Pressure appears to be mounting for Israel's ambassador to America to pull out of a Columbia University conference on the Middle East conflict.
Some members of the Jewish community have urged Israel's top diplomat in the country not to attend the conference, as a way for his country to express dissatisfaction over the university's response to complaints from students against anti-Israel members of the university's faculty.
A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy, David Siegel, told The New York Sun yesterday the Israeli ambassador, Daniel Ayalon, has received "several inquiries from the Jewish community" regarding the envoy's participation in the conference, which is scheduled for Thursday.
"He is aware of the sensitivities involved and is taking the concerns seriously," Mr. Siegel said. The spokesman would not give details of the complaints his office has received.
Titled "Revising the Middle East Peace Process," the one-day conference is the creation of George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader and a fellow at Columbia's little-known Center for International Conflict Resolution. In his career after politics, the former senator from Maine helped develop what became known as the "Mitchell Report," one of the failed Middle East peace plans circulated during the Palestinian intifada against Israel.
A decision by Mr. Ayalon to cancel his participation in the conference would represent a major embarrassment for the university, which is hoping to resolve a controversy over its Middle East studies department that has lasted for months.
Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, is scheduled to deliver opening remarks at the conference, according to a schedule of the event posted on a Web site run by students at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs.
The Middle East peace conference comes at a tumultuous time for the university, whose administrators are grappling with how to resolve a bitter dispute between Jewish students and anti-Israel faculty members.
More than a dozen Jewish students at Columbia said they have been mistreated by faculty members in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, who are accused of stifling opinion sympathetic to Israel in the classroom and using their role as teachers to preach hatred against the Jewish state. Professors in the department said their views on Israel are legitimate and denied mistreating any students.
Some Jewish leaders, including the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, have accused Mr. Bollinger of dragging his feet in dealing with the complaints and failing to ensure that Jewish students at the university are protected. Mr. Bollinger assigned a committee of faculty members late last year to hear student testimony about the complaints. The committee, some of whose members are friendly with the professors that are the subject of complaints, has yet to meet with students or inform them about the process for submitting testimony.
A fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a research associate at the Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University, Martin Kramer, posted yesterday a statement critical of the acceptance by Mr. Ayalon and Alon Pinkas, Israel's former consul general in New York City, of invitations from Columbia.
"The decision by Ayalon and Pinkas to attend this event is misguided, and is more evidence of the famous ineptitude of Israeli diplomacy when it comes to campus matters," Mr. Kramer wrote. "The day will come when it makes sense to engage Columbia, but it's way down the pike, and Bollinger should have to jump through a hundred more hoops before an Israeli ambassador crosses 116th Street."
One long-standing member of Columbia's Jewish community, Rabbi Charles Sheer, disagreed with Mr. Kramer, saying he would encourage Israeli officials to attend.
"It's a perfectly appropriate conference for Israeli representatives and officials to participate," Rabbi Sheer said. As Columbia's Jewish chaplain until last year, he was among those at Columbia who have expressed concern about the extreme anti-Israel views of some faculty members at the school.
"This is how you fight this kind of thing," Rabbi Sheer said. "A subtle speaker would find an appropriate way of introducing the issue in his remarks."
Columbia officials said yesterday that Mr. Ayalon would be attending the conference and taking part in a panel discussion about the outlook for negotiations in the Middle East conflict. The panel is also supposed to include William Burns, assistant secretary of state in the bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and Nabil Ismail Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador to America.
Other people slated to attend the conference include Rashid Khalidi, Columbia's Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies and literature, and Hasan Abdel Rahman, the chief Palestinian representative to America.
Columbia officials said the staging of this week's conference has long been in the works and has nothing to do with the university's efforts to defuse the crisis over student complaints.
A spokeswoman for Columbia, Katherine Moore, said Mr. Mitchell began planning for this week's event more than a year ago, shortly after the center staged its first conference on conflict resolution in September 2003, on the subject of reconstruction in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, indications were that significant planning for the conference was taking place this week. Columbia has not publicized the event, the Web site of the Center for International Conflict Resolution made no mention of the conference, and organizers were still trying yesterday to confirm keynote speakers.
In an interview with the Sun, Mr. Kramer said it was "obvious" that the conference was a "last-minute thing."
A Columbia student, Ariel Beery, who has spoken out against professors at the university's Middle East studies department, said the conference would be "used as a photo-op for members of the administration." He added, "Senator Mitchell has great intentions. The way it has been put together has been unfortunate."