When the Harvard legal star Alan Dershowitz dropped by Columbia University last week to harangue faculty members for tolerating an anti-Israel climate on campus, sitting in the front row and wincing was a Columbia law professor, George Fletcher. "There's something ridiculous about having to invite Dershowitz to campus to make the case for the other side," Mr. Fletcher told The New York Sun. "That's kind of shameful."
Few faculty members at Columbia have openly questioned the scholarship and teaching of Columbia's Middle East professors, many of whom express the view that Israel is a racist state and poses the greatest threat to peace in the region.
Mr. Fletcher, 65, who is something of a maverick at Columbia's law school and has taught at Israeli universities, said he wants to break the silence.
"It's obvious that someone has to take these guys on," he said.
He has purchased a $450 quarter page advertisement in the student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, challenging three of those professors to one-on-one debates on the Middle East conflict. The ad is expected to appear in today's newspaper.
It reads: "Professor George P. Fletcher of the Columbia School of Law invites and challenges Professors Rashid Khalidi, Joseph Massad, and Hamid Dabashi and any other interested members of the University faculty to a civilized and reasoned debate about the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Contact email@example.com."
Such a direct challenge between colleagues is likely to raise eyebrows at a university where differences among faculty are generally discussed behind closed doors and seldom spill out into public forums.
The dean of Columbia's law school, David Schizer, told the Sun in an e-mail that he supported Mr. Fletcher's proposal and said he would consider moderating the debate.
"I think George has a good idea," Mr. Schizer wrote. "The Law School is committed to engaging with the world's hardest problems, like the situation in the Middle East, and we believe the right way to do this is through a balanced and collegial conversation."
Two of the professors named by Mr. Fletcher - Mr. Massad, an assistant professor of modern Arab politics, and Mr. Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies - are in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, which is at the center of the continuing controversy involving student accusations of intimidation. Mr. Khalidi teaches in the history department and holds a professorship named after the Columbia literature scholar and political activist Edward Said and partly financed by the United Arab Emirates.
To varying degrees, each of the professors has attacked Israel as a colonial state that is the root of the problem in the Middle East conflict.
Mr. Khalidi, a specialist on Arab nationalism, has compared Israel's founding to the Holocaust. Mr. Dabashi has reportedly said Israel "amounts to nothing more than a military base for the rising predatory empire of the United States." Mr. Massad has expressed support for the Palestinian intifada against Israel and calls Israel an illegitimate, racist state.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with making arguments against Israel," Mr. Fletcher said. "It's a matter of not allowing stupid people to get away with stupid arguments."
Mr. Massad, Mr. Khalidi, and Mr. Dabashi did not respond to e-mail and phone inquiries for comment.
"They have to respond to me," Mr. Fletcher said.
Like professors in the Middle East studies department, Mr. Fletcher has faced his own academic battles. In 1999, he butted heads with the then dean of the law school, David Leebron, who accused him of giving students an inappropriate essay assignment that concerned the graphic murder of fetuses.
Mr. Fletcher said he is not particularly interested in the complaints made by Jewish students who accuse some professors in the Middle East studies department, including Mr. Massad, of mistreating them in the classroom.
"If I thought there was actual intimidation in class, it might be an issue," he said. "I have not seen enough evidence to suggest there was."
"On the other hand," he said, "there is a one-sided discourse on campus. That's what bothers me."
He said he was upset over a recent panel discussion on the Middle East conflict at the law school that was titled, "One State or Two? Alternative Proposals for Middle East Peace. "Three of the four panelists - Mr. Massad, Mr. Khalidi, and an Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe - argued that Israel was the primary barrier to peace and that a two-state solution was not feasible. The fourth panelist, Mark Cohen, a medieval historian from Princeton, lectured on the historical relationship between Jews and Muslims and said in his conclusion that he favored establishment of two states.
Mr. Fletcher, who did not attend the event, said it was wrong for the university to hold what he believed was a slanted discussion about the Middle East conflict. That bias, he said, is contributing to an increasingly anti-Israel environment on campus.
"Anybody who has any training and who knows anything about Israel can refute these arguments," he said.
"Why isn't the university interested in open debate?" he said. "I don't understand why the central administration doesn't see this as a central problem."
Mr. Fletcher said he would like the debate to focus on specific topics and offered two examples: "How many settlements on the West Bank would be compatible with a peace agreement," or "Who provides better guidance on the issue of the wall, the Israeli Supreme Court or the International Court of Justice?" The reference is to the long security barrier that Israel is constructing at the West Bank.
Mr. Fletcher, a specialist on criminal and constitutional law who is fluent in six languages, joined Columbia's law school in 1983 and has taught in the law departments at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. In his writings, he has criticized those who say Israel is illegally occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He is best known for his book "A Crime of Self-Defense: Bernhard Goetz and the Law on Trial," a dissection of the trial of the subway gunman.