Realities and Roots of Pro-Israeli Harassment at Columbia University

From the archive (legacy material)

Mark Roberts and M. Junaid Alam | Znet Magazine | 16 April 2005

Introduction by M. Junaid Alam

Readers who have been following the attacks on Arab professors at Columbia University may have read my recent investigative article on the subject. The piece elicited many positive responses, including from Columbia staff and students. One such respondent was a recent European graduate who shared some startling revelations about the university’s real atmosphere. Relating his experience below, and using the pseudonym “Mark Roberts” to avoid the kind of vicious attacks Zionist groups are notorious for, he describes how Zionist students have attacked Muslims inside and outside the classroom, and exposes the heavily pro-Israel nature of Columbia Law School. He then explains in detail how this comprises merely one part of a broader campaign of attacks on intellectual freedom and Palestinian rights on campuses across the country. In fact, the broad outlines of his account have been confirmed by Columbia’s Ad Hoc Grievenace Committee. Tasked with investigating the claims of anti-Semitism in the department, the panel found the claims untrue – but noted several instances of harassment in the University mounted by Zionist students themselves.

Before studying at Columbia University, I hadn’t thought much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Coming from Europe, I had no specific links to the area. But after finishing my undergraduate degree in Europe and enrolling at Columbia as a graduate student, I was struck by how fanatically pro-Israel Columbia was.
After being at Columbia for a while it occurred to me that international organisations and the UN, on the one hand and Columbia and New York, on the other, functioned in parallel universes. At international fora and assemblies, which I followed for my studies, Israeli repression was condemned, and countless resolutions requesting Israel to abide by international law were blocked by the US. At Columbia, arguments were concocted to defend Israel. I have been to many universities in many different countries and I have to say that, by far, I have never attended a more closed-minded campus than Columbia. And I am not saying this merely on account of the density of Israeli army T-shirts that can be regularly observed there.
By fall 2000 at the beginning of the second intifada, fanatical supporters of Israel sought to violently repress anybody defending the Palestinians. Students belonging to the Middle Eastern group at the Law School were practically spat upon, their tables overturned – occurrences that in Europe would be inconceivable. On the other hand, maybe due to international condemnation of Israeli policies, a debate was finally opening up on campus. Because they no longer dominate one hundred percent of public discussion, fanatical supporters of Israel on campus now claim that their voices are “stifled” and that they are “unwelcome” and “silenced.”
Consider these recent incidents, which I personally witnessed. When Palestinian students on the main campus distributed flyers by spring 2002 to commemorate the 1948 “nekhba” (disaster), a crowd of Hillel fanatics approached them shouting “terrorists.” Had they said that to me or to any other person and had I been in the Palestinian students’ shoes, it would have ended up in a fistfight. But it was the Palestinian students and not the Hillel provocateurs who showed extreme restraint.
When Dr Mustafa Barghouti (who just finished second in the recent Palestinian elections) came to Columbia to give a talk in November 2003, two Hillel fanatics began to harass him during the Q&A session, heaping ridicule on his presentation as “this wonderful display of propaganda” and charging that “you Palestinians feel like victims, but how about all the weapons you get from Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah?” They then demonized Arabs in the rudest form that I have ever seen. “Thank you for the compliment about my propaganda,” Barghouti replied, “but actually we are still learning about this – from you know who.”
When Barghouti mentioned the 4,000 Palestinians killed, one of the Hillel fanatics laughed. A lady stood up and very angrily told them at least not to show their scorn for the victims publicly. When they continued to laugh, a professor told them to shut up. I wonder if that is what is meant by “silencing students who offer opposing views” – that is, rightly telling them to show a little bit of respect towards the keynote speaker and victims of the conflict, just as Israelis expect respect to be shown for their 1,000 dead since 2000. No such vulgarity was on display every time Benjamin Netanyahu came to the Business School to give a talk during the previous years.
