Posts Tagged Columbia

Columbia’s slippery boycotters

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on October 2.

Columbia, Alma MaterIn a post in late August, I asked whether Columbia University’s federally-funded Middle East Institute was boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education. Why? Its director, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, has signed a pledge by some Middle East studies academics “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.” Did that personal pledge extend to the Middle East Institute, a Title VI National Research Center under her direction?

I posed the question to David Stone, executive vice-president for communications at Columbia, and received this reply from him:

If an individual faculty member chooses not to participate in events involving Israel, that is a personal choice that has no effect on the programs of the Middle East Institute or the rest of the University. The Institute itself is home to a broad range of teaching and research including a number of fellowships and grants that support faculty and student research and study in Israel; and its faculty members are engaged in a variety of projects with Israeli scholars.

Alan Luxenberg, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, posed the same question directly to Abu-Lughod, and received this reply:

My decision does not affect the Middle East Institute where we welcome distinguished scholars and students from all over the world, fund language training for students in all Middle Eastern languages, support study abroad in all the region’s universities, and support, modestly, summer research for students in all the countries of the region, including Israel.

The Middle East Institute serves the Columbia community. It does not have any institutional partnerships with other universities, whether in the US or abroad.

I’m not surprised (or persuaded) by these answers. I think it’s telling that Abu-Lughod has not issued a public statement of her position, which might be deemed an unacceptable compromise by the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) cult. After all, if you really believe that Israel is South Africa (or worse), why not demonstrably abjure any administrative role in academe that compels you to treat it equally? What’s the worth of a boycott if it doesn’t mean sacrificing your access to something to advance a cause—whether it’s a home soda maker or the coveted directorship of a Middle East center?

But that’s neither here nor there. The taxpaying public has the right to expect that every signatory of the boycott pledge who runs a Title VI National Research Center issue an assurance that the boycott doesn’t apply during working hours. And the public has the right to expect an equal assurance from a university’s higher administration. Anything less than that should be automatically suspect, because it’s the bare minimum, and because it’s obvious that even these assurances don’t mean that there isn’t a stealth boycott underway.

A Title VI federally-funded National Research Center is committed by law to making sure that its programming will reflect “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions.” Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education, which administers the program, has failed even to define what this means. Consider this test case. On September 19, Columbia’s Middle East Institute co-sponsored (with the university’s Center for Palestine Studies) a panel entitled “The War on Gaza: Military Strategy and Historical Horizons.” (Notice the title, as though there wasn’t a war on Israel too.) It included three Palestinian-American boycotters: Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi, Barnard professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, and legal activist Noura Erakat. And that’s it. Read the live tweets from the session, and judge the tenor of the proceedings yourself. Did this event offer “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views,” and was it structured to “generate debate”? No. So just what must the Middle East Institute do now to assure that it meets its obligation?

My own view is that there’s nothing that a bureaucrat in Washington can do to assure that it does. No Department of Education official is going to detect a stealth boycott or do any serious follow-up on whether taxpayer dollars are going to political activists in academic guise. That means that the reform of Title VI, a creaking holdover from the Cold War, is impossible. If you think that Title VI, on balance, does more good than harm, you’re just going to have to accept that some of your tax dollars will go to agitprop for Hamas. If you think that’s totally unacceptable, you should favor the total elimination of Title VI from the Higher Education Act, now up for reauthorization. There is no middle ground.

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    Columbia boycotts Israel?

    Several hundred Middle East scholars have put out a letter pledging to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education. The organized association of Middle Eastern studies has rejected boycotts in the past, and is likely to do so again if the issue even gets tabled at the next convention. So the boycott of Israel in Middle Eastern studies is being organized along the lines of a personal pledge by individual scholars.

    Israeli institutions of higher education (including, presumably, the one over which I preside, Shalem College in Jerusalem), are deemed by these scholars to be “complicit in violating Palestinian rights.” The signatories thus pledge “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.” The pledge will remain in effect until these institutions call on Israel to end the Gaza “siege,” evacuate all territory “occupied” in 1967, and “promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.” In other words, it’s a boycott until Israel dies.

    I looked down the list of signatories, and mostly saw the usual suspects. Columbia, of course, is heavily represented. The boycotters include such tenured Columbia radicals as Rashid Khalidi, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Hamid Dabashi, Gil Anidjar, Mahmood Mamdani, George Saliba, Brinkley Messick, Timothy Mitchell, and Wael Hallaq. In fact, no university has more senior faculty boycotters signed on this letter than Columbia.

    But one name in particular caught my eye: Lila Abu-Lughod, professor of anthropology. I remembered that she had become director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute a few years back. Why is that significant? The Institute she directs is a Title VI U.S. Department of Education-supported National Resource Center (NRC) for the Middle East. An NRC is supposed to “maintain linkages with overseas institutions of higher education and other organizations that may contribute to the teaching and research of the Center.”

    The question I now have is whether this (taxpayer-subsidized) academic unit of Columbia is boycotting Israeli academe? Or are we to believe that Professor Abu-Lughod is only boycotting Israeli institutions personally, but is prepared to cooperate with them officially? Columbia should issue a clarification, and give a public account of the overseas institutional linkages the Institute does have, so that we can see whether a de facto boycott of Israel is in place at Columbia. You can even pose the question yourself, to Columbia’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, right here.

