Thursday, March 5, 2009

Columbia University:

"Panelists Push Divestment, Support Gaza"

"Panelists Push Divestment, Support Gaza"

March 5, 2009

COLUMBIA SPECTATOR (Columbia University; New York City)

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A “teach-in” organized by the Columbia Palestine Forum Wednesday night drew a crowd of supporters, dissenters, and interested students and faculty that filled the Hamilton classroom and spilled into the hall.

It came to light during the meeting that University president Lee Bollinger has agreed to meet with the faculty to discuss the issue.

The group, whose recent formation began with a demand for University divestment from companies profiting from the Gaza conflict and for protection of Palestinian academic freedom, hosted a discussion with a panel composed of four University faculty members, two speakers from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, and a Barnard student representing the CPF.

Supporters and critics of the Forum sounded off in a question-and -answer follow-up that mostly took the form of commentary on the recent and historic Gaza conflicts.

The faculty members speaking on the potential benefits of Israeli divestment were Bruce Robbins, Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities, Gil Anidjar, a professor of religion who also teaches in MEALAC, Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and anthropology professor, and Brinkley Messick, anthropology professor.

Faculty first clarified the terms of CPF’s demands. Robbins said that “students don’t have academic freedom, professors do” and that the denial of education—a basic human right—rather than academic freedom—associated with tenure—is the heart of the matter. He added that because academic freedom is not a universal or democratic right, the conflict surrounding Gaza becomes more divisive when this terminology is used.

During the panel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was continuously compared to the South African and Liberian apartheids, though this analogy was met with varying reactions from the audience.

It was noted that Columbia divested from South African companies during its apartheid. In this context, Anidjar advocated boycotting as an appropriate “exercise of freedom” and affirmed the group’s demands as “change we can believe in.”

Eric Heitner, CC ’05, spoke on behalf of the BDS and presented figures indicating how tax dollars and other expenses contribute to the profit of companies supporting what he considers the Israeli occupation of Gaza.

Messick expressed that an impending meeting between Bollinger and the faculty about the letter issued listing the CPF’s demands is an “historical moment” for the University.

A lively question-and-answer session allowed attendees to express their reactions to the panelists’ assertions. Critics condemned the lack of a more realistic approach to solving the issue and cited the need to incorporate Hamas into the discussion.

Some students felt the event was successful. “Everyone was calm and it was good to have perspectives from professors and activists and commentary from the community,” said Edna Bonhomme, MSPH ’10, and a member of the CPF. “A dialogue about the Israel occupation is central and people should be able to put their opinion on the table and figure out what could be the best option."