Middle East studies in the News
Professor Provokes Israeli Outrage
The Israeli government has lodged a formal protest with Columbia University, expressing outrage over a prominent history professor's endorsement of killing Israeli soldiers in occupied territories.
In response to the protest, a top Columbia official defended the professor and Columbia's commitment to "many different viewpoints."
In a letter to Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, dated August 4, Israel's education minister, Limor Livnat, protested anti-Israeli remarks made by Rashid Khalidi that were reported in a July 23 article in The New York Sun.
"I must strongly protest against the presence of a man who endorses violence on the faculty of Columbia University," Ms. Livnat wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Sun. "His position at such a prestigious institution can only extend the forum in which he promulgates his ideas, and lend credence to them in the minds of his students and others."
Ms. Livnat was referring to a speech Mr. Khalidi gave on June 7, 2002, which was cited in the Sun article.
In that speech, Mr. Khalidi reportedly condemned Palestinian violence against civilians, but approved of attacks on soldiers in occupied territories, calling such attacks "resistance."
Ms. Livnat's letter urged Mr. Bollinger "to speedily inquire into this matter" and "take appropriate action."
Mr. Khalidi, author of "Palestinian Identity" and the forthcoming "Resurrecting Empire: America and the Western Adventure in the Middle East," is a leading figure in Middle Eastern studies, a field that has recently come under attack from conservative academics who question its anti-Israel bias and the integrity of its scholarship.
He arrived at Columbia this fall after spending 15 years at the University of Chicago and holds the Edward Said Chair of Middle Eastern studies,named after the Columbia professor who died in September. Columbia has not released a list of the chair's donors, but part of the funding comes from New York City philanthropist Rita Hauser, the Sun reported in July.
Columbia responded with a two-page letter written by provost Alan Brinkley and dated September 15.The letter defended Mr. Khalidi as a "respected historian of the modern Middle East" and did not specifically refer to Mr.Khalidi's comments defending violence against Israeli soldiers.
"He has been critical of the politics of the Israeli government, but he has consistently supported Israel's right to exist as a nation within secure borders," wrote Mr. Brinkley, the former chairman of Columbia's history department, whom Mr. Bollinger appointed provost earlier this year.
Mr. Brinkley also highlighted Columbia's Center for Israel and Jewish studies, whose faculty teach "most of the courses on Jewish history and Zionism." And he noted that Columbia has a "close association"with the Jewish Theological Center and maintains the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life, an affiliate of Hillel.
The purpose of a university,the letter concluded, is to give "students exposure to many different viewpoints. We believe we do that responsibly."
Mr. Brinkley, who is Columbia's second-most-powerful official, told the Sun by e-mail that Columbia takes "particularly seriously a letter from a major government official." He said he did not know if Columbia responded to Ms. Livnat's letter beyond his written response.
Mr. Khalidi told the Sun by e-mail that it is "disgraceful that a minister in a government that commits similar war crimes against civilians on a far greater scale — with complete impunity and without the slightest remorse — should have the gall to protest my reported comments on legitimate resistance to an unlawful and violent occupation now in its 37th year."
The professor hadn't heard about Ms. Livnat's letter until a Sun reporter asked him about it, his wife said last night.
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