It also bears comparing the “silencing” to what the late Professor Said had to deal with at Columbia. His life was constantly threatened, so much so that he was put under police surveillance. But this silencing wasn’t meant to stifle discussion, didn’t lead to any public investigation and wasn’t a cause of concern by New York politicians.
Then there’s the “stifling” of dissenting voices by fanatical Zionist professors at the Law School. Some of them seem to spend all of their waking hours concocting legal alibis in defense of Mother Israel, much like Communist Party hacks did for Mother Russia in the 1930s. For example, at the height of the Israeli incursions of 2002, Professor George Fletcher put forth the long discredited notion that UN Resolution 242 “did not compel Israel to leave all territories.” This masterful piece was published in the New York Times as some kind of intellectual breakthrough. Never mind that 242 emphasizes “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Other law school professors are avid proponents of Israel exceptionalism – that is, human rights protections like the prohibition on torture must be afforded to everyone except victims of Israeli policy.
And, while it is perfectly legitimate to write a paper on the injustices committed against the Palestinian population for a specific class on Human Rights (at the student’s risk with respect to the grade), those wishing to conduct more thorough research on the topic after the J.D. degree, for which the assistance of a professor is necessary, have been told that “while the subject may be worth-while, there is no current interest among the faculty.”
After September 11, fanatical Zionists began enrolling in Middle East classes at Columbia. Those dealing with Iran have been a favourite. I vividly remember one of these classes where the presentation of a pro-Israel student supposedly on Iran turned into a defense of Israel and an attack on Palestinians. In fact, Iran was not even mentioned once in the presentation. In Europe this could not have happened. The professor would have politely told the student that Israel was not the topic of the class. But not at Columbia, where terrified professors allow these poor “silenced” and “stifled” students go on interminably (and boringly) about Mother Israel.
In this same class during another session the (foreign-born) professor’s uncontroversial, at any rate in the real world, assertion that “Palestinians are oppressed” was met by the fanatics’ outrage. The professor, no doubt fearing reprisals, did not dwell on the issue and barely defended himself while the “silenced” students angrily protested. That European students came to the professor’s rescue and initiated a debate after class would seem to suggest that it is not Israel’s supporters students but its critics who are “silenced” and “stifled..” The European students were then accused by their pro-Israeli counterparts of being – surprise, surprise – “anti-Semites.”
Indeed, one wonders why these fanatics feel it necessary to defend Israel in class. Isn’t such defense redundant when these same “silenced” students offer their partisan views in the school’s newspaper on a weekly basis? And, truly the anti-Semitic oppression weighs heavily at the Law School, where only a handful of Arab and Muslim students gain admission while more than half of the accepted candidates in the S.J.D program every single year are Israelis, a country of 6 million people in a world with 6 billion inhabitants. It might also be mentioned that the few Arab and Muslim students often contemplate leaving or long for the last term there because of the fanaticism of those “silenced” and stifled” apologists for Israel.
The truth is that Columbia has been a refuge for Zealots for Zion. It is precisely when the ideological walls protecting this haven began to crumble that they started shouting about “silenced” and “stifled” voices and anti-Semitism. One doesn’t hear this nonsense on European campuses, because the zealots know the battle has been lost there: the truth is out about what Israel has done to the Palestinians. But here in the U.S. the hope is that by whipping up enough hysteria they can still win here. If they do, it won’t be because what they’re saying is true but because the rest of us were, yet again, “silenced” and “stifled.”
It is precisely when their area of ideological “safety” was being eroded by more students coming to terms with reality that these pro-Israeli students (and those outside front groups behind them) started running out of arguments, felt increasingly cornered and had to turn to the ultimate argument: “stifling of voices”, and invariably, “anti-Semitism”.
The ADL has contributed decisively to this travesty. That the ADL intervened in the matter and solicited “punishment” against professors offering different views not in accordance Zionist mythology suggests that these students were not that “silenced” or “discriminated”. The production of a video by the Boston-based pro-Israel group, the David Project, shows that these students have decided to take recourse to outside sources to vent their frustrations. These outside sources possess considerable resources in their campaign to smear Columbia University.