    Columbia University

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      “Gaza = Auschwitz”

      The Gaza war has raised up another tide of Holocaust inversion: the claim by assorted Jew-baiters that Israel has become the Nazis, and the Palestinians their Jewish victims. This was a staple of old Soviet propaganda, which then spread to the Arab world. It took a while for Arab elites, many of which had been admiring of the Nazis, to see “Nazi” as pejorative. But in time they saw the advantages, especially since Holocaust inversion also served to trivialize the Holocaust itself.

      In recent years, the sickness has spread throughout the Left in Europe, and even festers in dark places in the United States. In a new article over at Mosaic Magazine, I locate one of them: the faculty lounge of Columbia University. Comparisons of Gaza to Auschwitz? The Warsaw Ghetto? Columbia has it all. Read more there.

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        Start with two Palestinians

        In an interview in February 2003, Edward Said said this:

        An outrageous Israeli, Martin Kramer, uses his Web site to attack everybody who says anything he doesn’t like. For example, he has described Columbia as “the Bir Zeit [university] on the Hudson,” because there are two Palestinians teaching here. Two Palestinians teaching in a faculty of 8,000 people! If you have two Palestinians, it makes you a kind of terrorist hideout. This is part of the atmosphere of intimidation that is McCarthyite.

        Flash forward seven years later, to last week’s formal inauguration of the new Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. From its website:

        Founded in January 2010, the Center for Palestine Studies is the first such center to be established in an academic institution in the United States. Columbia University is currently the professional home to a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine and Palestinians, as well as to award-winning supporting faculty in a variety of disciplines.

        So how did Columbia go so rapidly from “two Palestinians teaching in a faculty of 8,000 people!” to “a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine and the Palestinians”? Don’t be shocked, but Edward Said was out to deceive in that 2003 interview. Obviously there were more than two Palestinians back then. But I didn’t invent the nickname Bir Zeit-on-Hudson because of their number. It was meant to evoke precisely the atmosphere of intimidation—anti-Israel intimidation—that would later come to light in the “Columbia Unbecoming” affair.

        Now that Columbia boasts of being home to “a unique concentration of distinguished scholars on Palestine” (who “will have a national and global reach”), Bir Zeit-on-Hudson hardly sounds far-fetched. By that, I don’t mean a “terrorist hideout”—those were Said’s words, not mine—but a redoubt of militant Palestinian nationalism in the guise of scholarship. And I mean militant: the affiliates of the new center aren’t only engaged in the positive affirmation of Palestinian identity, but are activists in the campaign to negate Israel. This is obviously the case in regard to Joseph Massad and Nadia Abu al-Haj—their field isn’t Palestine studies, it’s anti-Israel studies—but it’s increasingly true of the new center’s co-director, Rashid Khalidi, Columbia’s Edward Said Professor, an enthusiastic spokesman for the PLO in its terrorist phase and a severe critic of the same leadership in its present phase.

        For now, Khalidi is cleverly doing what Said did with his “two Palestinians” shtick. “We have absolutely no money,” Khalidi said at the launch (attended by an overflow crowd). “What our little modest center will be able to do may be some narrow, specific things,” he reassured a journalist from the Jewish Forward. I’m not buying it, and I think that the moniker Bir Zeit-on-Hudson is too modest to convey the scope of the ambition behind this project. So I’m working on an alternative. For a preview, click on the thumbnail or here.

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          Why I’m (still) grateful to Columbia

          This is how I opened my lecture on U.S. Middle East policy to the Columbia University International Relations Forum on November 16.

          As some of you may know, I’ve been a long-time and often sharp critic of certain decisions made by Columbia University. There’s a saying, that honest criticism is hard to take, especially from a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger. In other words, it doesn’t much matter, but for what it’s worth, my criticism hasn’t been that of a stranger. I’ve commented as a professional academic, as a Columbia alumnus, and as a Columbia University Press author, who remembers this great university as a place of diverse approaches and the highest standards.

          The standards I recall were personified by the late J.C. Hurewitz, with whom I studied here almost thirty-five years ago. For the younger of you in this audience, that name will mean very little, perhaps nothing. But for many years, Hurewitz dominated the teaching of the Middle East at Columbia, for which he set a very high bar. I took my first course with Hurewitz along with fellow student Lisa Anderson, who later succeeded him as director of the Middle East Institute and went on to serve as dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. She precisely and elegantly described Hurewitz in these words:

          The motif in J.C. Hurewitz’s professional life has been a belief in the possibility and desirability of fairness.… His commitment to an abstract notion of fairness as a value, both moral and pragmatic, was particularly striking in worlds—Middle Eastern politics, academics, government—where the primacy of personal bias or political inclination has been far more common.… There were, of course, those who believed the effort to be misguided, who said and continue to say that objectivity is impossible and dispassion irresponsible. Hurewitz did not say he was trying to be objective in any absolute or scientific sense, however: indeed, epistemological questions are of no interest to him and he has great respect for the passions of others. He strove to be fair.

          This is not the occasion to ask whether Columbia still elevates those who strive to be fair. I do want to take the opportunity to note that my best recollections of Columbia are the moments when J.C. Hurewitz seemingly floated above partisanship to achieve a higher insight on some highly contentious issue. This is a standard that’s not easy to maintain, and I sometimes fail to maintain it myself. But I learned enough here to know that partisanship, while sometimes a personal imperative, is never a scholarly virtue, and certainly should never be mistaken for scholarship. For that distinction, learned at a different Columbia at a different time, I’m still grateful.

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