When Columbia University’s Center for Palestine Studies was established in 2010, Rashid Khalidi, its founding and current director — and a supporter of an academic boycott of Israel — stated that steering clear of political activism was an important goal of the center:
“The last thing you want is a Middle East institute or a center for Israel or Palestine that isn’t within the university mission. . . . We’d avoid doing anything that’s directly related to any political activism.”
However, just seven years later, new research from our organization reveals that the Center for Palestine Studies has become an academic epicenter for anti-Israel political activism, as well as the promotion of an academic boycott of Israel and its mother movement, boycott, divestment and sanctions, otherwise known as BDS.
In 2015 and 2016, of the 44 Israel-related events sponsored by the Center for Palestine Studies, 41 included anti-Israel, pro-BDS speakers. During the same two-year period, Israel-related events sponsored by Columbia University’s other two Middle East studies departments — the Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies department and the Middle East Institute — also overwhelmingly included anti-Israel, pro-BDS speakers.
Columbia’s three Middle East studies departments hosted 46 events with pro-BDS speakers in 2015 and 2016, more than double any other U.S. school.
Not coincidentally, academic boycotters constitute two-thirds of the Center for Palestine Studies’ core faculty, and both of its directors have endorsed an academic boycott of Israel. About half of the tenure-track faculty in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies are academic boycotters. And the Middle East Institute’s director and the majority of its executive committee have endorsed an academic boycott of Israel.
Columbia’s Middle East studies programs are consistent with a national trend. Programs with at least one faculty boycotter are five times more likely to sponsor events with BDS-supporting speakers, and the more faculty boycotters, the more such events.
This pattern of anti-Israel political bias and advocacy at departmentally sponsored public events raises the question of whether the same faculty boycotters are in fact implementing the boycott’s guidelines on their campus. These guidelines call on boycotters to actively work toward shutting down their colleagues’ and students’ opportunities for Israel-related research, collaboration, study and travel — activities that are all core to programs like theirs.
Faculty who implement the academic boycott pervert the academic mission and thwart the academic freedom of fellow faculty and students.
This is particularly troubling in the case of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, designated a National Resource Center by the U.S. Department of Education and given significant federal funding under Title VI of the Higher Education Opportunity Act. This law, currently before Congress for reauthorization, was established to fund outstanding university programs to equip students with a full and unbiased understanding of regions and countries vital to U.S. security.
The law requires programs receiving Title VI funding to demonstrate that their activities reflect “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views.” Promoting an academic boycott of Israel doesn’t just pervert this legal obligation; limiting the free flow of information about a complex, volatile and highly sensitive region of the world risks harming U.S. security.
Most troubling is our finding that when faculty boycotters bring their anti-Israel sentiments and support for BDS to campus, it significantly increases the likelihood of anti-Semitism on that campus: Schools that host events with BDS-supporting speakers were twice as likely to have anti-Semitic incidents such as assaults, harassment, destruction of property and suppression of speech.
More than 250 U.S. university presidents, including Columbia’s president, have resoundingly condemned the academic boycott of Israel. Now it’s time for these same presidents to address the clear and present harms that an academic boycott of Israel brings to their own campuses.
Beckwith is a professor emeritus at UCLA. Rossman-Benjamin is a former faculty member in Hebrew and Judaic studies at UC Santa Cruz. Both are founding members of AMCHA Initiative, which combats anti-Semitism in higher education.