Faced with a growing controversy over charges of bias and intimidation of Israeli and Jewish students by professors at Columbia University, the university's president announced Wednesday that Columbia immediately would set up a committee to review student allegations and overhaul the university's grievance process.
In late October, Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, asked Provost Alan Brinkley to investigate the accusations, which were given a boost by a professionally produced video of students talking about incidents of classroom bias in Columbia's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures.
In that film, called "Columbia Unbecoming," students charged that faculty members in the school's Middle East classes use their positions to promote anti-Zionist activism, discourage free intellectual discourse on the Israeli-Arab conflict and vilify Israeli students. One student recounted a professor telling his class, "The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi."
The controversy roiling Columbia has intensified in the month and a half since Brinkley's appointment, with defenders of the accused professors charging the film's backers with slander. On Monday, Brinkley recommended that Bollinger act immediately to address the complaints.
"Our commitment to freedom of inquiry lies at the heart of what we are undertaking here," Bollinger wrote Wednesday in an open letter to the Columbia community. "The outcome of extensive and careful discussions is a decision to convene an ad hoc faculty committee to listen to, and when appropriate, investigate student complaints."
The five-member ad hoc committee will serve until a permanent panel can be established and upon conclusion will submit its report to Columbia's vice president for the School of Arts and Sciences, Nick Dirks. Floyd Abrams, a visiting professor at Columbia's School of Journalism and a well-known attorney on cases involving freedom of speech, will serve as the committee's adviser.
The developments at Columbia reflect a broader controversy on college campuses in the United States—and elsewhere in the world—on what constitutes fair treatment of Israel at the university. At stake is not only the principles of academic freedom and fairness toward Israel, but, in some cases, money. Many of the trustees at major US universities like Columbia are Jewish, and tales of bias against Israel by university professors could jeopardize universities' abilities to raise funds from major Jewish donors. Before making his announcement, Bollinger met with students, faculty, alumni and trustees.
Both the accusing students and the accused professors at Columbia couch their arguments in terms of academic freedom and free-speech rights. The students behind the charges say that, as Jews or Israelis, they feel intimidated and unable to express their opinions freely in a hostile academic environment. The allegedly offending professors and students defending them say those behind the charges are McCarthyites intent on stifling any criticism of Israel by labeling Israel critics as anti-Semites.
On Tuesday, about 50 students, faculty members and community activists held a news conference at Columbia to defend the accused professors there and denounce the backers of "Columbia Unbecoming," which was produced by the David Project, a Boston-based group that seeks to combat anti-Israel bias on college campuses. Some held aloft signs reading, "Down with the Zionist witch hunt on campus!"
"This is about politics and the siphoning of the debate and discussion on the question of Palestine and Israel," said Madiha Tahir, a Columbia alumna and one of the leaders of a group calling itself the Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Academic Freedom at Columbia.
Krishnan Rajan, a graduate student in Columbia's anthropology department, said, "The accusations of intimidation, which are couched in the language of freedom and equality, are spurious, for they mask the true intent of this campaign, which is to silence critical thought and inquiry and to silence those who hold positions that are different."
A Columbia senior who helped out with the David Project film, Noah Liben, dismissed the charges. "We expect to be labeled as McCarthyite," he said, "when in actuality the McCarthyism is from the other side."
Ariel Beery, also a senior at Columbia and a collaborator on the David Project video, said stories of Columbia professors intimidating students sympathetic to Israel "chill the academic environment."
"It stops up free speech," he said. "If the administration were to take this seriously, then we as students at Columbia would be in a different place."
One of the primary targets of the students' accusations, Prof. Joseph Massad, described "Columbia Unbecoming" as propaganda and merely the "latest salvo in a campaign of intimidation of Jewish and non-Jewish professors who criticize Israel."
Among the accusations against Massad are that he likened Jews to Nazis, demanded of an Israeli student "How many Palestinians have you killed?" and yelled at a Jewish student, "I will not have anybody here deny Israeli atrocities."
Massad denied the charges. "I have intimidated no one," he said. "Not only have the students not used a single university venue to articulate their alleged grievances, they are now sponsored by a private political organization with huge funds that produced and funded a film about them, screened it to the major US media and to the top brass of the Columbia administration."
Massad, like several of those now criticizing the students who have complained about anti-Israel bias in the classroom, said criticism of Israel should not be interpreted as anti-Semitism. He also pointed out that Columbia devotes an inordinate number of faculty, courses and money to the study of Israel given the proportionate resources allocated to the study of Arabs, who are far more numerous than Israelis.
Another professor named in the film, George Saliba, who teaches Arabic and Islamic science, is accused of telling a Jewish student in a private discussion that she has no claim to the land of Israel or a right to express her opinion about Israeli-Palestinian issues because she has green eyes.
"You have green eyes; you're not a Semite," Saliba said, according to the account by the student, Lindsay Shrier. "I have brown eyes; I'm a Semite."
Saliba has denied ever making such a statement. And though he has admitted to a charge that he took his class to a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus, he described it as a "field trip" aimed at showing his students an example of the debate surrounding Israel and the Middle East.
Brinkley called the students' claims against Saliba and others "extremely troubling, since the well-being of our students and their ability to learn in an environment of civility and trust is one of the university's most important missions."
"We need, therefore, to determine if these claims are true, and, if they are, to take steps to address the problem."