Israeli ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon has withdrawn from an international conference scheduled to take place at Columbia today in response to allegations of anti-Israel bias and intimidation within the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department.
The conference, organized by former Senator George Mitchell, was focused on the Middle East peace process, and was supposed to be attended by numerous government officials from Israel, Palestine, and the United States. On Tuesday evening, Mitchell, a senior fellow of the Center for International Conflict Resolution, released a statement announcing that the conference would be postponed until September because a number of panelists had scheduling conflicts. The statement did not specifically mention Ayalon's last minute decision to not attend.
The ambassador's action comes at a crucial time for the University, which is in the midst of a controversy over academic freedom and alleged harassment of pro-Israel students by MEALAC faculty. The charges, lodged by students and the Boston-based Zionist group The David Project's film Columbia Unbecoming, have attracted nationwide attention. Last week, an ad hoc faculty committee organized to hear testimony from students began meeting.
According to Mitchell, Vice Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, and United States Assistant Secretary of State William Burns were all originally scheduled to attend. Kast month, Olmert informed Columbia he would be unable to come due to scheduling difficulties. This month, Columbia was advised that Qurie and Shaath would both be unable to attend because they needed to be in the Middle East this week. Burns informed Columbia earlier this week that he would also not be in attendance because of travel commitments in the region.
Former Consul General of Israel in New York Alon Pinkas, Haaretz columnist Tom Segev, Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Nabil Ismae Fahmy, and Columbia history professor Rashid Khalidi were also scheduled to attend.
As of Tuesday, the keynote speakers representing the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives were not confirmed on the conference's Web site. But the official postponement did not occur until after Ayalon announced that he would not be attending.
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a source in the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. said that Ayalon's decision was a result of "Jewish students' claims of intimidation by university staff," and was made after consultation with leaders in the Jewish community.
Mitchell would not comment on a possible connection between his decision to cancel the conference and Ayalon's announcement.
Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks said that Ayalon's withdrawal from the conference has had no effect on the ad hoc committee convened to investigate the allegations, which began meeting last week to hear testimony from students. Dirks said that, as far as he had been informed, the conference was canceled solely for logistical reasons, and not because of Ayalon's withdrawal.
The ambassador's public announcement and the canceling of the conference have once again pushed the current controversy over the MEALAC department into the national press.
Martin Kramer, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow and a research associate at the Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University, wrote on his Web site that "this is Columbia's darkest hour so far, and it's mind-boggling to think that it's come to this. Many facts surrounding the affair are disputed, but one of them isn't: the university's leaders failed to detect the problem early, diagnose it in a timely way, and act decisively to solve it."
Aharon Horwitz, CC '04, who is involved in the student organization Columbians for Academic Freedom, agreed.
"This underlines the fact that basically Columbia has been ignoring this for three years," he said. "I think it's positive that the Jewish community is concerned."
Rabbi Charles Sheer, Hillel director emeritus, was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as criticizing Ayalon's decision. "This is a university. The way in which it deals with ideas is by debating them, not boycotting Columbia," Sheer said. "For him not to be there, it's just going to make the issue worse rather than better."
Bari Weiss, CC '07 and a leader of Columbians for Academic Freedom, said that she understood the ambassador's decision, but thought that he could have used the conference as an opportunity to address the controversy. "I wish he came to make the issue public, critiquing the University about the controversy," she said.
"Revisiting the Middle East Peace Process" was to be the second international conference organized by Mitchell. Last year, Columbia hosted a similar international conference on Afghanistan.
Planning for the conference began last spring, before anyone knew how crucial this month would be to negotiations going on in the Middle East following the Palestinian elections early this month.
Jennifer Sokoler contributed to this article.