Middle East studies in the News
by Josh Gajer
Last night Columbians for Academic Freedom and the Columbia anti-War Coalition debated the MEALAC issue in front of a packed room at Earl Hall. Today's coverage in the Spectator accurately describes the nature of each side's argument as well as the overall tenor of the debate. While members of CAF continued to argue that their motives were not political and the issue at hand was intimidation in the classroom and suppression of open dialogue, the debaters on behalf of the Columbia anti-War Coalition maintained – as they have through the creation of a spin-off group, "Stop McCarthyism at Columbia" — that CAF's claims are merely a "smoke screen" that they have used to launch a "smear campaign" against professors critical of Israel. In this vein, the Columbia anti-War Coalition chose to focus the bulk of their criticism on the David Project, the Boston-based Israel advocacy group who provided funding for the "Columbia Unbecoming" testimonial. In the Columbia anti-War Coalition's opening remarks, they called the David Project a "right-wing Zionist group with a neo-conservative agenda." They dismissed the David Project's political position as ultra-conservative and quoted from the David Project's website in an attempt to insuiate the group's racist and "radical" views. The majority of those in attendace supported the views of the Columbia anti-War Coalition and during the question portion of the debate vigorously condemned the students representing CAF, mostly in long accusatory speeches as opposed to pointed questions.
The debate was anything but. The forum was proposed for a civil sharing of views; what ensued, however, was a two-hour tongue-lashing of Columbians for Academic Freedom. Members of the Columbia anti-War Coaltion as well as many people from the audience blamed the group for personally assailing the lives and livelihoods of the proffessors they have accused of intimidation. Foremost, they blamed CAF for Rashid Khalidi's dismissal from the New York City Public Schools professional development program and Joseph Massad's decision to cancel his course on the Middle East. The Columbia anti-War Coalition's transparent insinuiations that CAF has been able to manipulate the media with the help of a political superpower, the David Project, is a borderline concpiracy theory. Their assertions that the David Project has ties to the Bush administration (gasp!) and that it's political agenda is akin to McCarthyism was the focus of their argument which never addressed students' claims of intimidation or abuse. They consistently called on CAF to admit its nefarious political agenda but refused to acknowledge their own biases.
Bari Weiss, CC '06 tried in vain to explain CAF's apolitcal position in response to an audience question: "I don't know how we can say this any more clearly. The truth is we're not going to be heard. Immediately we are put to a political litmus test. I think it's sad." Unfortuantely, her voice was not heard. On top of the Columbia anti-War Coalitions claims that the opinions of the members of CAF were rendered irrelevant because of its ties to the David Project, the Spectator reported that: "The audience seemed primarily sympathetic to the Columbia Antiwar Coalition's point of view, directing most of its tough questions toward CAF. As the CAF students spoke, members of the audience yelled "Liar!" and "Shame on you!"
This cauldron of intolerance and anti-intellectualism is not unique to Columbia. In fact, the strong Jewish and pro-Israel contingency on campus insulates Columbia students from the outright anti-Semitism that is ever-increasing on college campuses as an outgrowth of debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this week's Jewish Week, Rebecca Kahn, the Jewish National Fund's campus coordinator for its Caravan for Democracy Program, provides a frightening look into the darkest side of anti-Israel activity on American college campuses. Law School Dean David Schizer was right to point out the exceptionally friendly atmosphere Columbia provides for Jewish students; nevertheless, it is clear that the vitriol that consumed last night's event was not motivated by outrage concerning issues of academic freedom, but rather was spawned by an attempt to defame and discredit Columbians for Academic Freedom by slapping them with politically charged labels and, to a greater extent, castigate "ultra-conservative" groups like the "David Project" and "Campus-Watch" for promoting Israel advocacy on campus.
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