Monday, March 07, 2005

Columbia Unseemly

It amazes me that Lee Bollinger, a lawyer, was stupid enough to believe that he was going to get away with putting together a committee to investigate intimidation of pro-Israel students by Columbia's Middle East professors with so many conflicts of interest. Nat Hentoff has written about it, and spoke about over the weekend at a conference held at Columbia. I cannot understand it. Bollinger simply cannot be that dumb.

It is, on another note, naive to think that anything the New York City Council does is going to make any difference. Resolutions like the one passed by the Council calling for an independent investigation into the Columbia Unbecoming allegations are toothless documents produced to curry favor with interest groups in the city. Columbia is not about to change the committee on the Council's urging, which it probably views as tiresome meddling in its affairs. It will change only if there is a larger public outcry, particularly from Columbia students, combined with pressure from donors and trustees.

I see two paths. One is for interested organizations like the Anti-Defamation League to continue to work behind the scenes on the problem. The low-key approach has two benefits. The first is that it allows Columbia administrators the space to act without every decision being written up in the press. It does NOT help pro-Israel students that the only paper out in front of the matter is the ultra-conservative New York Sun, which is almost certainly perceived as a hostile newspaper on Columbia's campus. Students are not going to rally around it. So far, the New York Times' entry into the matter has been a typically condescending effort, illuminating the bickering going on between both sides rather than the muckraking quality of the New York Sun's reporting. The other, more important, benefit is that the low-key approach will avoid further polarizing the Jewish and Arab communities on campus. These two communities, from what I understand, got along fine before this scandal broke, and now relations are quite strained.

It serves no one's interest, not the Jews, not the Arabs, and not Columbia's, to import the Middle East conflict to Columbia's campus.

The more public option would marshall meaningful public support for the students. Meaningful means concentrating on the people who matter, namely Columbia students and press organs who are not so politically polarized as is the New York Sun. City Council resolutions are not going to cut it. The students need to coordinate with other students who have faced similar problems on campuses around the country and even around the world that it has become acceptable in far too many places to tolerate what was thought a generation ago to constitute antisemitism and assorted hatred.

Part of the problem with the whole Columbia issue is that it pales in comparison to some of what goes on elsewhere in the world. The student government of the School of Oriental Studies, which is part of the University of London, is openly antisemitic, and has attempted to ban all Jewish speakers who are not avowly anti-Zionist while permitting a full range of Muslim speakers, including Holocaust deniers and open advocates of terrorism.

This issue with the professors is familiar to most students who have encountered what might be called the Arabist element that is so prominent in Middle East Studies today. The head of the Middle East Studies Association is Juan Cole, a guy who refers to everyone on the issue he disagrees with as "far-right" and appears to believe in frankly ludicrous theories of Jewish influence in Washington and elsewhere. I think he is more the norm than the exception. A public approach would highlight these people without doing the McCarthyite thing and adding additional accusations to their dossiers a la Daniel Pipes made to make them look anti-American and generally evil people. Our argument is stronger than theirs. Our principles are stronger than theirs. This is what has made us effective in the past, not the nasty, self-defeating bullying tactics that guys like Pipes tend to favor.

In the end, I think a little bit of both strategies would serve us well, along with a commitment to promote Jewish-Arab dialogue on campus to ensure that college campuses do not become full-blown extensions of the conflicts as they have in Europe and elsewhere.


At 8:51 PM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Excellent analysis, but what we need is more powerful political figures to speak out on the issue -Bloomberg, for instance. A threat from the private donors and feds to withdraw funding unless an independent committee is appointed is a good one. As Rachel Fish concluded, you have to hit their pocket to get anything done. I'll probably mention your entry on my blog tomorrow. It's a great supplement to the synopsis of the conference.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Michael Brenner said...

Yes, the private donor route is the traditional route. Remember though, that Columbia financially provides a great deal for its Jewish students; the Jewish House, which is called the Kraft Center, is unrivaled. There is kosher dining, and a lot of other things. So the question is whether going this route would be like cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

Bloomberg is about as useless on this issue as the City Council. The President could speak on the issue and Columbia probably would listen.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

I finally learned how to do links and linked your article to mine, so maybe that'll generate a bit more traffic for you - and a bit more discussion for both of us!


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