(March 9, 2020 / JNS) Columbia University president Lee Bollinger came down hard on anti-Semitism last week ahead of an undergraduate student referendum next month calling on the university to divest from companies doing business in Israel.
“There is no question that this is a highly contentious issue, both the underlying issues of Israel and the Palestinians and the idea of divestment as a means of protest about Israel’s policies,” said Bollinger in a statement on March 6.
He expressed his opposition to the referendum, scheduled to be voted on April 4 to April 8, and stated two reasons for his objection to the measure.
“One is the longstanding understanding that the university should not change its investment policies on the basis of a political position unless there is a broad consensus within the institution that to do so is morally and ethically compelled,” he said. “This is a necessary though not sufficient condition. I do not believe that consensus exists with respect to this proposal.”
The other reason is that it “imposes a standard on this particular political issue that is not right when one considers similar issues in other countries and in other contexts around the world.”
“To my mind, that is unwise, analytically flawed, and violates my sense of fairness and proportionality. I well understand that some others whom I respect hold different views, but, if I am called upon to take a position, this is the one I have come to over the years.”
The BDS movement, which Bollinger called “controversial,” is “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.
Finally, Bollinger stated that it’s “preposterous” that the university is “an ‘anti-Semitic’ institution.”
“No Jewish student, faculty member or staff I know believes this to be the case; nor do I,” he said. “But the absurdity of the claim does not and should not stop me or us from speaking out against instances and episodes of anti-Semitism that do exist.”
Academic Engagement Network executive director and Columbia alum Miriam Elman told JNS, “Bollinger’s strong statement before Friday’s Senate Plenary is exactly what Jewish and Zionist students and their peers needed to hear.”
“President Bollinger not only rejected the student divestment referendum on the grounds that there’s no consensus for it. He also condemned it for setting an unfair double standard against Israel,” said Elman. “And he helpfully took the opportunity to place the referendum question within the larger context of BDS, noting that this movement often crosses the line from legitimate criticism of Israeli policy to ‘hostility and even hatred’ toward Jews.”
She added, “Following Bollinger’s strong statement on Friday, Jewish and Zionist students can now rest assured that the administration has not abandoned them. This will make all the difference as they gear up to defeat the divisive and virulently anti-Israel referendum which will appear on the spring student government ballot.”
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