The dust kicked up by the controversy surrounding Columbia students' charges of abuse and intimidation cleared up for three hours on March 9, at a debate between the Columbia Anti-War Coalition (CAWC) and Columbians for Academic Freedom (CAF)—a group I co-founded—entitled "Academic Freedom and Censorship at Columbia: What's at Stake?"
In what was advertised as a rigorous debate, members of CAWC attacked my group and me by calling us "right-wingers" and "neo-conservatives" instead of taking on our arguments for the protection of students' rights and the right to demand a responsible education. Regardless of the fact that we fit none of those labels, an article in The Nation this week that repeats this trope shows that these charges need to be answered head-on to allow Columbians to hear both sides and decide for themselves.
One recurring phenomenon is the desire to prove CAF's guilt through association. Because conservative pundits like Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer have written in support of our cause, some conclude that we are not only aligned politically with such people but that we are responsible for what they advocate on Web sites like Campus Watch. Specifically, we were accused of "unleashing a monster" on Columbia, the tentacles of which are Pipes, Kramer, and David Horowitz. Ironically, this was the same type of argument made by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy when he blacklisted intellectuals based on their supposed political affiliation.
Another claim raised often is that we are encouraging outside organizations to decide what is taught at Columbia. This is not about governmental censorship of professors' politics, which is precisely why we spoke out against the NY Board of Education's decision to dismiss Professor Khalidi for his previous statements. Yet to blame students for appealing to an outside organization, when every door within the University was closed, is not only insensitive but intellectually disingenuous. Here's why: no one bats an eyelash when the ACLU or the NAACP advocates for students in the Academy. When CAIR, the Counsel for American Islamic Relations, rightly interfered against the Islamaphobic comments of a Californian professor earlier this year, they received only praise. To raise a cry against only a pro-Israel organization is pure hypocrisy.
The most powerful charge brought against CAF, in my eyes, is the accusation that we are violating the academic freedom of professors or, as Suzie Schwartz boldly stated, are "putting their lives at risk." However, because the administration did nothing in the three years since the issue surfaced, we could not shy from advocating the right of students to an education free from abuse simply because the world began to pay attention.
We are doing this because we believe in the rights of all Columbia students to dissent without fear of abuse. Yes, this means for conservative students as well as left-wingers, for Zionists as well as anti-Zionists. As for the idea that we are "stifling debate," a little thought shows this claim to be laughable—how can we stifle debate by making our own voices heard? Criticizing professors does not violate their academic freedom or stifle debate. It only adds to it. Professors can think and say and write whatever they wish. But they do not have the right to be free from criticism.
The real lesson we can learn from the opposition to our struggle for student rights is that our arguments do not matter. It does not matter that we come from various ideological backgrounds, including the Left. It comes down to one fact: we all happen to think that Israel has a right to exist. This casts us as radical right-wingers, puts us beyond the pale. It's sad; I had hoped that the era of dismissing someone based upon their ideology had passed with Joseph McCarthy.