Nearly two months have passed since a controversial Columbia University internal report lifted the blame from professors accused of anti-Zionist speech and harassing pro-Israel students in the classroom. But now, thanks to students such as Bari Weiss, the intensely heated, intellectual battle at Columbia University is resuming.
Weiss, 21, heads Columbians for Academic Freedom (CAF), a student group which she formed with three other Jewish students. Their mission is to combat the supporters of professors within the university's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALC) who face allegations of strongly antagonizing and intimidating students who voiced opposing views to the professors' anti-Israel speech in the classroom. The group, says Weiss, aims to promote "an environment of intellectual diversity and freedom to dissent."
Weiss feels that she was forced into the position of a "whistle blower" after the filmColumbia Unbecoming, professionally produced by Boston-based Israel advocacy group The David Project, aired charges by students against professors and sparked the dramatic rise of tensions at Columbia throughout this past semester.
In a discussion period following a student screening of the film in December, Weiss said that "people's reactions solidified in me my desire to get involved with this cause." She found many of the reactions "entirely offensive," claiming that many spoke brutally and unsympathetically against the legitimacy of the Jewish students' charges.
Were this another minority besides the Jews, thought Weiss at the time, we would support them.
"I would think that we would just unite as students, and what scares me is that for many the automatic reaction was instead to question and ultimately throw out [the Jewish students'] claims, because of the students' political affiliations."
Weiss, who previously founded the Columbia Coalition for Sudan, believes that the media has played both "friend and foe" in this affair – pressuring the administration, including Columbia's president Lee Bollinger, into action, but also creating difficulty for CAF's aims.
In a prominent example of media treatment, Columbia's ad hoc committee investigating allegations of professorial intimidation released its long-awaited report on March 30. Columbia brokered a deal with the New York Times wherein the newspaper would gain exclusive rights to the report providing it not seek comments from students. CAF's supporters argued that the report was an attempt to whitewash the situation at Columbia, as the report cited only three student complaints, out of a reported 60.
The Times March 31 headline read "Columbia Panel Clears Professors on Anti-Semitism," and was followed by other news outlets similarly reporting that anti-Semitism was not found. Weiss, however, labels this a "wonderful publicity move" and claims "we have never charged Columbia with being an anti-Semitic institution."
The Times ended up apologizing for its coverage.
Weiss also has mixed feelings over the recent Columbia motion to establish an Israeli studies chair, in part seeing the measure as "throwing a bone to the Jewish community." She noted that those named to the chair search-committee included Rashid Khalidi, one of the very professors accused of intimidating pro-Israel students.
She also dismisses new student grievance procedures. "The reason why these grievances occurred is because there is an atmosphere of intellectual orthodoxy, and people feel it's okay to ostracize the person who challenges that orthodoxy. Real change will only happen once there is true diversity of ideas within the department, and that can't just come from the students. That also has to come from the professors."
BOTH SIDES of the debate at Columbia employ the term "academic freedom," claiming that their opposition threatens intellectual discourse. Censoring Thought, a Web site formed by Weiss's opposition at Columbia, notes that CAF seeks "to impose a conservative ideology on dissenting voices by means of intimidation and harassment. Though they couch their ideoligically-driven crusade in terms of academic freedom and diversity of opinion, their goals are anathema to such principles."
Accused Professor Joseph Massad of the MEALC has claimed, "This witch-hunt aims to stifle pluralism, academic freedom, and the freedom of expression ... in order to ensure that only one opinion is permitted, that of uncritical support of the State of Israel."
Weiss believes that Massad is entitled to brand Zionism as racism, but also adds that "dangerous or violent ideas need to be vigorously fought with better, and more truthful ideas. That can't happen when there's a climate without freedom of dissent."
Weiss insists it is not only students' obligation to create effective debate, but also the role of professors, who maintain more power in the classroom, to promote "an atmosphere where dissent is permissible." She defines academic intimidation as targeting and "making a student a pariah because of some identifiable part of their person."
Critics of Weiss and her supporters argue that they have personally not even witnessed incidents of intimidation in the classroom. She counters that her activism is still legitimate: "You can be an activist against racism without experiencing an incident of racism. I've never been to the Sudan and been a slave," she says, referring to her work against oppression in Darfur.
She also points out that, although opposing students work with outside organizations like the New York Civil Liberties Union, they blast CAF's connection to an organization such as The David Project.
As the Association of University Teachers (AUT) meets Thursday in London to discuss its boycotts of University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University, Weiss voices strong opposition to the boycott: "I think it represents a real bigotry and a move to suppress free academic discourse." She also points out that several MEALC professors are supporting the British boycott.
Weiss acknowledges that what she sees as a double-standard for Jews and Zionists on campus is not an example of anti-Semitism "in the classic way." Jews at Columbia have no problems identifying themselves individually as Jews – such as through the wearing of kippot – she notes.
"Everyone's fine with an individual Jew. It's the second that a Jew invokes the notion of Jewish collective rights, and a Jewish peoplehood – which is Zionism essentially – that they are cast beyond the pale because this school of thought has successfully branded Zionism racism."
Although she says she is ultimately hopeful for the place of Zionism on university campuses, Weiss believes that it is "fashionable" on some campuses to disagree with Zionism because of associations with neoconservatism.
"I think we really have to rip Zionism from the claws of a supposed right-wing affiliation," says Weiss. "To be a Zionist is simply to believe that Israel has a right to exist and there's many ways to be a Zionist."