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The Mideast Comes to Columbia | The Nation

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The Mideast Comes to Columbia

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The roots of the Columbia conflict can be traced back to campus political developments in 2001 and early 2002. In March 2002 a network of national Jewish organizations met to evaluate what they saw as an alarming rise in anti-Israel activity on campus. From those meetings emerged the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), which is a partnership of Hillel and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. (The three organizations share a building in Washington.) According to a 2002 article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a Jewish-oriented news service, top-flight talent was brought in to advise the ICC and assemble a battle plan. "Pro-Israel professionals from the elite consulting firm McKinsey & Company offered pro-bono services," the article noted. Those professionals created a document for the ICC arguing that "the primary goal for this year should be to 'take back the campus' by influencing public opinion through lectures, the Internet and coalitions." The ICC--which recently received a $1,050,000 grant from the Schusterman Foundation, and whose speakers list includes Daniel Pipes--has an impressive array of "members": AIPAC, ADL, Americans for Peace Now and the Zionist Organization of America, among others.

Scott Sherman wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Liel Leibovitz of The Jewish Week. Fatin Abbas provided research for this article.

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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The ICC has a single "affiliate member": the David Project. The David Project is led by Charles Jacobs, who is a co-founder of CAMERA, the pro-Israel media watchdog group; the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Group, which calls itself "America's leading human rights group dedicated to abolishing modern day slavery worldwide"; and, along with Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol, among others, a member of the board of advisers of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The ICC's website lists a number of "regional ICCs" that receive "strategic advice and guidance" from the Washington headquarters. The regional ICC representative in New York is none other than Rachel Fish, the director of the David Project's New York office. Jacobs was tight-lipped in a recent interview: He refused to provide details about his financial backers, referring only to unnamed "individuals and foundations"; and he declined to elaborate on the extent to which the David Project receives tactical advice from professional pro-Israel lobbyists and operatives allied with the ICC.

What can easily be determined is that in October 2003, the David Project met with Columbia students and agreed to provide funding for a film that would give voice to their complaints. Rabbi Sheer, who ran Columbia's Kraft Center, gave his blessing: Sheer was already a fierce critic of MEALAC, having collided, over the previous two years, with both Dabashi and Saliba.

In April 2002 Dabashi and several other professors spoke at a campus demonstration against the Israeli incursions into the occupied territories. Rabbi Sheer was upset by the event--the speeches, he later noted, were "sadly reminiscent of the kind of speech one hears on Arab TV"--and complained to administrators about it. He also contacted Dabashi and requested the text of his remarks at the teach-in. Dabashi felt these actions were unnecessarily intrusive, coming as they did from a campus religious official, and thrashed the rabbi in an essay for the Columbia Spectator. (Saliba, in a separate letter to the paper, was also blunt: "Rabbi! Just preach! Do not even attempt to teach!") Nine months later Dabashi organized a Palestinian film festival on campus, which again brought him into conflict with Sheer. Sheer left Columbia in 2004; Hillel sources insist that his departure had nothing to do with his support for the film. But Sheer evidently decided to bow out in pugilistic fashion: He has a starring role in the latest version of Columbia Unbecoming--a film, he now notes with regret in his voice, that has harmed Columbia's reputation. Says Dabashi: "This film is his revenge on Columbia, and of course on MEALAC"--an opinion Sheer describes as "ludicrous."

Since Sheer's departure, the anti-MEALAC campaign has been energetically waged by a small group of undergraduates clustered around a charismatic 25-year-old student politician with shoulder-length hair named Ariel Beery, who is a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces. But other students have risen to MEALAC's defense. One undergraduate, Eric Posner, who is also a former IDF member, collected pro-MEALAC testimony from twenty or so majors and gave the material to the investigating committee established by Columbia president Bollinger. One student said of Massad: "He always made clear the distinctions between Zionism and Judaism and was unrelenting in his criticism of anti-Semitism and anti-Semites." Another student said of Dabashi: "He told me that he wasn't even reading the accusations about him because he didn't want to know which of his students might be talking about him or what they might be saying, for fear of being unable to treat them fairly."

In July 2000 Edward Said, in a symbolic act of resistance, hurled a stone near the Lebanon-Israel border, an act that infuriated his detractors and led to calls for his dismissal from Columbia. In response, the then-provost of Columbia, Jonathan Cole, with the authorization of president George Rupp, issued a statement in defense of Said: "If we are to deny Professor Said the protection to write and speak freely, whose speech will next be suppressed and who will be the inquisitor who determines who should have a right to speak his or her mind without fear of retribution?" With that statement, many at Columbia believe, Cole honored himself and the best traditions of the university. "I felt it was important to defend Edward as soon as possible so that our position was clear and could not be misinterpreted," Cole said recently. "Some on the outside did not like my statement, others applauded it, but it was, I believe, clear and unequivocal."

Today, many Columbia faculty members believe that on the question of academic freedom, Lee Bollinger, one of the country's pre-eminent scholars of the First Amendment and a man with a reputation as a liberal, has been rather less than clear and unequivocal. Bollinger did issue a press release on October 22 affirming that Columbia is "fully committed to upholding academic integrity and freedom of expression" and that the university "will not penalize faculty for statements made in public debate." At the same time, however, Bollinger insisted that "academic freedom is not unlimited. It does not...extend to protecting behavior in the classroom that threatens or intimidates students for expressing their viewpoints or that uses the classroom as a means of political indoctrination." In a recent interview, Bollinger came across as a beleaguered politician trying to locate and occupy the middle ground. "We must protect students," he said, "just as we must protect faculty. We must live by our principles."

Yet Bollinger has not spoken in a clear and decisive voice to the general public, or even to his own community. He did not respond publicly to Representative Weiner's demand that Massad be fired; he seems unwilling to offer even a perfunctory defense of the MEALAC department; and he failed to confront and contest a torrent of tendentious information from four New York newspapers. The David Project and its supporters have orchestrated a media barrage of sustained intensity against Columbia. By not responding forcefully to that barrage, Bollinger has conveyed the impression that his institution is not equipped to handle the allegations, and that his faculty are fair game for partisan attacks.

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