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Columbia "Unbecoming"

A European Student’s Experience at Columbia

by MARC ROBERT

Before studying at Columbia University I hadn’t thought much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Coming from Europe I had no specific links to the area. Then, after finishing my undergraduate degree in Europe and enrolling at Columbia as a graduate student, what struck me most was just the opposite of what some are complaining of nowadays: that is, how fanatically pro-Israel Columbia was.

After being at Columbia for a while it occurred to me that international organisations and the UN, on the one hand and Columbia and New York, on the other hand, functioned in parallel universes. At international fora and assemblies, which I followed for my studies, Israeli repression was condemned, and countless resolutions requesting Israel to abide by international law were blocked by the US. At Columbia arguments were concocted to defend Israel. I have been to many universities in many different countries and I have to say that, by far, I have never attended a more closed-minded campus than Columbia. And I am not saying this merely on account of the density of Israeli army T-shirts that can be regularly observed there.

By fall 2000 at the beginning of the second intifada, fanatical supporters of Israel sought violently to repress anybody defending the Palestinians. Students belonging to the Middle Eastern group at the Law School were practically spat upon, their tables overturned, etc. – occurrences that in Europe would be inconceivable. On the other hand, maybe due to international condemnation of Israeli policies, a debate was finally opening up on campus. Because they no longer dominate one hundred percent of public discussion, fanatical supporters of Israel on campus claim that their voices are "stifled" and that they are "unwelcome" and "silenced."

Consider these recent incidents, which I personally witnessed. When Palestinian students on the main campus distributed flyers by spring 2002 to commemorate the 1948 "nekhba" (disaster), a crowd of Hillel fanatics approached them shouting "terrorists." Had they said that to me or to any other person and had I been in the Palestinian students’ shoes, it would have ended up in a fistfight. But it was the Palestinian students and not the Hillel provocateurs who showed extreme restraint. When Dr Mustafa Barghouti (who just finished second in the recent Palestinian elections) came to Columbia to give a talk in November 2003, two Hillel fanatics began to harass him during the Q&A session, heaping ridicule on his presentation as "this wonderful display of propaganda" and charging that "you Palestinians feel like victims, but how about all the weapons you get from Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah?" They then demonized Arabs in the rudest form that I have ever seen. "Thank you for the compliment about my propaganda," Barghouti replied, "but actually we are still learning about this – from you know who." When Barghouti mentioned the 4,000 Palestinians killed one of the Hillel fanatics laughed. A lady stood up and very angrily told them at least not to show their scorn for the victims publicly. When they continued to laugh, a professor told them to shut up. I wonder if that is what is meant by "silencing students who offer opposing views" – that is, rightly telling them to show a little bit of respect towards the keynote speaker and victims of the conflict, just as Israelis expect respect to be shown for their 1,000 dead since 2000. No such vulgarity was on display every time Benjamin Netanyahu came to the Business School to give a talk during the previous years.

It also bears comparing the "silencing" to which the late Professor Said was subjected at Columbia. His life was constantly threatened, so much so that he was put under police surveillance. But this silencing wasn’t meant to stifle discussion, didn’t lead to any public investigation and wasn’t a cause of concern by New York politicians.

Then there’s the stifling of dissenting voices by fanatical Zionist professors at the Law School. Some of them seem to spend all of their waking hours concocting legal alibis in defense of Mother Israel, much like Communist Party hacks did for Mother Russia in the 1930s. For example, at the height of the Israeli incursions of 2002, Professor George Fletcher put forth the long discredited notion that UN Resolution 242 "did not compel Israel to leave all territories." This masterful piece was published in the New York Times as some kind of intellectual breakthrough. Never mind that 242 emphasizes "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war." Other law school professors are avid proponents of Israel exceptionalism – that is, human rights protections like the prohibition on torture must be afforded to everyone except victims of Israeli policy.

And, while it is perfectly legitimate to write a paper on the injustices committed against the Palestinian population for a specific class on Human Rights (at the student’s risk with respect to the grade), those wishing to conduct more thorough research on the topic after the J.D. degree, for which the assistance of a professor is necessary, have been told that "while the subject may be worth-while, there is no current interest among the faculty."