The attack on professors who criticise Israel and its policies also comes at a time when even the Israeli government has realized that the public relations battle has been lost. The Israeli government has thus repeatedly denounced the “inability of pro-Israel students to respond to the challenges on American campuses” as a reason behind the current failure. That they do not refer to campuses in Europe stems from the belief that the situation is irreversible in other locations. And it is with this understanding that several Israeli Ministries have been involved in an active campaign to “promote pro-Israel activism on American campuses.”
The Israeli Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, under the guidance of Natan Sharansky has been an instrumental player. Mr. Sharansky offered a tough critique of the “dismal state of Jewish campus activism in the United States” in the Forward magazine(1) and decided to take the matter into his own hands. The Ministry celebrated “back to campus advocacy weekends” for foreign students enrolled in summer courses at Israeli universities, where participants from institutions all over Israel were happily recruited for a financially sponsored weekend near the beach. The students were welcome with the following statements: “lately pro-Palestinian students at U.S campuses have been very successful and some of you have not been active enough and could not confront them probably because you did have the right arguments. This weekend is designed to give you the tools to fight”. And then students had to sign up for conferences where those tools were provided and discussed, and CD, CD-Roms and DVDs were distributed with statements like “settlements are not illegal under international law” or “Jerusalem is the undivided capital of the state of Israel” or “why do we have a claim to the whole land” as just some illustrative examples. Students were also told to confront “anti-Israeli” professors by all means.
That Mr Sharansky, the erstwhile defender of Human Rights in the Soviet Union now turned into Bush’s guru, has become, in Uri Avnery’s words, “an uncompromising activist against the human (and any other) rights of the Palestinians in the occupied territories” is most intriguing.(2) Mr Sharansky, from human rights defender to extreme right figure, “systematically enlarged the settlements on expropriated Arab land in the West Bank”(3) as Israeli Housing Minister and now belongs to the group of Likud rebels that opposes the disengagement plan in Gaza, meaning that he is a partisan of the Greater Israel idea against any consideration for a negotiated settlement of the problem – or international law for that matter. Mr Sharansky himself abandoned the coalition his party of former immigrants of the Soviet Union formed with Barak’s Labor Party for offering “too many concessions” to the Palestinians on the issue of Jerusalem.
Countless organizations and internet sites have been created to support Israel’s cause on U.S campuses and media, and still, Israel’s image does not improve. That must be the real cause of concern for those who claim to have been “silenced” and that is why they are resorting to outside guidance.(4) Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, and author of “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict” maintained as early as June 2003 that “the prevalence of outspoken anti-Israeli professors remains the most insidious danger to Israel’s standing on the campus.”(5)
Ronald S. Lauder, president of the Jewish National Fund, and Jay Schottenstein, a board member of Media Watch International, have argued that they found “Jewish students to be demoralized, intimidated and, worst of all, apathetic about their homeland (sic)”, and decided to create the “Caravan for Democracy program” in 2002. That not all Jewish students identify with Israel’s policies is unimportant, apparently. The existence of groups like “Jews Against the Occupation”, “Jews for Peace and Palestine and Israel” presumably does not matter for these ideologues.
Mr Lauder and Mr Schottenstein pointed out in an article that appeared in the November 2003 edition of Forward magazine that “Jewish students are confronting unprecedented anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic aggression (sic) at their schools.”(6) Affirming that “in this age of information, when our enemies (sic) have remarkably managed to loose their misleading slanders upon every university (sic)”, they conclude that the solutions are twofold. The first response to the “current college crisis” should be to “bring top pro-Israel speakers to campuses from coast to coast”. That would not constitute propaganda, I assume. But secondly, and more important, “effective dialogue (sic) with the Middle East studies faculties which are known for their anti-Israel orientations” must be promoted. By “effective dialogue” it is understood to “confront professors and departments…by those with the proper ability to respond”, to “reshape the rhetorical landscape in these faculties…and biases and unbalanced curriculums (sic)” and to protest and apply “pressure…to change them (referring to curriculums and hostile professors)”.
