Less Than Reassuring Words at Columbia University

By Ralph Seliger

Published December 10, 2004, issue of December 10, 2004.
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The question of whether an anti-Israel atmosphere exists at Columbia University, as alleged in recent news reports, will presumably be answered in an internal investigation. But it’s apparent from a recent event hosted at that Ivy League campus that pro-Israel views, regardless of ideological shading, are under seige.

Columbia hosted a November 20 forum titled “Impasse? Alternative Voices in the Middle East.” The most prominent speaker was Yossi Beilin, architect of the Oslo Accords, a prime mover behind the Geneva peace initiative and chair of Yahad, the left-wing social-democratic party formerly known as Meretz. What was noteworthy was that he represented perhaps the most “right-wing,” and certainly the most pro-Israel, perspective at the conference.

The session’s moderator, Columbia government professor Mahmood Mamdani, began with a brief but impassioned defense of Joseph Massad, the Columbia professor at the center of the recent controversy. Mamdani then challenged Beilin by asserting the applicability of a South African-style Truth & Reconciliation Commission to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Recoiling from the apartheid analogy, Beilin observed in his calm rebuttal that this was implemented in South Africa after the conflict had ended and not as a means toward its end, and that Israel is a democracy and Jews are not a minority oppressing a majority.

Just prior to Beilin’s presentation, Jessica Benjamin, an American Jewish academic and psychoanalyst, argued the importance of an Israeli “apology” to the Palestinians — without any mention of a Palestinian apology to Israelis. To demand an apology of one and not the other, Beilin responded, is to get bogged down in each other’s “narratives.” Quoting a Palestinian negotiating partner in the Geneva accords, Beilin stated, “We need a solution rather than a story.” Beilin reacted to a hostile question shouted about the “apartheid wall” from a woman in a hijab, but most of the audience responded warmly to his words.

The proceedings took a more lop-sided turn during the forum’s concluding panel, by which time at least half of the crowd — the half friendliest to Beilin — had left. With the exception of Rafi Dajani, executive director of the American Task Force for Palestine, virtually every speaker took a harder line than his or her predecessor.

The first speaker was Phyllis Bennis. A ferociously articulate leftist, she is associated with the Institute for Policy Studies and co-chair of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. Bennis railed against American taxpayer support for Israel, arguing that whether the solution to the conflict is one state or two should be left entirely in the hands of Israelis and Palestinians. Afterwards, a young Palestinian activist named Leena Dallasheh provided a harangue rather than an analysis, dripping with vitriol about “the Zionists” and the “Israeli left” — a term she repeated derisively by gesturing “quote marks” with her hands.

Then came an Israeli political science professor at Tel Aviv University, Yoav Peled. But he, too, did little to balance the discussion, instead criticizing Beilin’s party, Yahad, for voting to keep Prime Minister Sharon in power in order to implement the Gaza withdrawal plan. Peled also energetically advocated Israel’s acceptance of the Palestinian “right of return,” on the risky assumption that most Palestinians would choose other places of settlement and compensation instead of accepting second-class citizenship in a Jewish state.

Even the moderator, Rutgers political scientist Steven Eric Bronner, opened his remarks by criticizing Beilin for being too hopeful regarding Sharon, and his comments only grew sharper from there. Bronner, a self-identified leftist, incongruously cited Machiavelli in critiquing Beilin for not assuming the worst regarding Sharon’s intentions. It apparently never occurred to either Bronner or Peled that it might be reasonable for most Israelis to assume the worst about Palestinians.

Although I heard none of the speakers excuse terrorism, it was remarkable how little the issue entered into the conversation. There was talk of the Nakba, the “catastrophe” suffered by most Arabs of historic Palestine in 1948. Yet the conflict has always been a two-way dialectic of violence, which the Palestinians fatefully initiated at a massive level when they launched a total war against the Yishuv in 1947 rather than accept partition. The Nakba was a direct result of this war, and would not have happened without it.

There was also much bemoaning the “asymmetry of power” between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s curious how Israel’s critics and enemies denounce the asymmetry instead of accepting it as a strategic fact. Israel’s enemies created the “monster” of Israel’s war machine — not easy for such a small country to manage, but the only way that Israel could survive. Israel’s strength is often cited as an argument for generosity toward the Palestinians, but the intifada’s toll of 5,000 Israeli dead and wounded has proven just how vulnerable the Jewish state is.

The point here is not to simply defend Israel, but rather to color in what is far too often a black-or-white debate. I have no idea of whether the complaints of pro-Israel students at Columbia have validity. But I do know that the blatantly one-sided approach to the conflict on display at the November 20 forum is far from reassuring.

Ralph Seliger is editor of Israel Horizons, the publication of Meretz USA.

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