President Bush’s democracy muse Natan Sharansky, the Israeli minister, suggested to a daylong gathering at Columbia University yesterday that the way in which the Middle East is studied and taught at Columbia and other schools reminds him of Soviet-era propaganda.
Mr. Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and prisoner who is now Israel’s minister of Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, said in a speech via video feed from Milan, Italy, that when he went to Columbia last year, the atmosphere for Jewish students “reminded sometimes of ghetto.” He said that in private meetings he had with hundreds of students, “The kids felt like they can be free and open,” but that students are more fearful to speak in favor of Israel “the moment they go out.”
Mr. Sharansky, who is in the middle of a European speaking tour, said when he toured 25 American campuses in 2003 and 2004, he found the “Jewish narrative, the Zionist narrative,” was missing from Middle East courses.
“In an academic debate, when only one point of view is presented, that is extremely dangerous,” he said. “Then it’s propaganda, brainwashing -that is something I know very well.” Mr. Sharansky survived nine years in the Soviet Gulag after he was convicted of espionage. He moved to Israel following his early release in 1986. Mr. Bush has credited Mr. Sharansky’s latest book, “The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” with influencing his foreign-policy judgments. The book argued that peace in the Middle East hinges on the spread of democratic reforms.
Yesterday, Mr. Sharansky spoke to a gathering of hundreds in an event organized by three Columbia faculty members who have been critical of the university’s response to student allegations against professors in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures.
Among the other speakers was a research associate at the Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University, Martin Kramer, who also spoke through a satellite feed. He told audience members that Columbia’s controversy may be a “turning point” in the ideological battle under way in Middle East studies departments across the country. He said the field is corrupted by a culture of “inbreeding,” in which competing ideas that conflict with the dominant strand, symbolized by the work of the Columbia scholar Edward Said, are muffled. The tenure of Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, “will be judged by the success or failure” of his attempt to change the makeup of the Mealac department, Mr. Kramer said.
The event, lasting from the morning until late afternoon, appeared to attract more members from the surrounding Jewish community than students or faculty members. Another speaker was the chairman of the City Council’s finance committee, David Weprin, who told The New York Sun that the council “has the right” to know whether Columbia’s professors are violating “discrimination laws.”