Brightly colored signs with slogans such as "Stop the crime! Israel out of Palestine" and "Israel wants peace and gets terror" vied for airspace above the heads of students and teachers assembled on the Low Library steps yesterday, as the crowds chanted their support and empathy for--depending on where you were standing--Israel is or Palestinians.
Two competing programs were held on the main campus from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.: a rally in support of the Palestinian cause, sponsored by Turath, People For Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Columbia Anti-War Collective, as well as a picnic and information table in support of the Israeli cause.
"I think the turnout was pretty good--definitely what we expected," said Shadi Cortas, CC '03 and a Turath coordinator.
Fliers distributed by the organizers of the pro-Palestinian rally cited five objectives the protest aimed to support: an end to Israeli occupation of contested territories, the right of Palestinians to return to these territories, cessation of United States aid to Israel, an end to Israeli human rights abuses, and a general policy of boycott against Israel. The pro-Israel gathering celebrated Israel's Independence Day but also included the distribution of information supporting the Israeli cause.
When not chanting or waving banners, those present at the pro-Palestinian protest had the opportunity to speak at an open microphone. Several professors offered their insights on the situation.
Professor of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures Joseph Massad decried Israel as "a Jewish supremacist and racist state," and stated that "every racist state should be threatened."
"The heritage of the victims of the Holocaust belongs to the Palestinian people. The state of Israel has no claim to the heritage of the Holocaust," claimed Professor of Latino Studies Nicholas De Genova.
The outdoor gatherings generated a high turnout, but as a result, many students voiced concerns over some teachers' choice to cancel classes either to allow students to attend the events or to participate themselves.
Whether or not they themselves attended the events, professors' and TAs' means of accommodating them varied. Some, like Logic and Rhetoric professor Jodi Melamed, GSAS, merely informed students that they would not be penalized for attending the Palestinian or Israeli rallies instead of class.
Others, like Professor of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures Hamad Dabashi, canceled their late morning and afternoon classes altogether, which caused concern among students planning to attend class as usual.
One of Dabashi's students opposed having class cancelled because, in his opinion, such action encourages overpoliticization of Middle Eastern culture courses.
In response to such sentiments, Cortas mused that students enrolled in Middle Eastern culture classes would likely have learned something by going to the teach-in, and that this knowledge was perhaps as unique and valuable as anything they could have acquired by spending the time in class.
"Our education here is supposed to prepare us for the world," Cortas said. "It's not just about scholarly and academic pursuits."
In his view, the protest was "a good example of the other important aspects of our education" and was thus a worthwhile use of time that would otherwise have been spent in the classroom.
"Besides," Cortas said, "I think it's important to show some sort of support. It's not just about political stance; it's also about moral stance. It's just human nature that if we feel there's some sort of injustice going on, it's important to speak out."
Fareed Melhem, CC '05, expressed a similar opinion.
"I think that if students want to go to the rallies, then they shouldn't be forced to go to class," said Melhem. "And," he added, "if not enough people show up to class, then you have to cancel class."
Students against cancelling classes to allow for political participation have already begun to voice their discontentment to the adminstration, faculty, and other campus leaders. Rabbi Charles Sheer of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel asked students at the pro-Israel gathering about class cancellations and announced his intention to address the issue with University administration.