Lost Israelis wander onto Columbia campus

I can understand why the besieged chiefs at Columbia University would want a photo op with the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, and the former Israeli consul-general in New York, Alon Pinkas. President Lee Bollinger, Dean Lisa Anderson, and Middle East Institute director Rashid Khalidi want to put out the fire around Middle Eastern studies at Columbia, but it keeps getting bigger. The flames singed their gowns last week, after the New York Times joined New York magazine in making this a big story.

Bir Zeit-on-Hudson desperately needs a makeover. So they’ve concocted a conference on the Middle East peace process, to be convened on Thursday at the symbolic heart of the campus, the Low Library Rotunda, and in the presence of Bollinger. You know this is a hasty job, because the two keynote speakers haven’t been announced as of this writing. But the published program already includes Ayalon and Pinkas, and you can bet that the university photographer will be clicking away as Bollinger, Anderson, and Khalidi sidle up to them during the lunch and the reception, all smiles.

The decision by Ayalon and Pinkas to attend this event is misguided, and is more evidence of the famous ineptitude of Israeli diplomacy when it comes to campus matters. The day will come when it makes sense to engage Columbia, but it’s way down the pike, and Bollinger should have to jump through a hundred more hoops before an Israeli ambassador crosses 116th Street. He hasn’t even started. His much-touted ad hoc committee is a bitter joke (Nat Hentoff will be taking it apart shortly in the Village Voice), and Khalidi is saying truculent and offensive things to the media. Ayalon and Pinkas, by wandering onto campus, will undermine those courageous students who’ve finally put the university on the spot.

Pinkas is a free agent now, he answers only to himself, so there’s nothing to be done about him. But Ayalon represents the State of Israel. I urge him to reconsider his appearance. I and many others will support him if he skips the event because there’s too much slippery ice on College Walk.