The truth is that Columbia is the last refuge of self-delusional Zealots for Zion. It is precisely when the ideological walls protecting this haven began to crumble that they started shouting about "silenced" and "stifled" voices and anti-Semitism. One doesn’t hear this nonsense on European campuses because the zealots know the battle has been lost there: the truth is out about what Israel has done to the Palestinians. But in the U.S. the hope is that by whipping up enough hysteria they can still win here. If they do, it won’t be because what they’re saying is true but because the rest of us were, yet again, "silenced" and "stifled."

In what there has been mounting interest indeed especially after the events of September the 11th has been classes dealing not only about the Middle East, but about Islam. And in substantial cases pro-Israel students have enrolled in these classes not so much out of curiosity or interest, but as a means to confirm their prejudices and as a way of finding valuable "new" arguments to prove their pro-Israeli stand against "pro-Palestinians". You could hear pro-Israel defenders vigorously arguing "but the Qu’ran says this or that" to prove their point that Palestinians or Arabs or Muslims are less civilised or that the Qu’ran justifies atrocities or that Islam is a malignant religion, all as a result of having attended one class on the issue. The point also needs to be make that these classes have been attended by "students" having "worked" for the CIA or other federal agencies.

Classes dealing with Iran have also been a favourite selection of pro-Israel students. And many have used those classes to try to garner sympathy for Israel or to offer a partisan political expose or to simply show scorn for that country. I remember very vividly attending one of these classes where the presentation by a pro-Israel student shifted from Iran to the defense of anything Israel does and the criticism and outright scorn for the Palestinian Authority, Arafat, Arabs, Muslims and the like. In fact I do not recall the name of Iran being mentioned even once in the presentation. In Europe such an incident would not have happened. The Professor would have nicely told the student that the defense of Israel did not constitute the topic for the class. At Columbia, Professors, afraid that pro-Israeli students would claim to be "silenced" do not offer resistance and succumb like doves.

In the very same class in a different session pro-Israel students vigorously disputed the universally accepted assertion made by the foreign-born Professor that "Palestinians are oppressed". The Professor, for fear of reprisals, did not dwell on the issue and barely defended himself while the "silenced" students angrily and vociferously protested. That European students came to the rescue of the Professor and initiated a debate after the class was over defending what the professor mentioned in passing suggests that it is not the pro-Israel students but the Professors and anyone voicing any sort of criticism of Israel who are silenced. The European students were accused by their pro-Israeli counterparts of "being anti-Semites." Of course I forgot that Palestinians are not oppressed because it is Palestinian tanks that populate Israeli roads, Palestinian helicopters that bomb Jerusalem and Haifa, Palestinian bulldozers that destroy houses in Tel Aviv and American made Palestinian F-16 that target Israeli militants.

Columbia unbecoming? Of course the United States and Israel constitute the "axis of good" and Muslim countries find themselves more often than not in the axis of evil, but does that offer a valid explanation for the fact that the student body specially at the Law School is composed from very few students from Muslim countries and practically none from the Arab world ? Or that more than half of the accepted candidates into the S.J.D program every single year are Israelis, a country of 6 million people in a world with 6 billion inhabitants? Of course Israeli students are generally very focused and capable but should they monopolize each year more than half of the candidatures for the doctoral degree in law? Are there no law students in the Arab or Muslim world or Africa or other places? Maybe Columbia is truly unbecoming but not for the ones who claim so.

Some of the few students coming from Muslim countries, not necessarily Arabs and not Arab Americans who obviously are used to the prevalent pro-Zionist ambiance, have privately confided to me that the undisguised pro-Zionist mood at the university and specifically at the Law School is something "unbearable" and "without parallel anywhere [they] have been". Even in some cases some confessed to me that they were considering transferring to "other less pro-Zionist schools". An American girl of Middle Eastern origin enrolled in a dual program (meaning that she would share the time for her degree between a school in Europe and Columbia, thereby considerably reducing the time spent at Columbia) told me very frankly that "I am very happy that this is my last year here, I could not stand another year in this place". So maybe Columbia is truly unbecoming. But for reasons quite opposite of those alleged.

