Middle East studies in the News
Hamilton And Israel At Columbia
by David A. Schizer
In 1774, a Columbia University undergraduate named Alexander Hamilton made his mark as a spellbinding young orator with a stirring call for independence from Great Britain.
Such revolutionary sentiment could turn an audience into a mob and, indeed, some months later a mob set its sights on the home of the president of Columbia (then called King's College), a renowned foe of independence. So Hamilton rose again, but this time to defend the president of his college from violence and, more generally, to defend the right of free speech for everyone - even those who did not share his view.
As the dean of Columbia Law School, I take great pride in Hamilton's legacy; indeed, his portrait hangs on my office wall. But honoring this legacy is not always easy. Columbia is now embroiled in a controversy about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the proper scope of academic freedom.
Columbia has always been a place where pressing issues are debated vigorously and, for the most part, collegially. In this spirit, members of our community must be free to disagree. If one side's view becomes encrusted as orthodoxy, intellectual progress grinds to a halt. But along with academic freedom comes academic responsibility. When we disagree, we have to be honest about facts. Counterarguments are not chess pieces to be knocked off the table, but opportunities to refine our analysis. Students, in particular, must be treated with respect. They should be encouraged to explore every angle of an idea, without fear of public ridicule, intimidation, or retaliation.
Although these principles may seem straightforward, they are hardest to apply when we need them the most: for controversial subjects like the contemporary Middle East. I should be up-front about my own views. I believe that the state of Israel is one of few shining achievements of an otherwise bleak 20th century. I believe that Israelis have the right and duty to defend their homes and families.
Even so, if you ask me, "Should great universities hire people who criticize the Israeli government and Israeli policies?" I say, "of course." The right way to respond to Israel's critics is not to exclude them from the campus, but to answer them. The need for an open and honest intellectual exchange on the Middle East is a matter of both national and international urgency.
Yet along with academic freedom comes academic responsibility. We are scholars, not advocates. For this reason, I am very concerned about allegations raised recently by students at Columbia. In a documentary called "Columbia Unbecoming," a number of college students say they do not feel free to question the anti-Israel assertions of a group of tenured and untenured teachers in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, or MEALAC; the students say they feel intimidated, such that the classroom has become a hostile environment where their views are unwelcome. As a lawyer, I believe in suspending judgment until the facts are gathered. But if these allegations are true, the situation is utterly unacceptable. The classroom is sacred space. The duty of a teacher is to seek truth, not to disseminate propaganda. These are very serious charges, which strike at the heart of our academic mission. I appreciate that a committee of Columbia faculty is taking a careful look at these allegations, and I await their findings with interest. I am confident that, if these allegations are substantiated, the university will take appropriate action.
Regardless of what happens in these particular cases, though, it is worth putting this situation in context. Although the allegations are serious, some commentators go further to suggest that anti-Semitism is pervasive at Columbia. This is simply not the case. As an observant Jew, I am entirely at home at Columbia. We were the first American university to establish a chair in Jewish studies, and we now have six such chairs. A substantial percentage of the students and faculty are Jewish, and we have launched countless Jewish graduates to extraordinary careers.
In training the world's future leaders, and in grappling with the world's hardest problems, our society needs academic freedom more than ever. We need honest, balanced, and collegial conversations - especially about controversial subjects like the Middle East. Hamilton's legacy must be preserved.
Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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