Strongly hinting that the committee Columbia University has formed to investigate allegations that Jewish students have been intimidated by Middle East studies faculty is biased, prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz suggested this week that Columbia may not be able to police itself on this thorny issue.
Dershowitz also suggested that should the committee "produce a biased result," and if a "corruption of procedure occurs," there would be a need for "another committee appointed by distinguished outsiders who have no position and no stake in the matter."
His remarks represented the first time the idea of an independent investigatory panel had been broached publicly.
Speaking Monday afternoon at a filled Lerner Hall to about 350 students, many of them wearing yarmulkes, the Harvard law professor cited the fact that two committee members signed a recent petition calling on Columbia to divest from Israel.
"There is a line when anti-Zionism turns to anti-Semitism," Dershowitz said, "and divestiture is that point. When there are so many wrongs in the world, singling out Israel cannot be explained by neutral, political or even ideological reasons."
Dershowitz said he was "shocked" to learn that two of the committee's six members, Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives Jean Howard and comparative literature professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, signed the divestiture petition. The panel is chaired by noted First Amendment scholar Floyd Abrams.
"Scalia duck hunting is nothing compared to this," he said, referring to a recent, much-scrutinized hunting trip Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia took with Vice President Dick Cheney.
At the time, Scalia's critics accused him of lacking impartiality, as shortly after the trip he was slated to hear a case that directly involved the vice president.
The Dershowitz analogy suggested that he viewed the committee as inherently flawed.
Responding to the comments by Dershowitz, Susan Brown, the vice president for public relations at Columbia, said in a statement that "it would be inappropriate for Columbia University to speculate on or prejudge the committee's findings while its work is under way. However, as we have said in the past, total commitment to academic freedom is central to the mission of Columbia, but we will not tolerate acts of intimidation or political bias that exclude other viewpoints in classroom discussions."
Such bias, Dershowitz claimed during an animated speech before an audience consisting largely of enthusiastic supporters, is abundant on the Morningside Heights campus.
Singling out the university as inimitable in what he called a virulent anti-Israeli atmosphere, Dershowitz passionately attacked Israel's critics on campus.
"You do not believe in academic freedom, you do not believe in freedom of speech," he said, seemingly turning to a handful of pro-Palestinian demonstrators sitting in the audience but addressing members of the Middle East studies department, none of whom were present. "For you it is simply a matter of tactics. If the shoe was on the other foot, if a pro-Israeli professor was being called into question, you wouldn't support him."
In his hourlong speech, sponsored by several Jewish groups on campus, Dershowitz paid equal attention to delivery as he did to content.
"All he needs is a top hat and dancing shoes," one student whispered to her friend as the acclaimed First Amendment scholar prodded the students in attendance to action.
"Do not stand idly by," Dershowitz said. "Silence in the face of bigotry is a sin."
The lion's share of his lecture consisted of a carefully constructed assault on the Columbia curriculum. By offering a one-sided, anti-Israeli view of Middle Eastern affairs, Dershowitz said, the university was "failing in its mission to educate students with nuance about the problems of the Middle East."
As a result, he added, "the atmosphere on campus says that vicious attacks against Israel, no matter how erroneous, no matter how biased, are politically correct."
Dershowitz offered in his view a litany of historical facts, from the Peel Commission of 1937 to the Camp David summit of 2000, as evidence to a consistent refusal by the Palestinians to reach a viable peace with Israel.
"Students can go for four years at Columbia and not hear any of these facts," he said.
Still, Dershowitz denied partisanship, saying it was possible to be, as he himself was, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian.
The key to such a complicated proposition, he explained, was supporting the two-state solution, a solution that has been negated by most professors in the Middle East studies department at Columbia.
"These people are deliberately ignoring the lessons of history," he said, adding that the one-state solution could only lead to a Muslim state, not a secular, binational entity.
"The problem is that those who purport to be pro-Palestinian are really anti-Israeli and anti-peace," he said.
As examples, Dershowitz cited Joseph Massad, the professor accused of asking an Israeli student at an off-campus event how many Palestinians he had killed, and the late Edward Said, the eminent scholar and pro-Palestinian activist.
"Said is the Palestinian Meir Kahane," he said, referring to the Jewish extremist who was assassinated in 1990.
"Was Said pro-Palestinian?" Dershowitz continued, doing his best to overcome the crowd's loud booing at the mention of the late professor's name. "No, he was anti-Israeli. He couldn't abide a Jewish state."
The Dershowitz lecture was another sign of the deepening rift on the Columbia campus.
Last week, a panel on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that featured Massad and other critics of Israel drew an audience of several hundred, most of whom supported the speakers' pro-Palestinian points of view. As with the Dershowitz lecture, most audience members beamed in complete agreement. Neither event offered a real opportunity for dialogue.
Concluding his remarks with a fierce denunciation of Columbia, Dershowitz called it "the most unacceptable university I've ever seen when it comes to Israel."
"However this is resolved," he said, referring to the crisis on campus, "there's something very wrong with the lack of diversity at Columbia." n