More than 70 Columbia faculty members have signed a letter thanking university president Lee Bollinger for expressing opposition ahead of an undergraduate student referendum next month calling on the university to divest from companies doing business in Israel.

The 74 faculty members, as of Monday, signed the open letter—organized by the Academic Engagement Network (AEN)—to applaud “Bollinger’s forceful and unequivocal declaration against bigotry and prejudice, which are intolerable, as he said, when directed against any group, especially within a university.”

“We applaud our president’s condemnation of anti-Semitism in all its many forms,” they continued. “We also support his principled opposition to the rhetoric and activism of the BDS movement, which singles out and applies a double standard to Israel and often manifests itself as an attack on Jewish identity.”

In a March 6 statement, Bollinger called the BDS movement “controversial,” and that it’s “a process of mentality that goes from hard-fought debates about very real and vital issues to hostility and even hatred toward all members of groups of people simply by virtue of a religious, racial, national or ethnic relationship. This must not happen.”

The president also said “it’s wrong” for Jews to be targeted by anti-Semitism.

“As faculty across all ranks who research and teach on the Columbia campus, we are committed to fostering a learning community that respects free inquiry, intellectual engagement, and open exchange,” stated the letter signatories. “We believe that our [u]niversity thrives on debate and dissent over contentious local, national, and global issues and challenges.”

‘A long history of pro-BDS activity’

Pro-Israel groups applauded the faculty signatures.

“It is important and unprecedented that pro-Israel professors are voicing their opinions, and it only shows how far the anti-Israel groups at Columbia went, to make it unbearable even for faculty,” Ofir Dayan, president of the Columbia branch of Students Supporting Israel, told JNS. “We also thank president Bollinger for his strong statement and hope it will be followed by actions designed to restore the Jewish community’s faith in Columbia, and to make Jewish and pro-Israel students feel safer on their campus.

“It is very encouraging to see faculty joining students who are fighting back against the upcoming BDS referendum,” StandWithUs co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein told JNS. “Clearly, President Bollinger understands the dangerous bigotry contained within BDS campaigns.”

CAMERA’s Hali Haber told JNS “it’s very heartening to see academics standing up against the BDS campaign at Columbia. The students we help need the support of faculty—too many of whom turn a blind moral eye to the anti-Semitic movement that is BDS. Some even promote anti-Zionism in the classroom.”

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East executive director Asaf Romirowsky emailed JNS that while it was “encouraging” that Bollinger condemned anti-Semitism on Columbia’s campus, “it is hardly enough.”

“Columbia has a long history of pro-BDS activity going back to the days of the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, where he taught from 1963 to 2003,” explained Romirowsky. “Said was a leading figure in the creation of the ruling intellectual paradigm in academic area studies (especially Middle East studies), which is called postcolonial theory.

“In that context, Said equated academics who support American foreign policy with the 19th-century European intellectuals who allegedly propped up racist colonial empires. A core premise of postcolonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power.”

AEN executive director Miriam Elman told JNS, “within 72 hours of being released, the open letter has circulated widely and now has over 70 signatories. That’s a significant number if you consider the fact that faculty are being asked to consider this while understandably focused on other pressing matters, like a pandemic and the virtual shut down of the campus. What’s significant about the current list, which will soon be made public, is the number of senior faculty who have signed on, including endowed chairs, former administrators and full professors.”

She also pointed out that faculty from different disciplines have signed on as well: “It’s not the case that only STEM faculty at Columbia oppose BDS. Faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences do, too.”

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