Sunday, January 02, 2005

Trouble in the Ivy League

I have long been critical of the policies of the Likud government in Israel. In my judgment, the argument that these policies are serving more to endanger the security of Israel than to advance it gets little attention in the US press--significantly less than in the Israeli media which offers a wide spectrum of opinion. Too often, our coverage inclines to hasbara, a kind of apologia for the policies currently being pursued in Israel.

That being said I must note what appears to be an ongoing case concerning students at Columbia University that is operating in the opposite direction. In the Middle East Studies department students have difficulty expressing views differing from those of the predominantly pro-Palestinian faculty. In some cases they have been shouted down. A 25-minute documentary film, entitled "Columbia Unbecoming," documents these abuses.

The test of whether one supports freedom of speech is not whether one tolerates views one finds akin to one’s own. One can only pass the test if one permits—and defends—the expression of views differing from one’s own. It appears that, by and large, the faculty at the Middle East studies department is failing to meet this essential requirement.

Moreover, if academic freedom is to mean anything at all it means freedom for the students as well as the faculty. I have taught in the college setting for some thirty-five years, including five at Columbia, and I have never found occasion to suppress the views of a student with whom I disagree. Dialogue, yes. Suppression, no

What has been the response of Columbia University? So far it seems disappointing.

President Lee Bollinger arrived two years ago with credentials in affirmative-action and free-speech issues. His devotion to the latter is open to question. In a December 6 letter to the faculty he announced the formation of a committee to review the situation. By the direction of the president, though, the committee will not review departments as a whole or curricula. What if the curricula are one-sided, as they appear to be, and a single viewpoint is the only one that is tolerated?

Columbia alumni and others are watching the situation closely. As Nat Hentoff, the noted civil-rights advocate who has been writing about the matter in The Village Voice, indicates,"unless president Bollinger can make [this department] worthy of Columbia’s tradition of free inquiry, his tenure may be foreshortened."