Taking his criticism of anti-Semitism at Columbia University onto the campus yesterday, Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democratic candidate for mayor, called on the school to confront anti-Israel ideology and address allegations of intimidation.
In a speech at Morningside Heights, Mr. Weiner spoke of Columbia as he detailed the need for greater openness and accountability in city government.
It was the fourth in a series of five speeches intended to outline the mayoral candidate's vision for New York. The venue, however, was the first subject the congressman addressed.
"I can't come here and speak without mentioning the controversy that has been in the news recently: the attacks on Israel by some at Columbia, and the troubling reports of intimidation of students who have dissented from the views of their pro-Palestinian professors," Mr. Weiner, whose district includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens, said.
Mr. Weiner was invited to speak by a student organization, the Columbia Political Union.
Expressing his desire to "stir a little debate," the congressman said principles of free speech dictate that professors be allowed to make arguments, like some of the anti-Israel statements issued by Columbia faculty, which the congressman found "dangerous" and "wrong."
"But if someone makes that argument ... it is the responsibility of those of us in a free society to confront it," Mr. Weiner said.
He also announced his willingness to confront personally and debate anyone making spurious historical claims against Israel.
"Especially at an institution of scholarship," Mr. Weiner said, "we must not allow history to be turned on its head. ... I will come here or anywhere to defend Israel and its right to exist, because morality and intellectual fairness demand it." Mr. Weiner is the only mayoral candidate and the only member of New York's congressional delegation to have addressed the Columbia issue publicly.
The congressman called upon Columbia's administration "to act swiftly and show it will have zero tolerance for teachers who undermine freedom of thought on campus." The intimidation alleged by a student, Deena Shanker, who said Assistant Professor Joseph Massad ordered her to leave his classroom if she continued to deny alleged Israeli atrocities against Palestinian Arabs, was behavior that "crosses the line," Mr. Weiner said.
"Threats to Columbia's academic environment," he added, "need to be treated much more seriously."
Yesterday's remarks were only the most recent element of Mr. Weiner's campaign against anti-Semitism at Columbia. In October, the congressman became the first public official to denounce the alleged intimidation when he called on Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, to fire Mr. Massad, who, among his other anti-Israel claims, has likened Israel's treatment of Palestinians to Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews and has accused Zionists of the "theft of Palestinian Arab food (e.g., hummus, falafil)."
Mr. Weiner's stance has earned him harsh criticism from members of the Columbia community who argue that the matter should remain an internal affair. A Columbia student, Michael Shtender-Auerbach, went live Sunday with a blog, defendcolumbia.com, which criticizes both outsiders who defame Columbia and the school's administration for "not doing enough to defend our university."
That criticism re-emerged yesterday in the question session following Mr. Weiner's speech. The congressman was confronted by a young woman who identified herself as a student majoring in the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures, home to many of the faculty embroiled in ongoing allegations of intimidation and bias. The student said she thought the professors' plight was a denial of their free speech and complained about Mr. Weiner, journalists, and other figures not tied to Columbia who have criticized the university for its handling of the controversy.
"It's a shame that people unaffiliated with the university are calling for resignations," the student said.
"We can't talk in our classes as mature adults," she said. "Debate is being stifled by this influx of people."
Mr. Weiner, however, said he felt it was important that he speak out on behalf of an intimidated minority group. When he called for the professors' resignations, the student abruptly stood up and left.
Another Columbia undergraduate, Philip Gray, had a different response to Mr. Weiner's comments. After the event, he approached the congressman to thank him for his bravery. Mr. Gray, who describes himself as a "proud Zionist," said he thinks the kind of external pressure exerted by Mr. Weiner can help prod the university into cleaning up some of its MEALAC messes. Mr. Gray added, however, that he was dismayed by ill-informed external commentators' weighing in on the situation to the university's detriment. Mr. Weiner, he said, was not one of them, but "other people try to portray Columbia as a hateful institution, which it's not."
Afterward, Mr. Weiner elaborated over the phone his suggestions as to how Mr. Bollinger could help defuse the crisis at Columbia. Mr. Bollinger named a panel of five Columbia professors to examine the allegations of intimidation of students in the classroom, and Mr. Weiner said any such panel should include academics from schools other than Columbia and "balanced representatives" of the student body, "not just people who are going to support the incumbents."
"I think the burden is on the university to show that they're taking these allegations seriously and responding to them seriously," Mr. Weiner said. "The proof will be in the pudding. If the report comes out and it appears to be a whitewash, then it's going to send a very bad message to the students that are at the school now, as well as future applicants," Mr. Weiner said.
The congressman also disputed the argument that non-Columbia figures should remove themselves from the university's internal troubles.
Mr. Weiner said at the Columbia event that political figures, including Mayor Bloomberg, have "bully pulpits" they can use to help "groups who feel their rights are trampled." If he were mayor, Mr. Weiner said, "This is the kind of thing I'd weigh in on," because it would be good for the intimidated parties "to know someone's on their side." Because Columbia is a New York institution, Mr. Weiner added, "It's something I wanted to show leadership on."
Some of the students who made the initial accusations against the professors have announced they will no longer be saying anything about the Middle East studies controversy - at least, not to the press. A group of Columbia professors apparently persuaded the students to withhold comment to avoid complicating delicate internal negotiations concerning the outcome of the school's investigation into the allegations of harassment, according to Columbia sources. The committee is expected to release its findings as early as next week.