BRICUP Introduction

The long simmering controversy at New York’s Columbia University over the establishment of a new ‘global center’ in Tel Aviv has finally burst open. For years, the University’s administrators talked of establishing a centre there, but it was only a few days ago that they let it be known they intended to go ahead with it. Supporters and opponents wasted no time circulating their respective petitions among faculty, and the supporters will keep scrambling for signatures. Yet the argument against the proposal is so strong it will be remarkable if many more faculty members have the temerity to support it. Israel has regularly refused entry to Americans (and others) of Palestinian descent and critics of their apartheid policies. Not long ago they stopped a prominent Columbia University Professor of Law, Katherine Franke, who was leading a delegation of human rights experts, and aggressively interrogated her for fourteen hours before putting her on a plane back to the United States. There is bound to be more trouble if Columbia proceeds with its ‘global center’ in Tel Aviv, and American faculty and students are barred from participating in its activities on account of their origins or political opinions. And given the intolerant, extremist character of the present Israeli government, this would almost certainly happen.

The man behind the crisis, Lee Bollinger, Columbia University’s president, has form when it comes to favouring Israelis over Palestinians. Readers with long memories will recall that in 2005 he launched a wholly unwarranted investigation of two professors of Middle East Studies for alleged anti-Israel bias. (The professors were eventually exonerated.) In 2007 he persuaded a large group of American university presidents to condemn the decision of Britain’s University and College Union to call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In 2020 he objected to student support for divesting from Israel, linking BDS to a supposed rise in antisemitism. His latest initiative, the proposed Columbia ‘world center’ in Tel Aviv, can only benefit Israelis since Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and elsewhere in the Middle East are systematically barred from entering Israel. Bollinger has announced his retirement at the end of the current academic year. One can only hope that his successor draws a line under this anti-palestinianism, starting with the abandonment of the ‘world center’ proposal.

The original of the following report can be found here.

The university’s announcement that it would open a center in Israel, as the country confronts a major political crisis, prompted both anger and support among professors.

pril 5, 2023, New York Times

Columbia University’s plan to open a new center in Tel Aviv is drawing criticism from close to 100 faculty members who say the university should reconsider the move because of Israel’s human rights record and ongoing political crisis.

Plans to open the center, which were announced on Monday, had been an open secret on campus, but they attracted renewed criticism after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel won re-election this fall with the help of far-right political allies. He has since pushed forward judicial reforms that have deeply divided Israel, even as he faces trial for corruption.

Criticism of Columbia’s plan has spilled into the open in recent weeks: Ninety-five faculty members have signed an open letter against the proposal. A competing faculty letter in support of the center has drawn 172 signatures.

Professors writing in opposition to the new center cited their concerns about academic freedom, complying with U.S. nondiscrimination law and “the role of a university in global politics” in light of Israel’s record.

“The state of Israel, through formal and informal law, policy and practice, refuses to abide by international human rights laws and norms both domestically and in its treatment of Palestinians,” the letter said.

Columbia has not said when it would open the Tel Aviv center, which will serve as a research hub for professors and graduate students but will not host undergraduate study programs. It will join the university’s 10 other global centers in cities including Beijing, Istanbul, Paris and Nairobi.

In a statement announcing its intention to create the facility, Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, said the global center program was “foundational to Columbia’s mission to engage with the world.”

“It is more important than ever for Columbia to continue seeking to advance inquiry and learning across borders,” he said. Samantha Slater, a spokeswoman for Columbia, declined an interview request on Tuesday.

In the letter supporting the center, faculty members argued that the facility would be separate from Israel’s politics.

“One does not have to support the policies of the current government of Israel — and many of us do not — to recognize that singling out Israel in this way is unjustified,” they wrote, adding that opposition to the Tel Aviv center was based on the argument “that Israel be put in a special category of institutional disapproval that Columbia does not apply to the dozens of other countries where its students and faculty work.”

Nicholas Lemann, a professor at Columbia Journalism School and co-organizer of the petition supporting the decision, said in an interview on Wednesday that the global center made sense because “Columbia has many ties with Israel.”

“Many alumni live there, many students and faculty go there regularly, there are many people who work with scholars at Israeli universities,” he said. “There is a rich ongoing exchange there and having the center would enrich it further.”

Mr. Lemann said he first heard about the proposal five years ago. Since then, it has been part of a running debate on campus.

“There is a larger dispute in which this is embedded, regarding whether Columbia should have any engagement with Israel at all,” he said.

The announcement of the Tel Aviv center comes at a delicate time. Mr. Netanyahu’s judicial proposals have led to street protests that have brought the economy to a near standstill, and unrest in the military has deepened concerns for the nation’s security.

Critics say the proposed reforms will weaken Israel’s judiciary and undermine its democracy.

Similar concerns animate some of the unease with Columbia’s expansion in Tel Aviv. Other concerns include Israel’s 55-year occupation of the West Bank and 15-year-long blockade of the Gaza Strip, and its practice of denying entry to travelers on the basis of their political views, ethnicity or national origin.

That practice, based on a 2017 law, led Israel to bar two American members of Congress from entering the country in 2019.

“This is not specifically just about the occupation, it is about entry bans, travel bans and the question of who would be allowed to be there,” said Marianne Hirsch, a professor of English and Comparative Literature who helped organize the letter opposing the plan.

A number of Columbia faculty and students have been barred from entering the country in recent years, said Rashid Khalidi, a history professor and another of the petition organizers. That raises questions about what topics could be freely discussed at the new facility, he added.

Katherine Franke, a Columbia law professor, was denied entry to Israel in 2018 after being detained and interrogated at the airport for 14 hours over her political positions.

The academic center will expand Columbia’s footprint in Israel, where students can already obtain a dual degree with Tel Aviv University; study abroad in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem; or pursue shorter-term studies in business, medicine or the Yiddish language.

Mr. Khalidi said human rights and academic freedom should guide the university’s approach to overseas facilities, no matter their host country.

“There are problems in other places where Columbia has global centers,” he said, citing China, Turkey and Jordan. “Those considerations may not have been thought about before the other centers were established, but if we establish a new one, then we have a chance now to think about those things.”