NEW YORK–Students at Columbia University are taking up the fight for Palestinian rights and have begun organizing around a set of demands for the university’s divestment from Israel.
The students’ demands, released on March 2, include full disclosure of Columbia’s budget and endowment, a public forum on divestment, partnership with a Palestinian university, scholarships for Palestinian students and statements of support for Palestinian academic freedom and self-determination.
Students plan to host a forum on March 4, on “Columbia University’s Relationship to Palestinian rights.” A rally in front of the administration building is planned for the next day.
The faculty letter, now signed by 132 professors, points out that Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, has frequently “expressed [his] views in public on questions of academic freedom in the Middle East. Yet [he has] remained silent on the actions by Israel that deny that freedom to Palestinians.” In 2005, Bollinger helped organize a group of university presidents across the U.S. to denounce a British professors’ union that had voted to consider a boycott of Israel.
Bollinger came to Columbia with a reputation as a liberal, after his defense of affirmative action as the president of the University of Michigan. But he has alienated progressives on campus over a number of issues. He angered many faculty members by launching an investigation of Middle Eastern Studies professors who were attacked in a film by an off-campus group, the David Project, for their pro-Palestinian views.
A final straw for some came when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited campus in 2007, and Bollinger–who has treated visiting U.S.-friendly dictators like Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf with kid gloves–denounced the Iranian leader with an introduction that repeated discredited neoconservative talking points blaming Iran for the U.S. failure in Iraq.
Soon afterward, more than a hundred professors signed a letter criticizing Bollinger for refusing to defend the independence of Columbia’s tenure process, failing to consult with faculty and having effectively “allied the university with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq.” Many of the same professors have signed on to the more recent letter around Gaza.
In the past, Columbia has hosted pro-Palestine scholars like Edward Said, Joseph Massad and Rashid Khalidi as well as pro-Israel forces. In recent years, pro-Palestine activists on campus have often been on the defensive–in the face of the David Project’s campaign and a more recent attempt to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El Haj–but that period may be ending.
According to Rahel Aima, a member of Students for a Democratic Society, “Recent events in Gaza have changed the campus climate…despite Israel’s attempt to keep its actions out of the sight of the media, the Internet has brought war crimes in Gaza into homes in the U.S., as television did for Vietnam.”
If students, faculty and workers who want justice in the Middle East can take advantage of this new atmosphere, substantive change may be coming.