The president of Columbia University this week criticized Israel for expelling an American professor who endorses Palestinian terrorism. That’s the same Columbia University which has never apologized for expelling a student who protested the university’s friendly relationship with the Nazis in the 1930s.
The new controversy concerns Columbia law professor Katherine Franke. When Palestinians unleashed a wave of stabbing attacks on Israelis in October 2015—which Israel’s prime minister characterized as “Palestinian Islamic terrorism”—Prof. Franke responded with this tweet: “Palestinian resistance 2 Israeli policy isn’t ‘Islamic terrorism’ – it’s anti-colonial resistance.” Prof. Franke is also one of the leaders of the Academic Advisory Council of the organization “Jewish Voice for Peace,” which promotes the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
When Franke sought to bring a 19-person delegation to Israel last week, she probably had some inkling that her positions and activities might result in Israel denying her admission. (Certainly such antics could keep a foreigner from entering the United States. Non-citizens who “endorse or espouse terrorist activity” are denied entry to the U.S. under Sec. 212 (3)(b)(IV)(bb) of the U.S. Criminal Code.) Unsurprisingly, the Israeli authorities turned Franke away. At which point Columbia University president Lee Bollinger jumped in, declaring: “I think it is wrong for a country to deny entry to a visitor because of his or her political beliefs.” That appeared in a New York Times column headlined “Israel Banishes a Columbia Law Professor for Thinking Differently.”
But Israel does not deny entry because of a person’s political beliefs or thoughts. In fact, 15 of the 19 members of Franke’s delegation were allowed to enter, despite their unabashedly unfriendly beliefs and thoughts. (The declared purpose of the delegation was to “witness” what they called Israel’s “history of systematic displacement and institutional racism” against Arabs.) Among the delegation’s members was Tammika Mallory, co-chair of last year’s Women’s March and an outspoken supporter of the antisemitic Rev. Louis Farrakhan. Mallory has been participating in Farrakhan’s rallies “regularly for over 30 years,” she has acknowledged. And yet “oppressive” Israel allowed her to enter.
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Considering Columbia’s own checkered history when it comes to Jewish affairs, you would think president Bollinger might be a little more circumspect before rushing to lambast the Jewish state.
In her book Jews in the American Academy, 1900-1940, Susanne Klingenstein described how “discrimination against Jews was almost a matter of course” in the admission of students, hiring of faculty, and selection of trustees at Columbia beginning in the early 1900s.
Administrators developed “a ‘refined’ screening method which effectively prevented the admission of society’s less desirable elements without being blatantly anti-Jewish.” Columbia’s process was “a master of refinement compared to which [the] straightforward quota system [for Jews at] Harvard looked quite boorish.” But it was just as efficient.
While endeavoring to keep the number of its Jewish students to a minimum, Columbia was busy pursuing friendly relations with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Stephen Norwood, a Columbia PhD who teaches history the University of Oklahoma, tells this sordid tale in his book, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower.
Nazi ambassador Hans Luther was invited to speak on campus in 1933 (about Hitler’s “peaceful intentions”) and Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler hosted a reception for him. Luther represented “the government of a friendly people,” Butler insisted. He was “entitled to be received . . . with the greatest courtesy and respect.”
Columbia also sponsored student exchanges with Nazi-controlled German universities in the 1930s, and sent a delegate to a celebration at the University of Heidelberg in 1936—even after it had been purged of Jewish faculty members, instituted a Nazi curriculum, and hosted a burning of books by Jewish authors. Professor Arthur Remy, who served as Columbia’s delegate to the Heidelberg event, later remarked that the reception at which chief book-burner Josef Goebbels presided was “very enjoyable.”
In the face of all of this, student activist Robert Burke led a rally outside President Butler’s mansion to protest Columbia’s friendship with the Nazis. Butler accused Burke of referring to him “disrespectfully” and expelled Burke from the university. Burke was never readmitted, even though he had been elected president of his class, and even though Columbia’s own attorney later acknowledged that “the evidence that Burke himself used bad language is slight.” Columbia has never apologized for its reprehensible actions against Burke, not to mention its abhorrent courtship of the Nazis.
Despite the horrors of the Holocaust—the ultimate demonstration of where anti-Jewish discrimination can lead—Columbia continued its anti-Jewish discrimination after World War II. In 1946, America’s most prominent Jewish leader, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (himself a Columbia alum), asked the state of New York to strip the university of its tax exemption because its medical school and placement bureau discriminated against Jews.
Investigators found Columbia’s medical school had “destroyed all records of rejected applicants for admission.” The state council examining the matter noted that destruction of relevant records “raises a presumption that the contents of the records, if produced, would be unfavorable.” Columbia admitted that its employment form included questions about race and religion, but argued that educational institutions were exempt from New York’s anti-discrimination laws. The State Commission Against Discrimination rejected that claim and ordered Columbia to cease discriminating against Jews.
In recent years, Columbia has found new ways to rile the Jewish community. Professor Edward Said was photographed throwing a rock at Israelis near the Israel-Lebanon border in July 2000. The university declined to reprimand him. In a 2004 documentary, a number of Jewish students at Columbia reported they were intimidated or discriminated against by Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics who has compared Israelis to Nazis. He was later granted tenure. Poet Tom Paulin was given a visiting professorship at the university in 2002 despite declaring that American Jews who reside beyond Israel’s 1967 armistice line “should be shot dead.” Amiri Baraka was honored by Columbia’s Middle East Institute in 2005, despite his poem claiming Israelis had advance knowledge of the attack on the World Trade Center.
And, of course, there was the visit to campus in 2009 by Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. President Bollinger defended the visit as “an affirmation of freedom of speech in this country.” Asked if he would invite Adolf Hitler to campus, John Coatsworth, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, replied: “If he were willing to engage in a debate and a discussion, to be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him.”
Israel, however, is not a debating society. Unlike Columbia University, it faces daily terrorist attacks and constant threats to its national existence. From the safety of Morningside Heights, university officials can welcome Nazis, rock-throwers, antisemitic poets, and terror-sponsoring dictators without having to worry about the consequences. The Israelis, who are forced to address real-world issues such as life and death, have to be a little more cautious as to whom they let in.
Rafael Medoff is the author or editor of 19 books about Jewish history.