The Trump administration may have closed the PLO’s Mission in Washington, D.C., but its Morningside Heights Mission is open for business. I refer to Columbia University’s Center for Palestine Studies (CPS), an Ivy League clearinghouse for PLO propaganda and the demonization of Israel. Call it the PLO’s American academic wing.
When the CPS opened more than eight years ago, founding co-director Rashid Khalidi promised that it would avoid doing “anything that’s directly related to any political activism.” This is laughable. What Khalidi meant is that the CSP would not participate in anti-Israel activism, but this is a lie. The faculty members who comprise the center’s experts are rivaled only by the faculty of Birzeit University for their anti-Israel advocacy.
It might, in fact, take a Center for Palestine Studies to examine thoroughly the history of Palestinian organizations devoted to political violence. But instead, Columbia has assembled the anti-Israel all-stars of academia, such as Joseph Massad, who has called for “the continuing resistance of Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories to all the civil and military institutions that uphold Jewish supremacy.” Another member of CPS is Hamid Dabashi, who wrote that Israel is a “key actor” in “every dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious act happening in the world.”
In addition to being a professor at Columbia’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the CPS, Khalidi also happens to be a former member of the PLO, as Martin Kramer has shown. Not since Columbia hired former Weather Underground member Kathy Boudin at its School of Social Work has it given a platform to “reformed” terrorists. At least Boudin expressed remorse, even if it was insincere. Not so Khalidi, a BDS advocate whose views have remained consistent since his PLO days, though they are now masked in the academic patois of post-colonialism.
Brinkley Messick, the CPS’s other founding co-director, hyped it as the first academic center devoted to the study of Palestinian Arabs. “Very simply,” he gushed, “there’s never been a dedicated space … for this kind of research.” He was partly right. Columbia already had one called the Middle East Institute, which has an anti-Israel bent, but the CPS brought together faculty from beyond Middle East Studies, all dedicated to delegitimizing Israel and whitewashing Palestinian violence. Several of them have even been immortalized in The David Project’s documentary Columbia Unbecoming (2004) where their purported reluctance to be political is exposed as fraudulent.
The CPS has spent the past eight years spreading the three key elements of PLO propaganda: minimizing terrorism, delegitimizing Israel, and altering history. Yasser Arafat was the pioneer of minimizing terrorism. In 1974 he addressed the UN General Assembly and said: “whoever stands by a just cause and fights for the freedom and liberation of his land from the invaders, the settlers and the colonialists, cannot possibly be called terrorist.” Delegitimizing Israel has always been a PLO priority; the academic version is called BDS. And finessing history by portraying the Arabs who refused a state in 1948 as victims of European Jewish aggression is the third component of the propaganda strategy.
By becoming its own echo chamber at Columbia, the CPS attracts students who revile Israel and equips them with the latest fashionable post-modern jargon to dress up their hatred. Those students who support Israel generally know enough to stay away. The rare few Zionists who genuinely seek dialogue and debate are feared at the CPS. Rather than engage in a civil debate, the CPS isolates and excludes them, fostering an atmosphere of harassment, especially against members of Students Supporting Israel(SSI), an organization founded to oppose campus BDS activists.
Columbia SSI chapter president Dalia Zahger, and vice president Ofir Dayan, both IDF veterans, shared their experiences as targets of harassment, some by members of Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a joint venture of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Dayan said she has been approached by anti-Israel students screaming at her “Stop killing Muslim babies,” “You’re a murderer” and “Zionist get out!” Zahger reports she has been compared to a Hamas terrorist and told that her devotion to Israel is tantamount to “spitting on [her] ancestors’ ashes in Europe.”
On April 9, 2018, they attended an event titled “On the Palestine Exception (with some thoughts concerning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and Zionism in the academy).” The speakers were three anti-Israel ideologues: Massad; Jasbir Puar, professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University; and Gil Hochberg, who is professor of comparative literature at UCLA and also the Ransford professor of Hebrew and comparative literature, and Middle East studies at Columbia.
When members of CUAD saw Dayan looking at her phone, they accused her of recording the event and called campus safety officers, who demanded her phone. When Dayan refused to hand it over, she, Zagher, and the other SSI members in attendance were escorted from the event. So much for academic freedom. When they registered complaints with the University, Zagher was asked why she attends such events when she knows they will be “problematic and tense.” The executive vice president for student life told Dayan that the university “has no authority to take measures against SJP unless they become violent.” She was advised to “put campus safety on speed dial.”
There is no doubt that anti-Israel political activism in the classroom leads to anti-Semitism outside it. Statistics show that anti-Semitic incidents are far more likely to occur at universities where BDS events are hosted. Clearly, the CPS fosters an atmosphere that encourages anti-Semitism.
If Columbia University abides by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism (as adopted by both the State Department and Department of Education), it will have to re-examine both the work and influence of the Center for Palestine Studies, where the professors for the liberation of “Palestine” are trying to turn the Upper West Side into the Upper West Bank.
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow.