For more than six months, a small band of Jewish student activists have waged a tireless, and many would say principled battle, to bring to a boiling point a long-simmering problem at Columbia University: That professors in the Middle East studies department were intimidating pro-Israel students in their classes.
And while a faculty committee recently found little evidence of such bullying, Columbia's move this week to revamp its grievance procedure and establish a President's Council on Student Affairs is being seen by many as a victory for the students.
The students, the ad hoc committee concluded, never had their complaints adequately heard within the university and eventually enlisted the help of an outside pro-Israel advocacy group.
That group, the Boston-based David Project, produced the film "Columbia Unbecoming," which chronicled instances of alleged intimidation and sparked the controversy when its existence was first leaked to the media last fall.
Now, perhaps inevitably, with the report issued and a major chapter of the story concluded, the fault lines that have been straining the relationship between the several dozen student activists, called Columbians for Academic Freedom, and the more establishment-oriented Jewish students at Hillel and LionPac, Columbia's pro-Israel political advocacy group, have spilled into public view. And a debate about how best to fight the Mideast wars on the Columbia campus is coming into sharp relief.
Hillel and the organized Jewish community on campus, the students behind the film charge, have been largely unresponsive, were unwilling to meet or cooperate, and tried to marginalize the activists and their role in the conflict.
Student leaders for Hillel and LionPac counter that Columbians for Academic Freedom reduced the entire spectrum of pro-Israel advocacy and activity on campus to a single issue, forcefully making support of their cause a litmus test for pro-Israel students.
Though the two sides are meeting now to clear the air, the debate is focusing on radically different styles of campus activism — affecting change from the inside or from the outside.
"Columbians for Academic Freedom and Hillel have two very separate approaches to dealing with questions of grievance procedures and whether or not there is bias in the classroom," said Dalit Ballen, president of LionPac.
"I think that the tension between us and Columbians for Academic Freedom lies in the fact that as a student activist group, they have the ability and the flexibility to focus on one particular issue: bias in the classroom. For us, who have 800 students on our listserv, things are more complicated."
Hillel and LionPac, Ballen said, face an array of responsibilities that require a multipronged approach.
"The biggest challenge for me is striking the balance between focusing specifically on campaigning and lobbying to change how the administration or the faculty see how to teach Israel studies, and educating students with the proper tools to speak out on these issues," she said.
So Ballen said the proper approach for LionPac was to operate on several fronts, including coalition building with other student groups; convening roundtable discussions on the issues; working with the administration; and creating an atmosphere on campus conducive to dialogue and resolution of grievances.
A concrete example of its success, she said, occurred on April 4 when Hillel and LionPac joined other groups, including Muslim and Arab student organizations, to organize a student forum to discuss the grievance procedure.
"There's something to be said for sitting in the same room with people who come from such a different background to yours and working together," Ballen said.
The students behind the documentary, student leaders of Hillel and LionPac said, made all this intricate work very difficult by polarizing the campus.
"This is really one of the hardest issues we've been grappling with," said Abby Deift, president of the Columbia Hillel. "We're nervous that there are Jewish student leaders out there who feel ostracized, who feel that they are limited in their pro-Israeli expression by needing to place themselves on one side of the line or another in this conflict."
The students behind the film, Ballen said, made pro-Israel activity on campus a "one-issue deal."
Not so, said Ariel Beery, a leader of Columbians for Academic Freedom.
"I believe change comes not from larger organizations, but from people who believe passionately in something and are willing to put themselves on the line for an ideal," he said. "And judging by the announcement of the grievance procedure, I think we've achieved remarkably many things in a remarkably short period of time without institutional support."
The accusations concerning polarization, Beery said, were off the mark.
"I believe in what W.E.B. DuBois wrote," he said. "There are those people who just pass, and those who are willing to stake their claim in stepping outside of the normal discourse to spur the rest of society to action. Sometimes it upsets people that the others seem to claim a right to be heard, and they feel like we're ruining it for everyone. But you have to stand up for what you believe in sometimes."
Ballen said Beery and his colleagues may be letting their passion for activism get in the way of the reality on campus.
"When you're working so much with outside media," she said, "it's possible to lose sight of what's actually happening on campus."
In the end, sources close to Hillel's administration say, it's a matter of style.
"When this whole thing started," said one Hillel student leader who asked not to be named, "we approached members of Columbians for Academic Freedom and offered them to join us and work from within. They replied that they were anti-institution and want to work from the outside."
"The fact is," Beery said in reply, "this issue has been on the agenda for quite some time, and yet nothing was done."
He added that the success of Columbians for Academic Freedom was not the activists' alone. Their timing, Beery said, was simply opportune.
Still, "to not see that there were very entrenched faculty interests in protecting members of their creed at the expense of students, and to not see that students have to stand up and be counted, is to not learn the lessons of the past," he said.
A changing of the guard at Hillel played a role in the tension as well. In September, just a month before "Columbia Unbecoming" was revealed to the public, the Hillel board brought in Simon Klarfeld to succeed Rabbi Charles Sheer, the longtime leader of Columbia's Jewish community. Some activist students felt Klarfeld was more interested in "a seat at the table" with the administration than serving their interests.
"We've met with Simon Klarfeld twice this entire time," Beery said, "and it's not for lack of trying. The fact is that you have the most central issue within the community being debated day in and day out, and the organized Jewish community on campus doesn't reach out to you."
This, Beery said, was a radical departure from Rabbi Sheer's open-door policy and direct involvement on behalf of students. Columbia's ad hoc committee indirectly chastised Rabbi Sheer for his intervention in academic matters.
"That faculty construed Rabbi Sheer's intervention as inappropriate is understandable," the committee's report read.
Equally as frustrating, Beery said, was Hillel's use of the publicity generated by the film for fundraising purposes. A letter sent by Hillel on April 4, for example, invited its recipients to the organization's annual dinner on June 1 featuring, perhaps ironically, Columbia President Lee Bollinger as keynote speaker.
"This has been a challenging year at Columbia," reads the letter, signed by Robert Kraft, the dinner's chair and major funding source for Hillel. "Our Hillel and our students have been tested on issues of identity, academic freedom and students' rights. I am especially proud of the ways they have expressed their commitments both to the ideals of civil discourse at Columbia and to Israel. It has not been easy for students or staff."
"P.S.," the letter concludes. "Now, more than ever, our students need us. Please give generously."
Klarfeld would not respond to any charges by the student activists, but said that Hillel has been in constant communication with Columbia leaders throughout the controversy over Mideast studies.
"We have raised our concern with key members of the administration," he said. "Hillel staff, student leaders and board members have found these conversations to be collegial and productive. If we were to look at the picture for Israel and the Middle East on Columbia's campus several years ago, we would see a very different picture than today."
Despite their differences, however, both parties seem hopeful going forward.
"In a situation like this, there will always be different approaches," said Daniella Kahane, one of the leading students behind the documentary. "Not everyone follows our approach.
"We have had a positive meeting with Hillel, and we're more on the same page now. This is not about a Jewish disconnect with Hillel. It's about staying focused on the main issues, like intimidation. Only through our unity will we be able to make a difference on campus."