Mr Lauder and Mr Schottenstein also complain that “one university which would have never been perceived as anti-Israel held a university authorized seminar on ‘Why anti-Zionism is not antisemitism´”. So apparently, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are exact equivalents. All those attacking any measure carried out by Israel and defending the legitimate rights of the Palestinians emboldened in countless international resolutions are not driven by any concern for justice, they are all “anti-semites” – and that includes the Jewish groups mentioned previously among many others. It is further suggested that “Jewish students and their professors must be taught to effectively utilize their campus and local media to explain Israel’s counter-arguments”.
As we can see, the smear campaign against Columbia professors who dare to criticize Mother Israel in the midst of a pro-Zionism campus is nothing new and is part of a well-orchestrated campaign stemming from a feeling of impotence. And since the students are not going to change, the target of pro-Israel students and all those considerable outside organizations providing support to them should be the professors who offer dissenting views.
But intimidating measures will not work. Dean Bollinger should be criticised for succumbing to the pressure of a group well-known for carrying out a witch hunt against anybody daring to criticise Mother Israel in all circles and walks of life. Cancelling a class – as one professor has done or has been forced to do after the pressure of events – suggests that academic freedom and freedom of thought are at danger. Furthermore it constitutes a dangerous precedent. What if any other group did not like the contents of a class in which they were criticised ? Should that class be cancelled ? What if Turkish groups engaged in a campaign to protest against classes that mention the Armenian genocide ? Or what if Armenian groups pressured Mr Bollinger to protest lectures where the existence of an Armenian holocaust is put into question? Would he also cancel that class and punish the professors that teach it?
What if a professor claims that the US sanctions on Iraq that killed nearly a million people were genocidal, should he or she be reprimanded? What if Palestinian students demanded that all classes where they are criticised and vilified (and there are many) be cancelled? Of course they do not possess similar backing and financial means from obscure outside sources so they could not produce a video.
Muslims and Islam, especially after September 11th, have been vilified, insulted and defamed in the press and also in academic circles, including Columbia. For example at the Law School right after the attacks of September the 11th pro-Israel Law Students tried to present a movie by Steve Emerson, who has been notorious for waging jihad on the religion of Islam. Emerson, for example, was quick to blame Islamists for the Oklahoma bombings of 1995 and his thesis and opinions have been widely discredited. Had it not been for the protests of a few Muslim students at the Law School the video would have been projected in the failed attempt to identify Palestinian resistance to occupation with radical Islamic Al-Qaida terrorism which has been a long desired goal of the right-wing Israeli government and its defenders (including those at Columbia). September the 11th offered a great opportunity to discredit and delegitimize the Palestinian discontent against the occupation and pro-Israeli groups tried to take advantage, even if they failed miserably.
That Columbia succumbed to outside pressure from a well-organized financially powerful pro-Israel group indicates that the freedom of academic institutions in the US is subordinated to financial and economic interests. The resources groups like the ADL possess in order to carry out their witch hunts are enormous. The ADL should serve to protect the memory of the Holocaust and real anti-Semitism. Instead, the ADL is one of the organisations that actively promotes the conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-semitism, which are completely different issues.
The professors being criticized are, in fact, just the closest thing Columbia has to fostering a reasonable debate about the Middle East on campus and in New York as a whole. That is why they are being penalized. They are also reprimanded for expressing what the majority of the world already thinks. At a time when the gap between what the rest of the world thinks and what the U.S thinks has never been wider, especially on the Middle East, debate should be encouraged, not threatened.
Is the ADL going to persecute Jews and non-Jews alike who criticise the fact that the creation of the state of Israel was achieved through impure methods? Why would 3.5 million Palestinians be rotting in refugee camps in other countries, not being allowed to return to the places where they had some land, a house, an apartment, keys on hand? Many Israeli historians have taken the time to document the facts of Zionist ethnic cleansing. The hysterical response is that this represents questioning the “existence” of Israel and its right of exist, as if Israel is some kind of moribund patient in bed and not a powerful country. We should remember this is a country awash in billions of dollars form financial and military aid from the US, a sophisticated army, and methods of attack so powerful it led independent forces at the UN (not acting under US pressure as the rest of their peers) to suggest imposing an arms embargo on that country in May 2004.
