No student should ever be subjected to harassment of any kind because of his or her ethnic or religious identity. This law of common decency should bear no exception for the Jewish students of Columbia University, who unfortunately, it seems, may have been repeatedly victimized at the hands of particular members of the Columbia faculty. Although the cases in question are controversial and in dispute, we are deeply concerned that students' rights and dignity may have been trampled on. Thankfully, Columbia has taken steps to investigate, identify and rectify any ill-treatment students have suffered—as it should—but these incidents serve as a reminder of the fine line between freedom of exchange and inappropriate insensitivity.
The details about the incidents in question are not entirely clear nor completely verifiable, but what is clear is that something is amiss in New York City. The controversy began with an as yet unreleased video of interviews with Jewish and Israeli students, produced by the advocacy group The David Project, which purportedly contains footage of several students describing verbal attacks and cases of in-class humiliation by pro-Palestinian professors in Columbia's Middle East Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department. In one of the worst cases of abuse, an Israeli student alleges that a MEALAC professor refused to answer an in-class question until the student acknowledged how many Palestinians he had killed. After word about the video spread, some Columbia students and faculty said that the allegations were in line with a pervasive anti-Semitism in the MEALAC department. Meanwhile, some MEALAC faculty members have argued that their arguments and statements have been misconstrued to the point that they are being unfairly slandered.
Columbia has taken some important and careful steps to examine the situation, and we applaud them for choosing the right approach. Columbia's provost, Alan Brinkley, has pledged to fully investigate allegations raised in The David Project video. Additionally, the controversy has sparked a critical debate about the appropriate level of bias in an academic department. It is important, as this investigation and debate move forward that all parties involved make the requisite distinction between anti-Semitic bias and anti-Israeli political views—indeed, criticism of Israeli policies does not, in and of itself, constitute anti-Semitism. To be sure, from what has been divulged about these incidents, it does seem as though some professors may have been severely out of line. But these charges must not stifle the debate. Active and even heated debate on the particulars of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is both valid and valuable.
Regardless of the results of the investigation, we believe there are steps Columbia should take to ensure a safer, more welcoming learning environment. Columbia ought to establish a formal complaint mechanism—an office or liaison separate from the academic departments that would hear students' formal complaints concerning intimidation or discrimination. Such mechanisms exist, for example, to safeguard students who experience racially- or sexually-motivated harassment. It should exist to guard against improprieties motivated by bias against religious groups as well.
We would also suggest that Columbia's MEALAC department work to achieve a greater diversity of political views among its faculty. Most everyone agrees that the MEALAC department as it stands is overwhelmingly biased toward pro-Palestinian viewpoints. While we would not like to see Columbia institute a quota system for pro-Israeli professors, working to improve the severe political imbalance of the department will benefit everyone. To be fair, we do not advocate a lowering of standards for the sake of a token pro-Israeli seat either, but having a greater diversity of political viewpoints in this area does no harm. It only enriches intellectual discourse for all involved.
Students have a right to feel safe and secure when in the classroom—professors have every right to question and probe students' views, but attacking students' religious and ethnic heritage is unacceptable. The Jewish students of Columbia have brought needed scrutiny to their university. We sincerely hope and expect that the end result for the Columbia community will be an improvement