A conference at Columbia University designed to highlight alleged intimidation by Arab professors took an unexpected turn March 6 when three pro-Israel students took to the stage to criticize anti-Palestinian and anti-Islamic statements by previous speakers.
“I have to take serious issue with many of the statements made here today,” said Ariel Beery, one of the students whose protests helped launch the Columbia furor. Beery is co-founder of Columbians for Academic Freedom, which helped produce and distribute a documentary film alleging that Arab professors bullied pro-Israel students.
“Much of what has been said today is not only unproductive, it is counterproductive,” Beery said. “Anything that is said in order to disparage or to generalize or to characterize some type of people is wrong.”
The students drew angry shouts from an audience that had applauded their arrival onstage moments earlier. Their appearance was billed as a question-and-answer session, but the students were cut off by the organizers after just a few minutes.
Later, the students told the Forward that they were responding to the preceding speakers who had strayed from the topic of student intimidation to take aim at Arabs and Islam more generally.
In one especially fiery speech, Phyllis Chesler, professor emerita at the College of Staten Island and author of “The New Anti-Semitism,” argued, “The largest practitioner of apartheid on the planet is Islam, in terms of both religious apartheid and gender apartheid.”
Charles Jacobs, president of the David Project, the Boston-based organization that helped fund the documentary, “Columbia Unbecoming,” dismissed “Palestinianism” as a “cult and a hyper-focus on the conflict of Israel” that “obscures any academically credible understanding of the region.”
The speeches appeared to reinforce criticism that the students’ stated cause — academic freedom and open debate — was being co-opted to advance a wider assault on the right of professors to hold pro-Palestinian views.
“In the end what we want is the healing of the Columbia campus,” Beery told the Forward after his appearance. “Propaganda on either side only pushes us further from that goal.”
Jacobs defended the tack taken by most of the day’s speakers.
“It’s more than [the student’s] story now,” Jacobs said. “Their story is harassment and intimidation. The story now includes not how what’s being taught is taught, but what is being taught, and who has captured these departments.”
The all-day event at Columbia’s business school was organized by the Zionist Organization of America, which opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and American peace efforts, and by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a three-year old organization that is working to “develop effective responses to the ideological distortions, including antisemitic and anti-Zionist slanders, that poison debate and work against peace.”
The group had three professors at Columbia who helped organize the conference, from the business, public health and medical schools.
The conference was titled, “The Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus,” but of the 21 listed speakers, only four work on an American campus.
The Columbia students were the only speakers during the day to dissent with other presenters. They were also the only members of the Columbia campus community listed in the printed program.
Participants ranged from a New York City Council member, David Weprin, to Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, who spoke by video feed from Italy.
One of the sharpest-edged speeches came right at the end, from the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein. “There is no occupation,” Klein said, referring to Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza.
Klein, like most of the day’s other speakers, was greeted afterward with a standing ovation.
Many speakers on hand Sunday used the opportunity to throw the insults lobbed at Israel back at the pro-Palestinian elements on campuses.
“Professor Massad,” said Brigitte Gabriel, the Lebanese-born founder and president of American Congress for Truth, addressing the most criticized member of Columbia’s Middle East studies department, “I’ll borrow some of your academic freedom now and say that Arab nations are the real racist and oppressive states.”
Chesler, in a speech enthusiastically received by the crowd, said that the Palestine Solidarity Movement, an organization that has demonstrated on many American campuses, “is a group in my opinion that’s quite similar to the Ku Klux Klan, or to the Nazi party.”
When Chesler was talking about the ethics of the Israeli army, one person called out that he had been shot by Israeli soldiers, but members of the audience yelled, “Get out” and the boos from the audience drowned out the questioner. Later in the day, a protester rose to leave the room, with duct tape over his mouth. As he walked out of the room, many booed, and one man yelled, “Maggot.”
The pro-Israel students who were at the center of the Columbia controversy expressed discomfort with the broadsides of Chesler and other speakers.
“In an environment where words like ‘Israeli’ and ‘Zionist’ are being used interchangeably with ‘Nazi’ and ‘fascist,’ it’s very important we don’t fall into the same sort of vicious inaccuracies,” said Bari Weiss, another co-founder of Columbians for Academic Freedom, during the students’ brief time on stage.
Such concerns have spread beyond the Columbia campus. A few miles downtown, the new director of New York University’s Taub Center for Israel Studies, Ronald Zweig, said that Jewish organizations are acting like “a bull in a china shop.”
“It’s clear that Sharansky has a political cause — he’s the minister of Diaspora affairs, so he wants to create a sense of panic among Jews outside Israel,” Zweig said. “It is unfortunate that the American Jewish leadership — that is so much closer to the facts on the ground — should be influenced by this.”
Zweig said considerable criticism of Israeli policies is voiced on the NYU campus, but all sides have managed to join in civil debate.
At Columbia, professors in the Middle East studies department have been accused by students of souring debate by seeking to intimidate and silence those who voice pro-Israel views in the classroom.
In recent weeks, several events have reinforced the appearance that meaningful dialogue is shut out at Columbia. At a session arranged by the Columbia ACLU two weeks ago, all three panelists bashed the charges presented in the film “Columbia Unbecoming,” with no dissenting voice.
At the conference Sunday left similarly little room for dissenting views. The only two extended question-and-answer sessions came after speeches by Sharansky and by Martin Kramer, who has led efforts to counter the alleged pro-Palestinian orientation of American universities. In both cases, audience members were required to submit questions on note cards. Only those that reflected the views of the speakers were selected.
Organizers said they had invited Columbia officials and representatives of the school’s Middle Eastern studies department. But later, Neil Shachter, a professor at the medical school, who helped organize the conference, said, “We’re making a case for openness and balance, but we are not here — we didn’t get this platform — for people who are intimidating and closing things down.”