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Columbia Conference Postponed

Campus tensions regarding the Middle East spilled over into the political realm at Columbia University this week when Israel’s ambassador to the United States called off an appearance at the university.

Ambassador Daniel Ayalon had been scheduled to appear at an all-day conference, sponsored by Columbia’s Center for International Conflict Resolution on the crisis in the Middle East, but he pulled out after hearing complaints from members of the Jewish community who were concerned about recent instances of alleged anti-Israel bias by members of the university’s Middle Eastern studies department. Hours later, Columbia postponed the entire event.

Former senator George Mitchell, a senior fellow of the center organizing the conference, released a statement that made no mention of Ayalon’s cancellation, and instead attributed the postponement to sudden changes in the travel plans of a number of the conference’s participants.

“Several government officials — Israeli, Palestinian and American — who had agreed to participate have informed me that they will be unable to attend because they must remain in or travel to the Middle East this week,” Mitchell wrote.

Ayalon is in Washington this week, and the other Israeli participant, former consul general Alon Pinkas, was planning to be in New York. The only government official from the Arab world scheduled to attend the conference, Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, is also in Washington this week.

The campus has been roiled by controversy since this past October, when a documentary appeared in which a group of Jewish students accused a number of professors in the campus’s Middle Eastern studies department of anti-Israel bias and intimidation.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who was scheduled to appear at the event, has appointed an ad hoc committee to look into the bias allegations and author a report.

But some Jewish communal leaders have felt that the university’s efforts so far have been insufficient.

One of the university’s harshest critics has been Weblogger Martin Kramer, who, in a January 23 posting, took aim at the Columbia conference and encouraged Ayalon and Pinkas not to attend.

Kramer, when reached by the Forward, seemed pleased by the turn of events.

“The whole purpose of the meeting at Columbia was to legitimize Columbia, to legitimize the policies it has followed in this crisis,” he said. “The function of the event was one large photo op for the university.”

On his weblog, Kramer had also suggested that Pinkas withdraw, but the former consul general was still planning to attend when the conferencne was canceled. “Any place where there is a discussion — a dialogue — forfeiting and not showing up is not an option for the Zionist cause,” Pinkas told the Forward.

The committee named by Bollinger to look into the bias allegations, which is composed of five members of the faculty, has said that it will release its findings before the university’s spring break, which begins March 14.

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