One thing is certain—this school year did not see the same furor surrounding Middle Eastern studies at Columbia that last year did. But debate among the student body surrounding conflict in the Middle East was as fervent as ever.
The tumult has left the academic and administrative arenas, where last year students alleged that professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department had intimidated students who voiced pro-Israel opinions, prompting the administration to form an ad hoc committee investigating the claims. The debate has re-emerged this year in the sphere of student group events and articles in campus publications.
This spring saw the full-fledged emergence of Pro-Israel Progressives, a student group borne out of the Columbia College Democrats. Though the group has been active since the fall, it was officially recognized by the Student Governing Board in April.
"We will show the world that Republicans do not have a monopoly on Zionism, nor do Socialists speak for liberals about the Arab-Israeli conflict," founder Andrew Avorn, CC '08, told Spectator in a written statement earlier this year.
The Pro-Israel Progressives have sponsored numerous speaking events this year. In March, they brought renowned Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to Columbia to speak on "Zionism as a Progressive Value." In February, the group brought two mothers—one a former colonel in the Israel Defense Forces and one the daughter of a terrorist—to campus to speak about achieving peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Pre-existing student groups were actively promoting dialogue as well. Just two weeks prior to Dershowitz's visit, a coalition of student groups led by the Muslim Students Association sponsored a speech by DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein, a well-known author and critic of Israel. Finkelstein spoke on "Israel and Palestine: Misuse of Anti-Semitism, Abuse of History" to a filled auditorium of over 800 students, faculty, non-affiliates, and members of the media. It was, by all accounts, one of the largest turn-outs for any campus event in the past two years related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a two-hour address greeted alternately by cheers and scowls from opposing groups in the audience, Finkelstein attacked Israel's behavior toward Palestine. But the speech also veered toward a more personal angle for Columbia when Finkelstein harangued University President Lee Bollinger for publicly remarking in 2002 that any comparison between Israel's policies and South African apartheid policies was "both grotesque and offensive."
"I think it's a sorry truth when the president of ... [Columbia] subordinates the pursuit of truth to the pursuit of fund-raising," Finkelstein declared, referencing Bollinger's words. The speaker largely refrained, though, from making more than passing remarks about last year's controversy surrounding the MEALAC department.
News of the event unleashed waves of submissions on Spectator's opinion page, in which students variously expressed support and disdain for Finkelstein's presence on campus or his message. In the week leading up to Finkelstein's speech, Josh Lipsky, CC '07, and Chris Kulawik, CC '08, and a Spectator Opinion columnist, teamed up to "inform the Columbia community of this blatant hate-mongering" in an opinion submission. A few days before Finklestein's arrival, Maryum Saifee, SIPA, and Athar Abdul-Quader, CC '08, responded to criticisms of Finkelstein in their own submission.
Spectator was not the only on-campus media outlet available to students interested in dialogue. Bari Weiss, CC '07, a leading member of Columbians for Academic Freedom, the student group that led the charges of intimidation in the MEALAC department last year, began The Current this fall, a journal of contemporary politics, culture and Jewish affairs. The magazine has put out three issues this year.
"Columbia is a really political place, but often debates between students can quickly devolve into polemics and name-calling," Weiss told Spectator earlier this year. "We want to provide a space for debate that's reasonably well researched, but also exciting and creative."
The Current has also hosted speaker events. In the fall, it brought alum Michael Oren, CC '77, an Israeli scholar and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, to speak to students. And in February, it organized a panel of Jewish journalists—some with experience working in Israel—to speak on topics related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the meantime, relatively little has transpired within MEALAC itself. This year, the department is being jointly administered by anthropology professor Partha Chatterjee—serving as interim chair during department chair Marc Van De Mieroop's leave of absence—and an advisory committee made up of faculty members from various departments.
The administration hopes to announce two new appointments to the MEALAC department in May, both in South Asian studies. According to Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks, the University is currently in negotiations with two individuals it has invited to fill the newly created positions. The search committee for the Israel and Jewish Studies chair—a position which includes responsibility for heading the newly created Center of Israel and Jewish Studies—also plans to announce its decision in May.