An alumni group has criticized Columbia University’s response to concerns shared about a professor who has been accused of promoting a hostile environment for Jewish students.
The controversy centers around Hamid Dabashi, an instructor in Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at the New York school, who claimed on social media in May that Israel is behind “[e]very dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious act happening in the world.”
In the same post, Dabashi also described “opponents of the Iran Nuclear deal” as “diehard Fifth Column Zionists.”
The professor’s remarks were denounced later that month by a coalition of nearly 250 Columbia and Barnard College alumni, students, faculty, staff, and community members, as well as officials from several national Jewish and Zionist groups.
Dabashi’s public comments, they said, along with his history of “depicting Israelis as Nazis, comparing Israel to ISIS, [and] accusing Israel of genocide,” promotes “a hostile environment on campuses for pro-Israel and Jewish students.”
Provost John Coatsworth and Executive Vice President of University Life Suzanne Goldberg replied on June 8 to the letter’s organizers — Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), which fights antisemitism at universities nationwide — by expressing their institution’s commitment to freedom of expression, even in the face of views that some may “find highly objectionable.”
“We urge you and all who are involved in this discussion to distinguish freedom of expression and its consequences from the enduring embrace of Jewish life and scholarship on our campus,” the administrators wrote, calling Columbia “one of the great academic centers of Jewish life, culture and scholarship.”
They pointed to the school’s “widely respected Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, our strong partnerships with Israeli universities, and our longstanding joint degree programs with Jewish Theological Seminary,” which is affiliated with Conservative Judaism.
Coatsworth and Goldberg also acknowledged Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s record of opposing academic attacks on Israel, recalling that “in 2007, he led 400 fellow college and university presidents in opposition to a proposed boycott of Israeli scholars by British University and College Union.”
Yet their defense was dismissed as “boilerplate” by ACF, which argued that it failed to address the concerns and requests set forth in the original petition.
In a letter sent to Coatsworth and Goldberg on Monday, the group noted that the administrators’ response “does not mention Professor Dabashi by name, does not specifically address or condemn Professor Dabashi’s anti-Semitic posts and does not in any way distance Columbia University from the bigotry he expressed.”
They also called the university’s emphasis on freedom of expression misplaced, observing that Bollinger found it appropriate in 2003 to censure another professor, Nicholas De Genova, who said of the Iraq War, “The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the US military. I personally would like to see a million Mogadishus.”
“Assistant Professor De Genova was exercising his freedom of speech when he made those remarks,” Bollinger pointed out at the time. “However, free speech does not insulate him from criticism.”
ACF knocked the university for failing “to acknowledge the anti-Israel climate on campus,” and deflecting by underscoring its ties with the Jewish community.
“By referring to Jewish life on campus as if it compensated for Dabashi’s anti-Israel rhetoric, you show that you recognize the link between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel hate speech,” the group argued.
“Virulent anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism on campus are growing in notoriety,” they wrote, “and the administration’s failure to acknowledge and address them are adversely affecting the University’s prestige and the entire Columbia community.”
ACF restated the demands made in its initial letter, including for the university to issue a public statement denouncing Dabashi’s postings and welcoming “Jewish, Israeli and pro-Israel students”; relieve the professor “of teaching responsibilities until he commits to ending his anti-Semitic rhetoric”; and meet with alumni, faculty, and other concerned stakeholders.
A university spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.