April 26, 2005

Kraft donation to Columbia U. aims at bolstering civil discourse


When the controversy exploded at Columbia University over perceived anti-Israel bias and harassment of pro-Israel students by Middle East studies professors, many Jews warned that the school would lose financial support from Jewish donors and alumni.

But the tempest had the opposite effect on at least one Jewish Columbia alumnus, Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots football team.

Kraft, a philanthropist to both Jewish and general causes, announced last week that he and his wife Myra were donating $500,000 to establish a fund at Columbia for interfaith and intercultural awareness programming. His only condition was that Columbia commit an equal amount to the fund so that it, too, would have a stake in promoting civil discourse on campus.

"I believe in open debate and not shying away form controversies, but I also believe it has to be done in a respectful forum, and everyone has got have a chance in a respectful way to have their opinions understood," Kraft told the Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview from aboard his jet. "I saw this as an opportunity to try to create something with students really originating the agenda. I think it's very important that students and faculty work to establish a rapport outside the classroom."

The new $1 million fund will be used to support student and university initiatives that foster open debate about controversial topics, including those involving race, religion and culture. A faculty committee will choose three controversial issues each year for the university to address, and a board comprised of both faculty and students will allocate the money.

"The classroom is the primary place in the university for the exchange of ideas, but we all know how valuable it is to have other contexts in which to express ourselves and to hear the thoughts of others," Columbia President Lee Bollinger said. "When it comes to debating some of the most controversial, and perhaps even intractable, questions of the moment, it is all the more important that we are able to do so in environments that sustain our commitment to civil discourse, critical inquiry and academic freedom."

Several years ago, Kraft donated $11.5 million to build the Robert K. Kraft Family Center for Jewish Student Life at Columbia.

The context of Kraft's latest gift to the university was the debate at Columbia over free speech on Israel and the Middle East, which had been prompted by student allegations that professors from the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures used their positions to discourage free intellectual discourse on the Israeli-Arab conflict and harass pro-Israel students. The accused professors and their defenders said the accusing students were conducting a McCarthyite witch hunt designed to stifle a free exchange of ideas about Israel and the politics of the Middle East.

The special committee Columbia established to investigate the charges issued its report last month, finding only one incident where a Columbia faculty member, Prof. Joseph Massad, may have "exceeded commonly accepted bounds" of behavior, when he demanded of an Israeli student questioner in an open campus lecture, "How many Palestinians have you killed?"

The committee said it found no evidence of professors making anti-Semitic statements, though it did find that the school's grievance policy to handle student complaints was deeply flawed and unresponsive.

Though both sides said they were thoroughly dissatisfied with the university's handling of the situation and the committee's findings, the issuing of the report seems to have downshifted the debate on campus somewhat.

But many parties outside the university are continuing to keep a close watch on Columbia. This week, the pro-Israel group Campus Watch put out a statement saying Columbia's Middle East Institute had issued invitations to an event honoring the anti-Semitic poet Amiri Baraka, who wrote a poem about Israelis being warned to avoid the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

As it turns out, the invitation constituted a hastily sent email forwarded the day of the event by the institute's assistant director, Astrid Benedek. She said she sent it unthinkingly and, in hindsight, in error. Benedek said she regularly forwards emails by outside groups seeking to advertise their events to the institute's subscriber list of some 600.

"I forward all sorts of stuff that is going on," she said. "In hindsight, the name Amiri Barka should have rang a bell and I should have not forwarded it. I should have looked at it more carefully."

As is typical for Campus Watch, Benedek said, the group misrepresented the truth. She wrote to them in an email, "I find it pathetic and despicable that you are so desperate to find our Institute 'guilty' of sponsoring something that you consider reprehensible."

Daniel Pipes, founder of Campus Watch, said, "The Middle East studies institute at Columbia University had better get used to the fact that it's in the news and when it passes on invitations to Amiri Baraka it's going to get called on it. If they're going to be incautious and aggressive about it, as her note to us indicates, then they will reap the consequences."

Kraft said he hopes Columbia's new cultural awareness fund will steer debates away from nastiness and toward constructiveness.

"My whole life I've been trying to build bridges and be respectful of other people," Kraft said.