The Israeli ambassador's decision last week to cancel an appearance at Columbia University is the latest backlash the Morningside Heights campus is experiencing as a result of its own Middle East crisis. The issue of professors politicizing the Arab-Israeli conflict has been an ongoing source of controversy at Columbia. Now, several professors with well-established records of openly criticizing Israeli policies are accused of imposing their politics on students and intimidating those who express pro-Israeli views.
Last fall, the David Project, a pro-Israel organization, produced a film featuring several students discussing their problematic experiences with their professors and alleging intimidation and harassment by them. The film caused enough public questioning that the university administration (traditionally loath to censor faculty for their political views) responded by convening an ad hoc committee of other professors to review the students' grievances. Already, the composition of the committee has drawn criticism and its findings are unlikely to end the controversy.
The more energy students and academics spend debating alleged anti-Israel bias on campus, the further removed the education process becomes from the realities of the Middle East today. Yes, allegations of intimidating students and arguments for academic freedom must be addressed. But as the number and severity of the charges between the usual suspects increase, each side only becomes more stubborn. As more students and professors enter the fray, as films attempt to document intimidation and outside experts and even members of Congress are called on to take sides, the real loser in the process is the university, which gains only bad publicity. One proposed solution of creating an Israel Studies chair funded by Jewish donors may be a useful step in other circumstances; but in this case, it will only further segregate the campus community and put whoever that individual is in the impossible position of having to serve as Israel's spokesperson whenever the anti-Israel professors voice their protests.
There are more constructive methods to defuse this conflict: Stop using this issue as a way to answer the larger question about the proper relationship of personal politics to academic freedom and focus on the real job of a research university - generating fresh analysis, serious discussion and innovative ideas on a pressing topic. Host a symposium on Palestinian politics after Yasser Arafat, not with the embroiled Columbia faculty but with serious Palestinian thinkers and reformers - of which there are many. Bring in one such Palestinian, pair him or her with a similarly qualified Israeli equally committed to a fair and negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and have them co-teach a class on what the conflict is really about. Release a study on the consequences of holding elections in conflict-torn environments, adding new insight to our understanding of the Palestinian and Iraqi elections. And, last but not least, provide President Bill Clinton - a neighbor with an office 10 blocks away - a venue for lecturing on what is necessary for peace in the Mideast and why efforts to achieve it have fallen short in the past.
Universities have procedures in place to respond to complaints by students of mistreatment by faculty, and Columbia has taken steps to revamp its grievance procedure. But in order to get past the loss of credibility of its Middle East studies faculty, Columbia needs to demonstrate a sustained commitment to finding creative and serious ways of exploring the region with the best possible mix of faculty, programs and visitors. It will take more than one lecture, conference or appointment for Columbia to get where a leading academic institution should be: on the cutting edge of scholarship and teaching about the Middle East. Universities need to be contributing substantively to our understanding of the Middle East now more than ever, and Columbia needs to focus its efforts on playing such a constructive role.