It is a fact that this constant denial of justice and justification of anything that Israel does turned Columbia and NY in general into the last self-delusional haven for zealots. It is precisely when this area of "safety" was beginning to be eroded by more students coming to terms with reality that these pro-Israeli students (and those who were behind them) started running out of arguments, felt increasingly cornered and had to turn to the ultimate argument, "stifling of voices", and eventually, sooner or later it had to be pronounced, "anti-Semitism". The ADL has decisively contributed to the debate. That the ADL intervened in the matter and solicited "punishment" against professors offering different views not in accord with Zionist myths to President Bollinger suggests that these students were not that "silenced" or "discriminated". The production of a video by a Boston-based pro-Israel group implies that these students have decided to take recourse to outside sources to vent their frustrations. And also that they possess considerable resources and outside backing in their campaign to smear Columbia University.

These measures denouncing Professors that criticise Israel and its policies comes at a time also when even the Israeli government has realized that the public relations battle has been lost. The Israeli government has thus repeateadly denounced the "inability of pro-Israel students to respond to the challenges on American campuses" as a reason behind the current failure. That they do not refer to campuses in Europe stems form the belief that the situation is irreversible in other locations. And it is with this purpose that several Israeli Ministries have been involved in an active campaign to "promote pro-Israel activism on American campuses".

The Israeli Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs under the guidance of Natan Sharansky has been an instrumental piece. Mr. Sharansky offered a tough critique of the "dismal state of Jewish campus activism in the United States" in the Forward magazine and decided to take the matter into his own hands. That Ministry celebrated "back to campus advocacy weekends" for foreign students enrolled in summer courses at Israeli universities where participants, coming from institutions all over Israel, were happily recruited for a financially sponsored weekend near the beach. The students were welcome with the following statements: "lately pro-Palestinian students at U.S campuses have been very successful and some of you have not been active enough and could not confront them probably because you did have the right arguments. This weekend is designed to give you the tools to fight". And then students had to sign up for conferences where those tools were provided and discussed, and CD, CD-Roms and DVDs were distributed with statements like "settlements are not illegal under international law" or "Jerusalem is the undivided capital of the state of Israel" or "why do we have a claim to the whole land" as just some illustrative examples. Students were also told to confront "anti-Israeli" professors by all means.

That Mr Sharansky, the erstwhile defender of Human Rights in the Soviet Union now turned into Bush’s guru, has become "an uncompromising activist against the human (and any other) rights of the Palestinians in the occupied territories" as Uri Avnery points out should not be a matter of concern, I guess . Mr Sharansky, from human rights defender to the extreme right, "systematically enlarged the settlements on expropriated Arab land in the West Bank " as Housing Minister and now belongs to the group of Likud rebels that opposes the disengagement plan in Gaza, meaning that he is a partisan of the Greater Israel idea against any consideration for a negotiated settlement of the problem or for international law for that matter. Mr Sharansky himself abandoned the coalition his party of former immigrants of the Soviet Union formed with Barak’s Labor Party for offering "too many concessions" to the Palestinians on the issue of Jerusalem. That countless web pages and organizations have been created to support Israel’s cause on U.S campuses and media and still Israel’s image does not improve must be the real cause of concern for those who claim to have been "silenced" and that is why they are resorting to outside guidance . Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, and author of "Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict" maintained as early as June 2003 that "the prevalence of outspoken anti-Israeli professors remains the most insidious danger to Israel’s standing on the campus".

Ronald S. Lauder, president of the Jewish National Fund, and Jay Schottenstein, a board member of Media Watch International, arguing that they found "Jewish students to be demoralized, intimidated and, worst of all, apathetic about their homeland (sic)", decided to create the "Caravan for Democracy program" in 2002. That not all Jewish students identify with Israel’s policies is unimportant, I guess. The existence of groups like "Jews Against the Occupation", "Jews for Peace and Palestine and Israel" does not matter I presume.