The witch hunt has also recently extended to Hebrew University, so Jews who dare to criticize Israel policies or history should be aware that they are not “immune” either as the ADL themselves have explicitly stated with that very same language.(7)
Will the ADL succeed in eliminating intellectual discourse and research on those topics everywhere? What will it do with European universities which decided to eliminate or drastically reduce academic cooperation with Israeli institutions in 2002 because of that country’s continuous violations of human rights? Is smearing them what the ADL was created for? Part of what characterizes totalitarianism and fascism is the elimination of dissent and the suppression of independent thought. In that respect what the ADL is doing falls clearly within the parameters of fascism. It could also be called intellectual terrorism. Taking a few quotes out of context in order to smear a particular professor or a group of professors that do not agree with your policies constitutes a method that only inquisition-type tribunals would apply.
It could also very easily be used the other way around. We could take a few quotes from pro-Israeli or Zionist professors which as mentioned in some institutions comprise the majority of the faculty, and I am convinced that the results would be more “spectacular”. Would these groups apply any pressure when professors on campus completely disregard or even show scorn for the Palestinians’ right to existence ? Or for their right of safety? What will they do when pro-Israel students demonstrate rudeness and contempt, as they do quite often?
Facts have to be shown precisely in class and taking recourse to outside forces is cowardly. But it is here when the pro-Israeli lobby and its students have failed. Because the reality is that the world and especially educated people at universities have started to come to terms with the Palestinians’ suffering. Most Europeans, maybe because of the geographic proximity, or maybe because of the lesser influence of pro-Israeli groups on campus, or because of a far more balanced media(8), understood this long ago. I guess that I forgot that we Europeans are all anti-Semites and that includes also even those with Jewish roots.
What has happened, quite simply, is that Israeli supporters have run out of arguments to justify the military occupation and all it entails. They are pushed into a corner out of which there is no exit. It remains extremely difficult to justify dispossession and injustice in the inter-connected world we live in nowadays. What is especially troubling for pro-Israeli supporters is that not only Arab or Middle Eastern students but also European students and increasingly American students have started to complain against Israeli violations on campus.
Caught off-guard ABD left without arguments, Zionist students have resorted to powerful outside groups and lobbies to come to the rescue with cries of “bias.” But this ploy is merely a desperate reaction aimed at justifying the unjustifiable, and it will not succeed.
“Mark Roberts” is the pseudonym for a recent European graduate of Columbia University.

  1. “Tour of U.S. Schools Reveals Why Zionism is Flunking on Campus”, article appeared on Forward magazine ( ), October 24th 2003.
  2. “Natan Sharansky: Minister of Ignorance, Bush’s Guru”, by Uri Avnery, article appeared on , March 10th 2005.
  3. Id.
  4. Let us just name a few. The Israel on Campus Coalition, a “partnership of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Hillel” is committed to “promoting Israel education and advocacy on campus (sic) in cooperation with a network of national organizations”. The “Israel on Campus Coalition” and “Israel Campus Beat” members include groups like the “American-Israel Cooperative Enterprise (AICE)”, the notorious AIPAC, the ADL, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), Hillel, the Israel Program Center, the Israel University Consortium, MediaWatch International, or the USD/Hagshama of the World Zionist Organization.
  5. On Israel Campus Beat’s website.
  6. “Back to School for Israel Advocacy”, by Ronald S. Lauder and Jay Schottenstein, article appeared on Forward magazine (, November 14th 2003
  7. “When anti-Israeli sentiment comes from within”, by Yair Sheleg, Haaretz newspaper, online edition, March 10th, 2005.
  8. Besides the ADL let us not forget the Inquisition represented by groups and websites like ,, or countless others.