On Friday, in a surprising, yet welcome development, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger issued a thoughtful statement condemning what he called “the risk of a rising anti-Semitism on our campus,” voicing his opposition to a student vote slated to take place between April 4 and April 8 to divest from Israel.
This is remarkable because Columbia, like so many universities across the country, has hitherto demonstrated a particular tone-deafness to the pervasive feelings of anti-Semitism so many students have expressed on college campuses.
The question is: What changed his mind about the pervasive atmosphere of anti-Semitism at Columbia that so many Jewish and pro-Israel students have been complaining about for years?
Bollinger further stated that he believes “this imposes a standard on this political issue that is not right when one considers similar issues in other countries and other contexts around the world. To my mind, that is analytically flawed, and violates my sense of fairness and proportionality.”
He went on to say, “No single issue is an island. When a swastika appears on campus, it is not just an isolated event. When there is a rising anti-Semitism in this country and around the world, even a single instance of it in any context is more alarming than it might otherwise be.”
He adds, “I can say that Jewish students are feeling this, and it’s wrong. I feel it, and it’s wrong. We all feel it, and it’s wrong.”
There is a well-entrenched history of Columbia’s leniency towards anti-Semitic views.
In 2005, when I had testified before the United States Commission on Civil Rights on anti-Semitism at American universities, I had included some rather heartbreaking interviews from several Columbia students whose professors had singled them out for particular hostility and abuse because of their defense of Israel. One student had expressed her views to Professor George Saliba, after the class viewed a one-sided anti-Israel view, and he said, “You have no voice in this debate. You are not a true Semite. Your eyes are green.” Another student, when asked by his professor if he had served in the Israeli army, and answered the affirmative was met with the response from Professor Joseph Mossad, “How many Palestinian children have you killed?”
When students complained to administrators, their response was usually one such as, “Don’t you come from a very parochial background?”
This toxic atmosphere of anti-Semitism still pervades today. In November, 2019, for example, Professor Joseph Mossad said that “the establishment of the Israeli settler colony resulted in the usurpation of Palestine.” In that same speech, he also glorified the terrorist group Hamas.
In 2007, Columbia invited former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who famously said, “Israel should be wiped off the map,” and that “the Holocaust is a myth.”
Jewish and pro-Israel students who have complained to the administration about this were again dismissed and told that “Columbia welcomes free speech and academic freedom.” Even more so, added the school, “What is at stake is the ability to learn about the world and know about people, even dictators, even people who are highly repressive and highly dangerous, as Dr. Ahmadinejad.”
Just this past September, Columbia welcomed the president of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, who proudly describes himself as an “anti-Semite,” who has said that “Jews are hook-nosed,” and that “they rule the world by proxy.” He also refused to acknowledge the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust.
The event moderator, Professor Lien Hang-T. Nguyen of Columbia’s history department, gushed: “We have a lot of wisdom we can draw from you”
When some students complained about Mohamad’s anti-Semitism, they were once again told that this is “an issue of free speech” and of “academic freedom.”
One has to ask if Columbia would have welcomed such “free speech” and “academic freedom” if the speaker were a Ku Klux Klansman or neo-Nazi who spoke about wiping out a black population, or if a guest lecturer expressed such open hostility to any other minority.
What has changed in the few short months since Columbia welcomed this known anti-Semite to its campus is U.S. President Donald Trump’s Executive Order of Dec. 11, 2019, which gives Jewish students the same minority rights as any other group, such as blacks and Hispanics, under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Now, if universities are found guilty of creating a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students, federal funding can be withdrawn.
Exactly one week after the Executive Order was issued, Columbia University was the first university to be sued. The Lawfare Project filed the complaint, stating that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is used by faculty and student groups to legitimize discrimination against Jewish and Israeli students because of the later group’s race, religion and national identity.”
It is amazing how the threat of a lawsuit can cause one to readdress the value of free speech, when it creates a toxic, threatening atmosphere for one particular minority.
The problem remains that so much of the tenured faculty continues to imbue their students with a steady diet of hostility towards Jews and towards Israel. It will not be so easy to rid this ancient virus from the ivy-covered walls of this venerable institution.
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.