Mr Lauder and Mr Schottenstein pointed out in an article that appeared in the November 2003 edition of Forward magazine that "Jewish students are confronting unprecedented anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic aggression (sic) at their schools ." Affirming that "in this age of information, when our enemies (sic) have remarkably managed to loose their misleading slanders upon every university (sic)", they conclude that the solutions are twofold. The first response to the "current college crisis" should be to "bring top pro-Israel speakers to campuses from coast to coast". That would not constitute propaganda I assume. But secondly, and more important, "effective dialogue (sic) with the Middle East studies faculties which are known for their anti-Israel orientations" must be promoted. By "effective dialogue" it is understood to "confront professors and departmentsby those with the proper ability to respond", to "reshape the rhetorical landscape in these facultiesand biases and unbalanced curriculums (sic)" and to protest and apply "pressureto change them (referring to curriculums and hostile professors)".

Mr Lauder and Mr Schottenstein also complain that "one university which would have never been perceived as anti-Israel held a university authorized seminar on ‘Why anti-Zionism is not antisemitism´". So apparently anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are exact equivalents. All those attacking any measure carried out by Israel and defending the legitimate rights of the Palestinians emboldened in countless international resolutions are not driven by any concern for justice, they are all anti-semites and that includes the Jewish groups mentioned previously and many others. It is further suggested that "Jewish students and their professors must be taught to effectively utilize their campus and local media to explain Israel’s counter-arguments". As we can see the smearing campaign against Columbia professors who dare to criticize Mother Israel in the midst of a Zionist campus is nothing new and is part of a well-orchestrated campaign stemming from a feeling of impotence. And since the students are not going to change, the target of pro-Israel students and all those considerable outside organizations providing support to them should be the Professors who offer dissenting views.

But intimidating measures will not work. Dean Bollinger should be criticised for succumbing to the pressure of a group well-known for carrying out a witch hunt against anybody daring to criticise Mother Israel in all circles and walks of life. Cancelling a class – as one professor has done or has been forced to do after the pressure of events – suggests that academic freedom and freedom of thought are at danger. Furthermore it constitutes a dangerous precedent. What if any other group did not like the contents of a class in which they were criticised ? Should that class be cancelled ? What if Turkish groups engaged in a campaign to protest against classes that mention the Armenian genocide ? Or what if Armenian groups pressured Mr Bollinger to protest lectures where the existence of an Armenian holocaust is put into question ? Would he also cancel that class and punish the professors that teach it ?? What if a professor claims that the US sanctions on Iraq that killed nearly a million people were genocidal, should he or she be reprimanded ? What if Palestinian students demanded that all classes where they are criticised and vilified (and there are many) be cancelled ? Of course they do not possess similar backing and financial means from obscure outside sources so they could not produce a video.

Muslims and Islam, especially after September 11th have been vilified, insulted and defamed in the press and also in academic circles, including Columbia.. For example at the Law School right after the attacks of September the 11th pro-Israel Law Students tried to present a movie by Steve Emerson, who has been notorious for waging jihad on the religion of Islam. Emerson for example was quick to blame islamists for the Oklahoma bombings of 1995 and his thesis and opinions have been widely discredited. Had it not been for the protests of a few Muslim students at the Law School the video would have been projected in the failed attempt to identify Palestinian resistance to occupation with radical Islamic Al-Qaida terrorism which has been a long desired goal of the right-wing Israeli government and its defenders (including those at Columbia). September the 11th offered a great opportunity to discredit and deligitimize the Palestinian discontent against the occupation and pro-Israeli groups tried to take advantage, even if they failed miserably.

