It’s been five years since I attended a symposium at Columbia University discussing the David Project’s documentary “Columbia Unbecoming,” a film that highlighted anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements by faculty in the Middle East Arts Language and Culture MEALC program. The film ignited a debate over the prevalence of anti-Zionism on American campuses and the dangers of advocacy teaching at universities, much of it fueled by Arab funding.
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“Columbia Unbecoming” created a furor, prompting Columbia to convene a faculty investigatory committee to look into the allegations. Former PLO mouthpiece Rashid Khalidi, known for his frequent use of the terms “racist” and “apartheid” to describe Israel, was a Columbia professor who actively defended his Israel-bashing colleagues. He continues to indoctrinate through his teaching, holding the Edward Said chair at Columbia. A $200,000 donation toward that chair was received in 2004 from the United Arab Emirates, a gift Columbia initially attempted to conceal.
Khalidi was featured at a debate I attended last month at NYU, a university that itself is no stranger to foreign donations, having received an unrestricted gift of $20 million from the government of the United Arab Emirates in 2008 as part of a pledged $50 million.
The Feb. 9 debate, held at NYU’s Skirball Center, was heard on over 200 NPR stations across the country and seen on the Bloomberg Television network.
Khalidi spoke for the motion “The United States Should Step Back From Its Special Relationship With Israel.” His debating partner was New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, known as much for his tirades against Israel as for his starry-eyed reports last spring on the peaceful intentions of Iran’s Islamic Republic and the blissful conditions of Iranian Jews under Ahmadinejad.
It would be easy to dismiss Cohen as simply na?ve if the insidious manner of exploiting his own Jewishness to further his agenda were not so manifest.
True to form, Cohen castigated Israel’s security barrier as the Palestinians’ “hated separated wall” which results in “an isolated, fragmented, atomized, fractured, humiliated Palestinian presence” and described his visits to the West Bank as “a kind of primer in colonialism.”
Khalidi, for his part, lambasted Israel, disputed America’s role as an “honest broker” in the Middle East, and urged the audience to vote for the proposition of diminishing America’s relationship with Israel because “We [Americans] are in effect engaged in supporting an occupation that has been going on for 42 years.”
The valiant efforts of opposing panelist Stuart Eizenstat – former U.S. ambassador to the European Union, undersecretary of commerce, undersecretary of state and deputy secretary of the Treasury – were simply not enough. Lacking the charisma of his opponents, Eisenstat was also somewhat hindered by his partner Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States. It was easy to link Rabinovich’s weak dissent with his open lament at Kadima’s loss in the most recent Israeli election and his enthusiastic embrace of the two-state solution.
Even the moderator, John Donvan, correspondent for ABC News “Nightline,” at one point paused to solicitously ask an obviously pro-Palestinian student if she was satisfied with the reply she received to her anti-Israel question. When I was called on, I pointed out the failure of both Hamas and Fatah to remove from their charters the clause calling for Israel’s dismantling and stressed their continuing anti-Semitic incitement, only to have Donvan dourly interject, “I need to come home with this question, I see where you are going.”
I then asked Cohen how he, as a Jew, could support America’s downgrading its ties with Israel. Cohen did not answer the question but rather blamed all Middle East ills on Israeli settlements, a typical knee-jerk response that doesn’t fool the informed but does deceive college kids suffering from a woefully inadequate education.
That this was the case here was evident by the debate’s results. Before the debate, 33 percent of the attendees supported the motion of the U.S. stepping back from its special relationship with Israel, with 42 percent opposed and 25 percent undecided. After the debate, the results were 49 percent for, 47 percent against, and 4 percent undecided.
Israel bashing on campuses has become de rigueur these days. Though the NYU debate was attended by a somewhat civil audience, the same cannot be said for the reception accorded Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine on the following day, Feb. 10. Oren was repeatedly harassed while attempting to deliver a speech.
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon did not fare much better the same day in England. Ayalon spoke at the Oxford Union, where he was repeatedly interrupted by protestors waving Palestinian flags and yelling anti-Israel slogans. One protester approached Ayalon screaming “itbah al-Yahud” (“slaughter the Jews”).
We can see from the very enemies we are confronting in the Middle East the consequences of virulent and widespread anti-Semitic propaganda. Inbred prejudices and hatred are almost impossible to erase. So long as Arabs are taught from the cradle to hate Jews, there is no chance for true peace.
If we allow our campuses to further the cause of our enemies by allowing anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, and anti-U.S. ranting to go unchecked, we will have a new generation doing our enemies’ work for them. There were close to a thousand people in the audience at the NYU debate on a topic of paramount importance to all American Jews, yet there were only – in New York City, no less – two yarmulkes to be found among them, one belonging to my husband.
With engagement being one of our last lines of defense in this dangerous battle, let us not close the door in our own faces.
Sara Lehmann is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn.