A decision by Israel's ambassador to the United States to pull out of a Columbia University conference on the Middle East peace process is drawing criticism from some Jewish officials who say boycotting Columbia sends the wrong message.
Ambassador Daniel Ayalon announced he was pulling out on the eve of Thursday's forum due to concerns over charges by some Jewish students at the university that Columbia's Middle East studies department is anti-Israel and that its faculty members have harassed and intimidated students who express pro-Israel viewpoints. A university committee has been established to investigate the students' complaints, and it is slated to begin hearing student concerns this Friday.
After Ayalon made his announcement, the forum's host, former Sen. George Mitchell, announced that he was postponing until September the "Second Annual Forum on International Conflict Resolution: Revisiting the Middle East Peace Process" due to scheduling conflicts that would prevent some panelists from attending.
Rabbi Charles Sheer, Hillel director emeritus at Columbia, said Ayalon's decision constitutes a missed opportunity to challenge Columbia about its treatment of Israel and pro-Israel students.
"This is a university. The way in which it deals with ideas is by debating them, not boycotting Columbia," Scheer said. "For him not to be there, it's just going to make the issue worse rather than better."
The forum was supposed to includ Egypt's ambassador the United States, Nabil Ismail Fahmy; Israeli historian Tom Segev; former Israeli consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas; Columbia's Ed Said professor of Middle East studies, Rashid Khalidi; and Columbia president Lee Bollinger, among others.
An official at the Israeli Embassy said Ayalon made his decision after consultation with Jewish leaders.
"We support academic freedom, but every effort needs to be made to ensure that academic freedom is not held hostage to intimidation," the official said. "Obviously there's a lot of sensitivity in the community to this, and that's been expressed to [Ayalon] and he's taking those concerns very seriously."
The accusations against the Columbia professors have been detailed in a professionally produced video, "Columbia Unbecoming," produced by the David Project, a Boston-based group that seeks to combat anti-Israel bias on college campuses. In the video, students charge that faculty members from the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures use their positions to promote anti-Zionist activism, discourage free intellectual discourse on the Israeli-Arab conflict and vilify Israeli students. One student recounts a professor telling his class, "The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi."
The professors have denied that they have harassed students or intimidated them, and some students defending them say the accusations of bias and intimidation are slanderous and a McCarthyite tactic to chill academic debate on the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The controversy has engulfed Columbia in recent months, intensifying with growing media scrutiny of the issue.
Columbia officials referred all requests for comment on the conference's cancellation to Mitchell's office.
"Several government officials—Israeli, Palestinian and American—who had agreed to participate have informed me that they will be unable to attend because they must remain in or travel to the Middle East this week," Mitchell said in a statement. "As a result, I decided that the conference should be postponed and advised university officials."
Mitchell declined to respond to direct questions from The Jerusalem Post.
Israel's consul general in New York, Arye Mekel, who is an alumnus of Columbia, said he believes Israel made the right move in holding off on its participation in such a conference until the university's probe is complete.
"There are two opinions on this. One tells us that it would not be right to pull out. Others tell us that it would not be good to hold such an event with Israeli participation so long as the panel did not present its case," Mekel said, referring to the university's investigative committee. "I believe that this time we have to wait for the panel. This is why Ambassador Ayalon postponed—not postponed, but canceled—his participation."
A biology professor and former dean at Columbia, Robert Pollack, who has said that the students' allegations have been insufficiently addressed by Columbia, said it was unfortunate that Ayalon canceled his appearance.
"Columbia would have been better served by an event that would have had the president of the university and the ambassador to Israel on a platform together," Pollack said. "A serious university needs to be a place of academic freedom, and it can only be a realistic place if people of different opinions use their academic freedom to speak out," he said.