Choosing their battles
in the war of ideas
“[T]he test of a first class mind is the ability to hold two opposing views in the head at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

If Scott Fitzgerald was right, then Ariel Beery zooms to the top of his class. Beery is the student body president at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, and codirector of that campus’ Creative Zionist Circle. Columbia is embroiled in a debate over its Mideast studies department, and from his front-row seat, Beery has written about the brouhaha with a subtlety that distinguishes him from activists both on campus and off.

Here’s Beery on Rashid Khalidi, the director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, who, after the New York Sun labeled him “one of Columbia’s notoriously anti-Israel professors,” was barred from a New York Board of Education program that taught city teachers about the Middle East. “Yes, Columbia is almost unbearably one-sided when it comes to teaching the Middle East,” writes Beery. “But Khalidi, if anything, seems to serve as an example of a professor who separates between his politics and his pedagogy — and therefore, under the current situation, the model of a professor who is also a politically involved citizen.”

Beery is hardly soft on Khalidi, who has described Israeli policies as “racist” and said its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza could lead to “apartheid.” “Just to be clear,” adds Beery, “I think he is a bigot due to remarks he made about Jews, but I have not yet heard one thing to indicate that he uses the classroom as a bully pulpit, and I respect that.”

Beery came to my attention thanks to a new Web site called CampusJ, the brainchild of journalist and blogger Steven I. Weiss. I’ve written before about Weiss, who is on a personal crusade to save Judaism and journalism from, well, folks like me. Weiss envisions CampusJ as a sort of “über-blog” for Jewish journalists at colleges around the country. He has so far recruited young writers from Columbia, Duke, George Washington, Hebrew University, Hunter College, NYU, Queens College, the University of Chicago, and Yeshiva University. “CampusJ is an enterprising new project aimed at delivering compelling content to Jewish collegiates and training the next generation of quality Jewish journalists,” Weiss explains.

With talk of the college campus as a “battleground” for anti-Israel activity, Weiss’ timing couldn’t be better. Reading CampusJ I’ve learned about a speech by anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist Malik Shabazz at Carnegie Mellon and a banner in the offices of Hunter’s Palestinian club comparing Israelis to Nazis. (And it’s not all bad news. The site has also included an interview with a leading pro-choice activist at GW, and a profile of a Columbia student who founded a Jewish booster club for the school’s basketball team.)

The site has been particularly useful in making sense of the mess surrounding Columbia’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC). Late last year the university appointed a special committee to investigate charges, contained in a documentary titled Columbia Unbecoming, that some members of the MEALAC faculty regularly bully pro-Israel students. (The documentary will be shown Sunday, March 6, 9:30 a.m., at Congregation Oheb Shalom in South Orange.)

The charges attracted outsiders like Alan Dershowitz, who accused the faculty of “encouraging the terrorists,” and Natan Sharansky, who introduced a screening of the movie by declaring, “There are islands of anti-Semitism, and these islands are student campuses.” Less inflammatory remarks have come from civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, who charged that the grievance committee is secretive and riddled with conflicts of interest.

Campus activists, meanwhile, seem to be divided between pro-Israel students gathered under the “Columbians for Academic Freedom” banner, and pro-Palestinian and free-speech groups who have decried the film’s charges as “McCarthyism.”

Khalidi became a poster child for both the department’s defenders and, surprisingly, its critics. Beery wasn’t alone in saying Khalidi was a “model” professor. Charles Jacobs, whose David Project produced Columbia Unbecoming, told The New York Times that Khalidi “was not at all criticized. Students said he was the opposite of the people they were complaining about.”

The problem, Columbians for Academic Freedom have been careful to emphasize, is not professors holding anti-Israel views, but those who use the lectern as a soapbox for those views, and only those views. They point to instructor Joseph Massad, who allegedly told a student, “If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against the Palestinian people, then you can get out of my classroom.”

By refusing to throw around accusations of anti-Semitism, and defending professors’ right to hold views critical of Israel, Beery and other members of CAF are acting more responsibly, and sensibly, than many of the “adults” who are monitoring the situation from the outside. All they are asking is that the university live up to Columbia president Lee Bollinger’s statement on the film and the investigation: “The University is committed to the core principle of academic freedom in teaching and research. But that principle is not unlimited.… It does not, for example, extend to protecting behavior in the classroom that threatens or intimidates students who express their viewpoints.”

Or as Beery put it in an op-ed in the campus daily: “Certainly a professor should have the full freedom to say whatever comes to his or her mind, but a line is drawn when that professor utilizes his or her position of power to denigrate or dehumanize a student of this University who directly or indirectly is under the professor’s power.”

Proving you can defend Israel and academic freedom, and still retain the ability to function.

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