February 4, 2005

C.U. Debates Allegations of Columbia Anti-Semitism

Print More

For several months now, professors of Middle East studies at a fellow Ivy League institution, Columbia University, have been facing “charges of voicing anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiments,” according to the Columbia Spectator. A documentary produced by a Boston-based Zionist group, The David Project, and shown to Columbia students on Oct. 26, further alleged that “Columbia professors discriminated against Israeli students,” the Spectator reported.

The New York Daily News issued a special report headlined “Hate 101” on Nov. 21 which detailed dozens of instances of apparent “intimidation” by Columbia professors toward students who were “defending the right of Israel to survive.” The report states in reference to the university, “In classrooms, teach-ins, interviews and published works, dozens of academics are said to be promoting an I-hate-Israel agenda…and teaching that Zionism is the root of all evil in the Mideast.” It quotes Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi as saying that supporters of Israel are “warmongers” and “Gestapo apparatchiks” and that the Jewish state “must be dismantled.”

These occurrences at Columbia have become a part of the larger public discussion surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a discussion that Cornell Prof. Tamir Sorek, sociology professor who taught last semester’s Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course, has been following with interest.

While Sorek only knew of these incidents at Columbia through the media and internet, he argued that these professors were not voicing anti-Semitic sentiments, after reading “Hate 101.”

“Anti-Semitism, or I think it would be more accurate to say, anti-Jewish positions and expressions–it’s something that exists and we know it. There is also what I can call anti-Israelism. This is another category. This is the perception of Israel as a unified and homogenous power of evil, and the source of all evil in the Middle East. This is academically ridiculous but it is not anti-Semitism. It is not against Jews as Jews,” Sorek said. “And there is a third category, which is criticism of Israel. The public discourse and the public debate over these subjects tend to ignore the differences between these categories.”

Sorek said that the lines separating these three distinct categories tended to get blurred.

“Now who is interested in blurring these categories? One sort of people and institutions who are interested in blurring is supporters of Israel, blind supporters of the Israeli government. And the Israeli government itself tends to blur it in the way it describes the criticism against Israel. Very frequently, too frequently, the excuse of anti-Semitism is used by Israeli officials in order to automatically reject any criticism against Israel. It doesn’t say that within the circles that criticize Israel, you cannot find anti-Semite expressions–it exists, I know it exists, I have met these expressions more than once,” Sorek argued. “But in the American context, among the forces who try to blur the lines between anti-Semitism and the criticism of Israel, anti-Semites are very marginal. The main forces who blur the line are defenders of Israel.”

David Klass ’05, who took Sorek’s course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, agreed with Sorek’s analysis of the situation. “He is right in noting that sometimes the Israeli government labels anti-Israeli sentiment as anti-Semitic. Sometimes this is justifiable and sometimes not. The problem is some do not dissociate the two, Jews and Israel. For instance, while I am Jewish, I dislike the Israeli government because it is led by a rightist [jerk] who should also be prosecuted for war crimes,” Klass said. “Similarly, while I love my country, the United States, I dislike the Bush administration. I see similarities between the governments in this regard: either you are with us or against us. Some actually are against Israel because Israel is Jewish, but that cannot represent the entire sentiment. I have no quarrels with Prof. Sorek on this issue, although that true hate of Israel does exist–which I am sure Prof. Sorek would agree with.” Sorek pointed to one specific Columbia professor as an example, Rashid Khalidi, who was mentioned in the Daily News article.

“I read many of [Khalidi’s] texts, I never saw any shed of anti-Semitism…and I know he also has a complex perception of Israel–you cannot call him a persistent and blind anti-Israeli,” Sorek said.

When asked about the apparent anti-Zionism at Columbia, Sorek argued, “Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. Zionism is a political ideology and people have the right to reject this political ideology. And they can be Jews and they can be non-Jews.”

A supposed measure of anti-Israeli sentiment, according to the Daily News, is the petition signed by 106 faculty members that called for Columbia to sell its holdings in firms that conduct business with Israel’s military. Sorek replied, “[The professors] perceive it as an attempt to pressure Israel with non-violent means to change its policy. …There is nothing anti-Jewish. I know that some people argue that among those who demand this, you can find latent, anti-Semite motives. …Now this is possible, but I am confident that this is not the main motive or the dominant motive among the political groups who ask this. They feel that the Israeli policies are unjust and they want to change it. This is not anti-Semitism.”

“It’s unfortunate that complex issues of Middle East politics are address in a sensationalized way in the New York press,” said Prof. Ross Brann, Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies.

He emphasized that he had only heard of these incidents second hand through the media.

Sorek added, “What I can tell is that [the media] mix[es] in the article personal offense of students with criticism of Israeli policy, under the same title of hate and as a part of the exact same phenomenon–which they are not.”

According to the Spectator, Columbia is forming an investigation looking into the charges leveled against its professors, led by Columbia provost Alan Brinkley. On December 8, 2004, it was reported in the Spectator that a committee of Columbia students, faculty and others had formed to attack The David Project’s film for “misrepresenting facts.”

On Feb. 1, the film was edited, developed and shown again to Columbia students because “some students who were identified in the first version wanted their identities to be concealed in the second,” as reported by the Spectator.

Archived article by Julie Geng
Sun Staff Writer