That Columbia succumbed to outside pressure from a well-organized financially powerful group with a very notorious Israeli exculpatory policy and which seeks to persecute anyone daring to criticise that country’s policies may lead us to think that the freedom of academic institutions in the US is subordinated to financial and economic interests. The resources groups like the ADL possess in order to carry out their witch hunt are enormous. The ADL should serve to protect the memory of the Holocaust and real anti-Semitism. Much the opposite the ADL is one of the organisations that actively promotes the amalgamation of the criticism of Israel and anti-semitism, which are completely different issues.

The professors being criticized are, in fact, just the closest thing Columbia has to creating a reasonable debate about the Middle East on campus and in New York as a whole. That is why they are being penalized. They are also reprimanded for expressing what the majority of the world thinks. At a time when the gap between what the rest of the world and what the U.S think has never been so wide in the Middle East conflict and in other many situations.

So is the ADL going to persecute Jews and non-Jews alike who criticise the fact that the creation of the state of Israel was done through not so pure methods ? Why would 3.5 million Palestinians be rotting in refugee camps in other countries not being allowed to return to the places where they had some land, a house, an apartment, keys on their hands when they talk to you to back their assertions. And many Israeli historians have taken the time to document these facts. But of course that represents questioning the "existence" of Israel and its right of exist, as if of a moribund patient in bed we were talking about. An image that contrasts with the billions in dollars that country receives in financial and military aid and its sophisticated army and methods of attack which lead independent rapporteurs at the UN (not acting under US pressure as the rest of their peers) to suggest imposing an arms embargo on that country in May 2004. And as we have seen the witch hunt has recently extended to Hebrew University so Jews who dare to criticize Israel policies or history should be aware that they are not "immune" either as the ADL themselves have explicitly stated with that very same language .

Will the ADL succeed in eliminating intellectual discourse and research on those topics ? What will it do with European universities which going further decided to eliminate or drastically reduce academic cooperation with Israeli institutions in 2002 because of that country’s continuous violations of human rights ? Were those the functions the ADL was created for ?? Fascism or totalitarianism may be qualified as the elimination of dissent and the suppression of independent thought. In that respect what the ADL is doing falls clearly within the parameters of fascism. It could also be called intellectual terrorism. Because taking a few quotes out of context in order to smear a particular professor or a group of professors that do not agree with your policies constitutes a method that only inquisitory tribunals would apply. And which could also very easily be used the other way around. We could take a few quotes from pro-Israeli or Zionist professors which as mentioned in some institutions comprise the majority of the faculty, and I am convinced that the results would be more "spectacular". Would these inquisitory groups apply any pressure when professors on campus completely disregard or even show scorn for the Palestinians’ right to existence? Or for their right of safety? Or what will they do when pro-Israel students demonstrate rudeness and contempt, as they do quite often ? Incidents that pro-Palestinian groups have never dared to carry out in opposing situations.

Facts have to be shown precisely in class and not taking recourse to cowardly outside measures. But it is here when the pro-Israeli lobby and its students have failed. Because reality is that the world and specially educated people at universities not only in the US have started to come to terms with the Palestinians’ suffering. Most Europeans, maybe because of the geographic proximity, or maybe because of the lesser influence of inquisitive pro-Israeli groups on campus or because an extremely more balanced media, understood this long ago. I guess that I forgot that we Europeans are all anti-semites and that includes also even those with Jewish roots.

What has happened is simply that Israeli supporters, who have run out of arguments to justify the military occupation and all it entails, when confronted with an incipient debate on a Zionist campus have felt they were pushed into a corner out of which there is no exit. It remains extremely difficult to justify dispossession and injustice in the inter-connected world we live in nowadays. What is especially troubling for pro-Israeli supporters is that not only Arab or Middle Eastern students, few at Columbia and specially absent from the Law School, but also European students and increasingly American students have started to complain against Israeli violations on campus. Pro-Israeli students have been caught off-guard or have been left without arguments. And they have resorted to powerful outside groups and lobbies to come to the rescue. Calling the current atmosphere at Columbia as a "bias" against Israel and favoring the Palestinians is just a self-delusional ploy, aimed at shifting responsibility to the others, justifying the unjustifiable.

MARC ROBERT is the pseudonym of a student at Columbia University.