This coming Sunday, April 5, the undergraduate student council at Columbia University in New York will vote on when to schedule an online referendum that has nothing to do with the academic upheaval caused by the coronavirus. Instead, students at this prestigious ivy-league school will be turning their attention to the urgent issue of . . . boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The referendum will be held either in the coming weeks or next semester.
Who is behind it? Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) is the coalition of two anti-Israel clubs: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Since 2016, its constituent members have proposed successive motions before the student council asserting that Israel is an “apartheid state” and should therefore be regarded by university officials as a target for divestment.
At first, CUAD’s petitions were unsuccessful as pro-Israel students packed each meeting to demonstrate their affinity with the Jewish state. But, year after year, the “anti-” side smartened up, electing more likeminded members to the council even as fatigue set in among Israel supporters and their attendance at meetings dwindled. At this year’s vote to approve the motion of a campus-wide referendum on divestment, proponents felt free enough to voice naked hostility not only to the Jewish state but also to Jews and to Judaism: a faith “co-opted,” in the reported words of one outspoken participant, “by white supremacy.”
Meanwhile, at Columbia’s sister college Barnard, 64 percent of all students have already voted in favor of divesting from Israel. The conventional wisdom is that Columbia’s undergraduates are likely to follow suit. (Columbia and Barnard students can take classes at either college, and Barnard students can join Columbia clubs, but each college has its own student government.) While anti-Israel referendums of this kind are typically not acted upon by university administrations, their success notches an ideological victory for enemies of the Jewish state and is often accompanied by the increase of anti-Semitism on campus. Only recently, Columbia’s East Campus dormitory was twice defaced with swastikas.
At Columbia, a majority “yes” vote will surely be interpreted as a college-wide consensus, perhaps even a shining example of the “cohesiveness within the entire undergraduate population” that the student council prides itself on fostering in its role of representing student opinion to the faculty and administration. Following up, the council will formally request the administration’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing to comply with the punitive guidelines provided by BDS.
Why has Columbia, of all places, with thousands of Jewish undergraduates making up almost a quarter of its student population, proved so fertile an environment for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activism? It’s not that pro-Israel students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have been silent. But they face a hyper-organized consortium far more dedicated to radical activism than to college studies.
When it comes to the referendum, the anti-Israel coalition enjoys three important advantages. First, clever phrasing. In the wording approved by the student council, the proposal does not argue but simply states as fact the slanderous claim that Israel practices South Africa-style apartheid; uninformed students are more likely to accept the lie by virtue of the council’s formal approval. Then the referendum misleadingly asks students whether the university should “divest its stocks, funds, and endowment from companies” that “profit from or engage in” apartheid as defined by the UN. Although BDS is not mentioned explicitly, passage of the referendum would be understood as a win for the global campaign against Israel.
Second, timing. Now that, fortuitously, the leadup to the vote will likely take place solely online, CUAD can deploy to the full its large presence on social media. The Columbia Facebook page for Students for Justice in Palestine boasts over 3,400 likes; Jewish Voice for Peace, 1,500 likes; and CUAD, more than 1,900 likes. On these pages there is no shortage of mis- or disinformation about Israel. As was the case during Israel’s military conflict with Hamas in 2014, when images from the Syrian civil war were falsely labeled as scenes from Gaza and “shared” online by anti-Israel organizations, it is much more difficult to dispel such myth-making than it is to reason with individuals through in-person discussion.
Third, and most critically, the anti-Israel camp claims the support of all other social-justice groups on campus—including, to name just three, the black students’ organization, the queer students’ alliance, and the Native American council—each with its own broad social-media network. Thanks to the appearance of such campus-wide solidarity, most students, as a pro-Israel professional at Columbia confirmed to me, “automatically vote yes to any [such] referendum. Divesting from the coal industry—they voted yes. Divesting from the private-prison industry—they voted yes. It’s packaged as a deal.”
But that’s not all. In the broad historical sense, the looming success of BDS at Columbia is not some one-off event but rather the latest manifestation of a long-term development, one that provides a natural backdrop to today’s drama. As on other American campuses, this is a story whose roots lie in the radical activism of the 1960s: a moment when the energies of the New Left, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the black-power movement, and other signature agitations of the era powered large-scale student revolts, often of a violent nature. With rare exceptions, the rioters met with only the meekest of responses by faculty and administrations, and sometimes even earned the assent or tacit support of their professors.
In 1968, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), alongside the Afro-American Students Association (ASA), brought life at Columbia to a standstill for weeks as they seized, occupied, and randomly trashed campus buildings in protest against the university’s alleged involvement in military research and the proposed building of a new gym on the border with Harlem. The campus police having proved ineffective, the administration was eventually compelled to summon New York City police; in one of the largest mass arrests in the city’s history, 700 students were detained and 100 were injured in skirmishes.
But the protesters won, then and later. Within a year, plans for the new gym were canceled and the university’s system of governance was overhauled in deference to the rioters’ demands. On the 50th anniversary in 2018, the university’s current president, Lee Bollinger, would mark the occasion by taking ownership of the rioters’ cause and retroactively decrying the then-administration’s call for police intervention. “Part of the present-day identity of Columbia,” Bollinger averred, “is reinforced by what happened here in 1968.”
That is undeniably true.
Among the other cardinal flashpoints of that same era was the June 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East, which Israel had the effrontery to win. By the following year, European and American liberal elites had embarked on a historic reversal of the hitherto broadly accepted view of the sources and causes of the Israel-Arab conflict, with Israel now flipped into the role of imperialist, expansionist aggressor and the Arabs—and the Palestinians in particular—its innocent victims.
