] will draw the map of independence in our soil.

Mesmerized by the video, an audible “wow” arose from the audience. During the Q&A, several people personally thanked him for showing it, thereby demonstrating their appreciation for the incitement of Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians and others, such as the American tourist killed recently in Jaffa.

In closing, al-Shaikh stated blithely, “It is my serene hope that I have managed to strike a balance.” Yet his bigoted argument reflected a simplistic Manichaean view of good versus bad far more than any rigorous, informed reading of the past. In this, it drew more on antisemitic fervor than on a scholarly search for the truth. 

Mara Schiffren, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in the Study of Religion, is currently working on a book about historical Israel. This essay was commissioned by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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