As part of their efforts to support open dialogue on the ongoing controversy over Columbia's MEALAC department, the student groups Columbians for Academic Freedom and the Columbia Antiwar Coalition sponsored and participated in a debate entitled "Academic Freedom and Censorship at Columbia—What's at Stake?" last night in Earl Hall Auditorium.
Three students and alums from each group—Ariel Beery, GS '05, Aharon Horwitz, CC '04, and Bari Weiss, CC '07, of CAF and Monique Dols, GS '05, Suzie Schwartz, GS '05, and Madiha Tahri, BC '03, of the Antiwar Coalition—debated a wide variety of subjects related to the MEALAC controversy. The debate was mediated by Barnard political science professor Dennis Dalton.
The panels debated for 40 minutes, followed by 60 minutes of comments from the audience.
The Antiwar Coalition students addressed the David Project, an outside organization that funded Columbia Unbecoming, a film of student testimonials about their experiences with academic intimidation in Columbia's MEALAC department.
In her opening remarks, Schwartz called the David Project a "right-wing Zionist group with a neo-conservative agenda."
But the CAF students quickly rebuffed the accusation. "If ‘right-wing' means I support an independent Israel next to an independent Palestine, then please call me right-wing. Bring it on," said Weiss.
Questions were also raised regarding the agenda of the president of the David Project, Charles Jacobs. The Antiwar Coalition claimed that Jacobs, an affiliate of the Israel on Campus Coalition, had a clear Zionist agenda.
"I don't think it should be called the David Project," said Dols. "It should be called the Goliath Project."
Antiwar Coalition students and audience members were also highly critical of the recent Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) Conference on Columbia's campus on March 6, cosponsored by Columbians for Academic Freedom.
The Antiwar Coalition and audience members said students in CAF had a Zionist agenda, "unleashing a monster" and launching a "schmear campaign" against pro-Arab professors.
They also blamed CAF for the New York City Department of Education's decision to fire Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies and Literature Rashid Khalidi from its education program for secondary school teachers as well as the fact that MEALAC Professor Joseph Massad was unable to teach a course on the Middle East this semester because of a death threat he received.
"It's irresponsible for you to release greater social forces and then pretend you didn't do it," said one audience member to the CAF students.
"We've been tagged unfairly as colonialists, imperialists, racists," said Weiss. "We're only responsible for what we're saying."
The Antiwar Coalition debaters contested CAF's claim that the MEALAC controversy is about academic freedom, claiming that the controversy is really a matter of Israel versus Palestine.
At the conclusion of the debate, Schwartz demanded that the students in CAF admit to its pro-Israel political agenda.
"I don't know how we can say this any more clearly. The truth is we're not going to be heard. Immediately we are put to a political litmus test. I think it's sad," said Weiss, denying that CAF is motivated by a political agenda.
In response to the claim made by the Antiwar Coalition that the overwhelming majority of students who have taken courses from MEALAC professors have had positive experiences free of academic intimidation, CAF member Horwitz fought back with a metaphor.
"One person is sexually harassed, but other people weren't. Is that okay?" he asked.
"For some reason, when it comes to students who are Jewish and Zionist, there's a double standard," stated Weiss.
The audience seemed primarily sympathetic to the Columbia Antiwar Coalition's point of view, directing most of its tough questions toward CAF. As the CAF students spoke, members of the audience yelled "Liar!" and "Shame on you!"
"You are the real terrorists," shouted one audience member at the CAF debaters during her chance to speak.