Special to Columbia at this juncture was the presence of a rising young academic star named Edward Said. Born in 1935 and raised in Cairo by affluent parents, Said was educated at an elite American boarding school, followed by Princeton and Harvard. In 1963 he joined Columbia’s English department, quickly becoming an object of adulation on the part of innumerable students, including Jewish students, besotted with his charm, his air of sophisticated “otherness,” and his comfortably anti-establishment views.
In 1978, Said would publish Orientalism, his most famous work: a critique-cum-deconstruction of, and assault on, Western scholarship on the Islamic world. The book was rapturously received. (It was also authoritatively debunked, most notably by the late Bernard Lewis, for its ignorance and shoddy scholarship.) To this day, it commands unparalleled influence in a variety of unrelated academic fields, is assigned reading in hundreds of university courses, and has shaped curricula and professional attitudes not only in Middle East studies but in areas as diverse as literary criticism, political science, and anthropology.
As the European and American left began its turn against Israel, Said proceeded to apply to Israel his “academic” excoriation of the West. In particular, he came out as a supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the terrorist group led by Yasir Arafat, and would soon become one of the most prominent members of its legislative body, the Palestinian National Council. A key conduit for Arafat to the West, he translated the PLO leader’s speech before the United Nations in 1974. Nor did his anti-Israel orbit stop there: by 1993, he would outflank Arafat on the left, loudly repudiating the latter’s “cowardly and slavish” act of signing the Oslo Accords with Israel.
During the second intifada in the early 2000s, Said aroused controversy at Columbia when he hurled a rock from southern Lebanon’s border with Israel toward an IDF guardhouse on the other side. Still, though the action was deemed inappropriate, the administration came to the defense of its beloved professor. At home, meanwhile, Said had done much to inspire a group of activist Columbia professors who, after their mentor’s death in 2003, would coalesce around the university’s venerable Middle East Institute (founded in 1954) and its more recent Center for Palestine Studies (founded in 2010 to “honor the legacy of Edward Said”).
The politicized classroom views of these professors quickly grew into a consensus, not to say an orthodoxy. Let’s take a passing glance at four leading lights.
Rashid Khalidi teaches Arab history and holds an endowed chair at Columbia in Said’s memory. He is the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies and the author of a dozen popular books, of which the most recent is The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. In his introductory course on the history of the Middle East, the minds of more than 100 freshmen who arrive each year knowing little or nothing about the region are formed by Khalidi’s perspective. Central to this perspective is that Israel is a settler-colonial entity responsible for the “replacement of Palestine,” as he put it in a 2018 article in the Nation. Khalidi has been described as “slick” and even-tempered, but he is also prone to conspiratorial outbursts against Jews. (A glimpse: in a 2017 radio interview, Khalidi repeatedly railed at the “Jews” who “infest” the Trump administration.)
Joseph Massad, a professor of Arab history to whom we’ll soon return, once singled out for vituperation an Israeli student who asked a question at a talk. “How many Palestinians have you killed?” he demanded.
George Saliba, an Islamic scholar, informed a student that she couldn’t possibly claim ties to the land of Israel because, unlike him, she had “green eyes” and therefore was not “Semitic.”
Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and a contributor to the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram, mused in 2004 about the effects that “half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left” on Israelis’ physiognomy, pointing as evidence to the “deep marks on the faces of these people” and the “vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of [Israeli] culture.”
Anti-Israel statements made inside and outside the classroom by Khalidi and other professors were copiously documented in a chilling, student-made film, Columbia Unbecoming (2004). The film elicited sufficient media attention and protests by Jewish organizations to prompt an internal investigation by order of Bollinger. The 24-page report found the academics not guilty of any significant wrongdoing—effectively exonerating them; meanwhile, the students who had divulged their experiences to the filmmakers were charged with acting as “informants.” Khalidi told New York magazine that he couldn’t understand the fear being expressed by these Jewish students. So many people were working for them at Hillel, he expostulated, “it blew my mind! . . . They have ten, twelve paid employees!”
In 2007, Joseph Massad would be denied tenure on grounds of egregiously inadequate scholarship. Two years later, however, for undisclosed reasons, the decision was reversed and tenure was granted. Rarely are professors allowed a second faculty-committee review, but Bollinger ensured that the extraordinary proceedings were held, and remained, behind closed doors.
A Columbia alumnus who has asked to remain anonymous recalled to me the class with Massad that he attended as a senior. An engineering student, he had decided to shop around during his final year at Columbia and learn more about the Middle East. Early on, it became clear to him that Massad was propagandizing more than teaching, and he decided to document the professor’s falsifications in a blog. Taking notice, a campus journalist published an article about the blog in the Columbia Spectator. At the next class, Massad walked in with a copy of the newspaper. “Which one of you is [student’s name],” he demanded. “Please get out of this class.” Massad then filed a disciplinary report against him, accusing him of being a spy for the “Israel lobby.”
“Going in front of the disciplinary board was scary,” the alumnus told me. “I had to find a balance between defending myself and not getting kicked out four months before graduation.” Though the charges against him were dropped, and he was allowed to graduate, Massad continued his targeted bullying. Soon an article sharing private details about the student and his family appeared in Electronic Intifada, the scurrilous anti-Israel website whose pages are frequently graced by Massad’s effusions, some of which have been reprinted by Hamas on its official website