I want to speak about a difficult matter—about a concern I have regarding the risk of a rising anti-Semitism on our campus. Any bigotry and prejudice toward groups is intolerable, especially (for all the obvious reasons) within a university, and we should be quick to condemn its presence in any form and in any context. In my life, I have tried to do so, whether it be racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-Asian, or any other kind. Over the past year, I have increasingly become concerned about anti-Semitism, and I feel it is important for me to say something now.
There is an upcoming vote among undergraduate students on a proposal to recommend that the University divest from companies doing business with Israel involving the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. There is no question that this is a highly contentious issue, both the underlying issues of Israel and the Palestinians and the idea of divestment as a means of protest about Israel’s policies.
I do not support the proposal for divestment. That is for two reasons. One is the longstanding understanding that the University should not change its investment policies on the basis of a political position unless there is a broad consensus within the institution that to do so is morally and ethically compelled. This is a necessary though not sufficient condition. I do not believe that consensus exists with respect to this proposal.
But I disagree on the merits, too. I believe this imposes a standard on this particular political issue that is not right when one considers similar issues in other countries and in other contexts around the world. To my mind that is unwise, analytically flawed, and violates my sense of fairness and proportionality. I well understand that some others whom I respect hold different views, but, if I am called upon to take a position, this is the one I have come to over the years.
My concern today, however, is not just with this proposal, but with the broader atmosphere in which this and other related issues are being debated. Feelings are charged. Divestment is a piece of a larger and controversial BDS movement. That movement is itself but a variant on a vast and ever-present debate about Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, the Middle East, the region and from there outward to the rest of the world. Critical matters are at stake, to be sure. But what must be avoided at all costs, and what I fear is happening today, is a process of mentality that goes from hard-fought debates about very real and vital issues to hostility and even hatred toward all members of groups of people simply by virtue of a religious, racial, national, or ethnic relationship. This must not happen.
No single issue is an island. When a swastika appears on campus, it is not just an isolated event. When there is a rising anti-Semitism in this country and around the world, even a single instance of it in any context is more alarming than it might otherwise be.
I plead with everyone on our campus to be careful and vigilant against legitimate debate turning into anger, then to hatred and demonization, and invidious discrimination.
I can say that Jewish students are feeling this, and it’s wrong. I feel it, and it’s wrong. We all feel it, and it’s wrong.
These are delicate matters to talk about. Atmosphere is elusive. It is easy to dismiss feelings of insecurity and affront as being too sensitive. Many groups suffer forms of discrimination and prejudice that are unacceptable, and to single out any one for concern is to risk being accused of neglecting the others unmentioned.
Furthermore, there are often, as here, excessive claims of hostility that one does not want to legitimate by referring to lesser but still very real problems. With respect to anti-Semitism, there are now assertions by outsiders that Columbia is an “anti-Semitic” institution with systemic bigotry. This is, of course, preposterous. No Jewish student, faculty member, or staff I know believes this to be the case; nor do I. But the absurdity of the claim does not and should not stop me or us from speaking out against instances and episodes of anti-Semitism that do exist.
I view it as my responsibility to say when I see something that should concern us. I do so now, and ask that we all work to ensure that the debates we have about debatable matters be done in good faith and with a sense of shared humanity, and with respect.