In the midst of a controversy centered on allegations of pro-Palestinian teaching in Columbia's MEALAC department, the administration has pushed forward with its plans to hire the Ivy League's first permanent chair of Israel Studies.
Although the new position was publicly announced by University Trustee Mark Kingdon, CC '71, at the March 3rd John Jay Awards Dinner, a search committee met for the first time last Friday to begin drawing up plans to fill the position. According to the search committee chair, professor Michael Stanislawski, the committee hopes to have the new professor on campus by Fall 2006.
Stanislawski, also the assistant director of Columbia's Center for Israel and Jewish Studies, did not waste any time in making the new chair's role perfectly clear.
"This chair is not a political appointment; it's an academic appointment," he said in an interview Saturday.
While the announcement comes at a time of mounting national exposure for Columbia's MEALAC department, Stanislawski was adamant that the timing was completely coincidental. The idea for the Israel Studies chair, he said, predated the recent controversy.
"It would be naïve to think that there's a ‘Chinese wall' between the two, but there's no causal relationship between this year's controversy and this chair," he said.
So far, the donors, all University trustees, have pledged more than $3 million to the chair's creation, which the school has billed as a $5 million undertaking. Although Stanislawski refused to speculate what motivated the chair's benefactors to make donations, he mentioned that it was not a "tough sell." Stanislawski said that he had been talking to donors for well over a year, and that the announcement simply came at a time when the search committee had been formed.
In the past, most notably with Rashid Khalidi's Edward Said Chair of Middle East studies, the donors' identities have sometimes become a contentious issue. Reacting to pressure from outside groups, the University identified the Said Chair's then-anonymous donors in March 2003; the donors included the United Arab Emirates as well as other individual and corporate contributors.
Stanislawski did not foresee similar wrangling over this new position's benefactors.
"There's no secret source of funding here. These are trustees of Columbia that have been extremely generous," he said.
He added that, at a time yet to be decided by the University Development office, the donors' names would "absolutely" be released.
Although he refused to comment on the MEALAC controversy and has refrained from viewing Columbia Unbecoming, the documentary that first alleged professorial misconduct in the department, he called the idea that Columbia was unfriendly to Jews or anti-Semitic "calumny."
"I think Columbia University is the best institution in Jewish studies in the country, and this [appointment] is only going to make us prouder," he said. "It's just a natural fit."
Stanislawski rejected the belief that there could be only two sides to an issue, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also expressed his disapproval for increasing the faculty's diversity of opinion by hiring additional professors to counter existing ones.
"We abhor the notion that some people have of ‘balancing opinions,'" he said, speaking on behalf of the search committee.
Instead, Stanislawski is focused on hiring someone who would approach the subject matter from an academic point of view. Although he said that the professor would be free to voice his or her opinions freely, he expressed his hope that the focus of the chair's role would be "an interdisciplinary, scholarly focus on Israel."
Stanislawski went on to describe the search process as "totally open."
"There's no preferred candidate, there's nobody that we've isolated yet," he said. "We're still considering all possible fields."
The search committee is composed entirely of Columbia faculty, and a good number are from the Center for Israel and Jewish Studies. Stanislawski said that although the committee is looking for anyone in the humanities or social sciences with an excellent understanding of Israeli society, culture, and politics, it's unlikely that the professor will be a historian or a Hebrew literature scholar, since existing professors already cover both fields at Columbia.
But Stanislawski was completely unsure where the new professor would come from.
"It could be an American, Israeli, Australian, Austrian, Swede, a Palestinian. ... It's going to be a real international search for the best person we can find," he said.
While the chair could conceivably come from anywhere in the world, the academic focal point for Israel studies remains within the country itself. Stanislawski plans to make a trip there in May to help scout potential candidates.
According to the current timetable, which, along with most other decisions, must be approved by Vice President of University Development Susan Feagin, the search committee will set a December 15 deadline for applications to the position. Next spring, the committee will vet a short list of candidates on campus, and then it will make a decision in anticipation of a Fall 2006 start date. While the actual selection process might deviate somewhat from this tentative schedule, Stanislawski was optimistic that the committee would stay on target.
The committee expects the appointee to teach four classes each year, including both undergraduate and graduate level courses. Although the chair's overwhelming scholarly focus will be issues related to modern Israel, the professor will be housed in an existing academic department befitting his or her discipline and will be free to teach whatever he or she wants.
The position will be named after current Columbia Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi upon his retirement. The University's Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History and director of the Center for Israel and Jewish Studies, Yerushalmi received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1966 and has been at the University since 1980.
In addition to the permanent chair, the school is creating a visiting professorship designed to bring Israeli scholars from an even wider variety of disciplines to Columbia. The director and assistant director of the Center for Israel and Jewish Studies, currently Yerushalmi and Stanislawski, along with an advisory committee to be established later, will select the visiting professors. Stanislawski said that he hopes to secure one for the next academic year, although he said a Spring 2006 arrival seems more realistic. The new professorships are designed to create a more structured program for Israeli visitors and to help better acquaint the University community with respected Israeli scholars.