Thursday, April 23, 2009

Columbia University:

Professors emphasize Israeli destruction of Palestinian academic freedom (students are blocked from school by troops).

"Faculty to convene on Palestinian academic freedom"

April 23, 2009

In the COLUMBIA SPECTATOR (Columbia University) at:

Members of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences will meet at noon today to discuss Columbia’s role concerning academic freedom and scholarly research in the West Bank and Gaza, and to once again call on University President Lee Bollinger to publicly take a stance on the issue.

The faculty-organized meeting, which will convene at the request of professors who petitioned to hold a special meeting on the issue—including MEALAC’s Gil Anidjar and anthropology’s Brinkley Messick, who circulated the information in a press release sent to Spectator—follows a letter signed by 134 faculty members and sent to Bollinger in February.

The letter asked Bollinger to express “support for the academic freedom of Palestinians” and publicly censure Israel’s actions during the January military conflict in Gaza as they relate to academia.

At today’s meeting, the Faculty will debate whether Bollinger should speak on behalf of the University as he has on past international matters. They will also offer a proposal for an advisory committee aimed to investigate ways in which Columbia can support Palestinian students and professors.

“We would like to have an open and informed and indeed vigorous debate on the role Columbia can play,” Anidjar, professor of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures and religion, wrote in an e-mail. Anidjar referred to Columbia’s “leadership position on the issue of academic freedom in the Middle East,” specifically in Israel and Iran, and urged the administration to balance its commitment to such causes across the region.

The Faculty of the Arts and Sciences gathers on a semi-annual basis to discuss issues important to the approximately 650 professors in 29 academic departments. But according to Katharina Volk, classics professor and chair of the Executive Committee for the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences, University bylaws enable faculty to conduct an “extraordinary meeting”—separate from the official schedule—should 25 faculty members sign a petition.

Today’s discussion is part of a larger dialogue on campus among students, professors, and administrators who voice a variety of opinions on how Columbia should react to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Although this meeting is organized solely by faculty, student groups have spent the past few months rallying and publicizing their stances on the January military actions in Gaza.

“I am pleased to see that the University is open to hearing from its students and its faculty on all issues. With that being said, I think that this is another extension of the ridiculous set of demands that has been going on for a few weeks, and I think the idea that we would divest from Israel is utterly ridiculous,” said Jacob Shapiro, GS/JTS ’10 and president of LionPAC, a pro-Israel student group that opposes divestment from Israel.

But others see this meeting as an opportunity to further work with the administration on achieving certain objectives. “It is extremely encouraging to us to know that this meeting is happening, especially as we continue to organize to pressure the administration to meet our demands in support of Palestinian rights,” said Akua Gyamerah, School of Public Health ’10, and a member of both the Barnard-Columbia International Socialist Organization and the Columbia Palestine Forum, a campaign launched in early March to garner support for Palestinian rights to education.

Whereas students have covered Israeli-Palestinian relations from a variety of angles, the faculty’s concerns deal specifically with education and scholarly research in the Palestinian territories. Professors emphasize that Israel has blocked Palestinian students and professors from pursuing Fulbright Scholarships abroad and from traveling to and from universities within Palestine.

While Bollinger issued a letter to the faculty in March, and told Spectator on Wednesday he has nothing further to add, the professors directing today’s meeting charge that he has given unequal airtime to the Israeli and Palestinian causes. In addition to resisting divestment from companies who conduct business in Israel in 2002, Bollinger has maintained links with Israel through the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Anidjar said. He added that this meeting could ultimately result in the creation of a similar institute intended to gather resources on Palestine and host Palestinian scholars.

“I have always welcomed principled discussions about academic freedom and, in my own scholarship, have regularly addressed issues of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom,” Bollinger wrote in the response letter. “In general, however, I do not speak out nor does the University take official positions on specific actions by governments in the many ongoing conflicts around the world that might in some way also threaten academic freedom.”

Administrators in the Arts and Sciences, who are overseeing the meeting, could be reached for comment by press time.