Feb. 13, 2005
Columbia alumni threaten to stop contributions over anti-Israel tone

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

In a shot across the bow of Columbia University, a group of Jewish Columbia alumni are warning the university that it had better remedy the anti-Israel atmosphere in its Middle East studies department-or pay a price.

A pair of Columbia alumni launched a letter-writing campaign last week threatening to withhold future financial support from the university until "free speech" is restored to its classrooms.

The campaign was prompted in large part by screenings of a controversial video called "Columbia Unbecoming," which details student complaints about bias and intimidation against pro-Israel students by professors in Columbia's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC). In the professionally produced video, students recount how professors used their positions to promote anti-Israel activism, discourage free intellectual discourse on the Israeli-Arab conflict and vilify pro-Israel students.

"The film highlights how MEALAC professors have disregarded the very foundation of academia-objective teaching and research-and inflamed the classroom with personal politics and anti-Israel hate," wrote Yael Lerman Mazar, the former MEALAC major and Columbia alumna behind the letter-writing campaign. "This is not the Columbia my husband and I take pride in and not the Columbia we intend to support."

Mazar's letter, which was sent to Columbia President Lee Bollinger on February 10, demands that Bollinger reconstitute a committee charged with investigating the accusations of professorial intimidation and harassment. Several committee members were signatories to a petition urging the university to divest from Israeli companies, and Mazar says they should be replaced with "unbiased" faculty members.

Mazar told the Jerusalem Post she penned her letter after seeing "Columbia Unbecoming" at Anti-Defamation League headquarters in New York on February 8. The recent proliferation of public screenings of the film, which until recently had been shown only selectively, is adding fuel to the fire that threatens to tarnish Columbia's reputation in the Jewish community.

Produced last year by the David Project, a Boston-based pro-Israel group, "Columbia Unbecoming" was meant to prod Columbia's administration to take seriously student allegations about bias and intimidation in Columbia classrooms. Originally, it was not widely screened beyond a select group of Columbia administrators, faculty and trustees, according to David Project officials.

But the university's lack of responsiveness spurred the group to make the film public, first at a screening for journalists last October, and more recently at screenings in Jerusalem and around New York. The video, which consists almost entirely of students telling their stories in front of a camera, has been altered somewhat along the way, mostly to add additional testimonials. A transcript is available at www.columbiaunbecoming.com.

"The press release [of the film] was an indication that we had reached a dead end" with Columbia's administration, said Ralph Avi Goldwasser, the David Project's executive director. Now, as the film is shown more broadly, Goldwasser said, "we reached the point with the students that they're comfortable with this level of exposure."

In the film, students tell of one professor who told his class, "The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi." Another professor allegedly told a student in a private discussion that she has no claim to the land of Israel or a right to express her opinion about Israeli-Palestinian issues because she has green eyes and therefore must not be of Semitic origin. Others in the film tell of campus posters for an Israeli film festival that were defaced with swastikas, Arabic slogans and anti-Israel screeds, and a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus to which some professors brought their students.

The accused professors have denied that they have harassed students or intimidated them, and students defending the professors say the accusations of bias and intimidation are slanderous and a McCarthyite tactic to chill academic debate on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The controversy has engulfed Columbia in recent months, intensifying with growing media scrutiny of the issue.

The launch this week of the letter-writing campaign by Jewish Columbia alumni is a sign of the rising level of anger among Jews over Columbia's handling of this issue. Last month, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, pulled out of a planned conference on the Middle East peace process at Columbia because of the unresolved controversy.

"We are constantly communicating with our alumni on a variety of issues, and we value their continued interest in the University," said Susan Brown, a Columbia spokeswoman. "Total commitment to academic freedom is central to the mission of Columbia, and we will not tolerate acts of intimidation that exclude other viewpoints in classroom discussions. We take student concerns of this nature very seriously and believe the ad hoc committee will evaluate these charges in a rigorous and utterly objective manner."