Columbia’s Israelis

On Friday, Amnon Rubinstein, the distinguished Israeli jurist and professor, published a column in the Israeli daily Maariv (in Hebrew), summarizing his stint as a visiting professor at Columbia University. A grim story it is: Ahmadinejad’s visit to campus stirred all the muck back up again.

Rubinstein discovered that the only truly active friends of Israel on campus were orthodox Jewish students. For him, a self-avowed secular humanist, it came as crushing disappointment that like-minded Israelis weren’t standing up. At the demonstration against Ahmadinejad, he could “count the Israelis on a hand that’s missing fingers.” At the faculty level, it was worse. He tells of being present in a meeting attended by two Israeli professors. One proposed the screening of the film Jenin, Jenin, a cinematic slander of Israel, and the other proposed inviting Israel-demonizing Norman Finkelstein to campus. Rubinstein doesn’t name the two, but the sad thing about Columbia is that their identities aren’t obvious. More than two Israeli professors there could have made these sorts of proposals.

That aside, it reminded me of some unfinished Columbia business. Avid readers of this blog will recall that Columbia president Lee Bollinger, back in 2005, tried to calm the raging waters by announcing the establishment of a chair of Israel studies. Four trustees quickly anted up $3 million. The university then appointed a search committee that included Palestinian agitprofs Rashid Khalidi and Lila Abu-Lughod. At the time, I wrote this:

The inclusion of Khalidi and Abu-Lughod on the search committee is perverse. Edward Said used to complain that the Palestinians needed “permission to narrate” their story. At Columbia, the situation is reversed: Israel can’t be narrated without the permission of the great Palestinian mandarins. They must be appeased, satisfied, propitiated.

So were they? The chair has been filled by Yinon Cohen, a former Tel Aviv University sociologist who works mostly on labor markets and migration. Cohen isn’t a hard-left post-Zionist, but he’s far enough left to have signed a May 2002 open letter by some Israeli faculty. At the time, Israel was wrapping up Operation Defensive Shield, its response to the wave of suicide bombings inside Israel that had killed Israelis in the hundreds. The letter’s signatories announced their “wish to express our appreciation and support for those of our students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories… [T]he present war is not being fought for our home but for the settlements beyond the green line and for the continued oppression of another people.”

I don’t think Khalidi and Abu-Lughod have much to worry about.

Update, February 28: The New York Sun has followed up this post, and collected some responses at Columbia. And Amnon Rubinstein has published an English version of his Maariv article, which discretely omits the most interesting bits about Columbia’s Israeli faculty. (He simply says they “added more fuel to the fire of hatred against Israel.”)

Update, February 29: Here is another letter (in Spanish) by Israeli academics and signed by Yinon Cohen, directed toward Palestinian students. There’s no indication of the date, but all the surrounding items are from late 2001. It begins thus: “We, faculty and students of Israeli universities, extend our arms in solidarity with your just cause, against repression of the popular uprising by the Israeli military forces…. Academic faculty in the occupied territories! We wish to cooperate with you in opposing the brutal policy of siege, closure and curfew of the IDF.”

And it’s Yinon Cohen who earlier this month brought fellow petition-signer Neve Gordon to Columbia. (Alan Dershowitz has called Gordon “one of the world’s most extreme anti-Israel academics.”) Gordon’s subject: “From Colonization to Separation: Exploring the Structure of Israel’s Occupation.” The lecture was co-sponsored by Khalidi’s Middle East Institute, and constituted a class in Cohen’s course on “Special Topics in Israeli Society.”