Daily Israel Report

´Columbia Unbecoming´ A Wake-Up Call For ´Jews of Silence´

Anti-Israel bias on campus brings to the forefront the greater issue of whether or not North American Jews will decide to stand up for their beliefs. So says Diaspora Affairs Minister Sharansky.
First Publish: 2/8/2005, 6:56 PM / Last Update: 2/7/2005, 9:45 PM

Minister Sharansky made the remarks while introducing a new documentary to an overflow crowd of English-speaking immigrants, including many Columbia/Barnard alumni and students, on Saturday night in Jerusalem.

The documentary, "Columbia Unbecoming," features interviews of Columbia students who allege that the University's Middle East Studies department, MEALAC, employs professors who use their position for political advocacy rather than to further the educational process.

Sharansky warned that US Jewry is in danger of becoming "Jews of silence."

"In America, Jews feel very comfortable," he said, "but there are islands of anti-Semitism - the American college campus." Sharansky said that under the guise of academic freedom, the same Holocaust-era sentiment that "to kill a Jew is somehow not as bad - and sometimes the only viable option for mankind" is making a comeback.

The new documentary seeks to bring the problem of anti-Israel bias on campuses to light via interviews of students at a New York City university. The students say they have experienced negative treatment at the hands of professors who object to their pro-Israel views.

Sharansky said that the problem lies not only with colleges' Middle East departments. He noted that the most Zionist speaker to be invited to most academic conferences on the Middle East was Meretz head and Geneva initiative initiator Yossi Beilin.

"90% of Jewish students are not willing to stand up for Israel," Sharansky said. He recalled a passionately pro-Israel Harvard business student who told him that she could not sign any pro-Israel statements due to her fear of it affecting her grades, recommendations and chances of landing a top job. "When I told this to American Jewish leaders, they told me they thought the figure was closer to 70% - but is that so much better?"

A transcript of the film can be read at http://www.columbiaunbecoming.com/script.htm.

The film is intermingled with quotes from the university's code of ethics and quotes from various MEALAC professors. For instance, Professor Joseph Massad is quoted as having claimed in a March 2002 lecture at Oxford University that the Jews "are not a nation. The Jewish state is a racist state that does not have a right to exist."

Students also compained that professors were blatantly using their platforms and positions to recruit pro-PLO activists. Aharon Horowitz told of one such event that happened during MEALAC Professor Anijar's course: "It was the day of the Palestinian sit-in. He did not cancel class, he had us all come to class. And he then proceeded to give a 50-minute speech about how there is an important text 'happening' on College Walk, and he thinks we should all go and read it. Essentially, he was telling us to go to the pro-Palestinian sit-in, and then he cancelled class. We said, 'Wait a second, you called us here in the first place, you did not send us an email saying not to come to class because I am going to the sit-in, because this is my personal feeling. Let us discuss what you're doing. Let us discuss the issue.' He said, 'no discussion,' and then he left. I felt that was totally inappropriate for a college environment."

Another student in the film, Lindsay Shreier, described the subtle intimidation tactics of the accused professors:
"[Following class] we discussed [his comments] inside the classroom and then George Saliba sort of drew me outside the classroom and told me to walk with him on his way out. And on our way out we actually stood on College Walk right outside for 45 minutes where I debated with him about the fact that the Jewish people have been in Israel for thousands of years. He said, 'You have no voice in this debate.' So I said, 'Of course, I'm allowed to express my opinion.' He came really close to me. He moved down his glasses, and looked right into my eyes and he said, 'See, you have green eyes.' He said, 'You're not a Semite.' He said, 'I'm a Semite. I have brown eyes. You have no claim to the land of Israel.' As if my ancestors were not there, as if I'm not really a Jew because I have green eyes.

"I was stunned, and never approached him after that. And that's exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to intimidate me and keep me quiet. And I was. I'm an alumna and now I'm sort of removed from the incident. I'm not afraid of Saliba anymore. And it's all about the intimidation factor. I finally feel comfortable to discuss it for the sake of future graduates who this might happen to. Let them know they're not alone and this happened to me and that they have to speak up."

Shreier's sentiment was echoed by other students throughout the film, and later in the evening two Columbia graduates who took part in making the film took questions from the audience.

The failure of many of Columbia's Jewish professors to protest the phenomenon was also discussed in the film, as well as later in the question-and-answer session. Hillel Rabbi Charles Sheer said that some faculty may be frightened to speak up "because it might affect their careers - and I have heard this and know about it in a few instances, [but] my sense is that that's unacceptable today. It's unacceptable because there are so many communities at universities where people do speak up." Sheer's sentiments were echoed by many in the audience, with one member calling such professors "cowards."

Sharansky summed up by saying, "The moment students become willing to go on the record, the moment open debate is restored on the campus - at that moment, we will win." To that end, the minister's office is funding a "Back to the Campus" initiative together with Yavneh Olami, which sponsored the screening. The program seeks to train students for campus activism while they are studying in Israel so that they will not join what Sharansky terms the "Jews of Silence" upon their return to the American campus.