Over the past year at Columbia University, we formed a group with two other
Columbians, Aharon Horwitz and Daniella Kahane, to wage a struggle to defend
what we saw as a basic student right: the right to dissent and express opinions
different from those held by professors or other students. At first glance,
this right seems unquestionable. "Who in their right mind," one could
ask, "would oppose freedom of thought and expression in what should be a
free-marketplace of ideas?" We quickly found out, however, that the right
to dissent becomes much more complicated when the topic is Israel, and the
student believes that the state of Israel has a right to exist.
The cases we focused on seemed fairly simple at first.
Certain professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures
Department (MEALAC) were intimidating students based on their political
identities. Among the most publicized cases included was Professor Joseph
Massad's response to a student's suggestion that the Israeli army warns
Palestinians before taking out a terrorist target. Massad shot back, "Get
out of my classroom if you deny Israeli atrocities!"
In an off campus lecture, Professor Massad asked Tomy
Schoenfeld, an Israeli student who had served in the army, "How many
Palestinians have you killed?" Lindsay Shrierer, in a conversation outside
of class with Professor George Saliba, was told that "she was not a real
Semite because she had green eyes."
At first, we attempted to deal with these instances through
informal channels. Student after student approached administrators and deans
about similar incidents in the hope that the problem would be addressed. It was
not. After much frustration, students decided to band together and document the
cases by recording their own voices on film, giving us a tool to use in behind
the scenes meetings with higher level administrators. Six months of screening
to the top levels of the university administration yielded no results until
Barnard President Judith Shapiro mentioned the film at a public event. Soon
thereafter, the film hit the media.
The public storm that resulted, and the positive movement
that it sparked, have taught us a few lessons. First, collective action is
imperative. Singular claims will not change anything; recognizing a pattern is
key, and pointing out that pattern is critical for change.
Second, the powers that be have an expressed interest in not
helping. The administration wants the campus to remain quiet, and the
professors want to maintain their position of power. In our experience,
unfortunately, the organized Jewish community on campus also preferred silence,
desiring a "seat at the table" and maintaining their reputation of
cooperation. While reaching out to the Jewish community is positive, one need
not be afraid to work outside of institutions when they refuse to take on the
issue in a strong way.
Third, public pressure not only works, but it is your right.
We live in a democratic society that encourages democratic action. The free
press is an integral check on power, and should not be feared. But since the
press can quickly be harnessed by the much more powerful and entrenched forces
in the university, one should make sure one's case is strong and clear, and not
be afraid to bare the truth and stand by it.
Just as professors have the right to their political
position, every student_conservative and radical, Republican and Democrat_has
the right to dissent in the classroom without fear of intimidation or grade
retribution. Perhaps even more than having the right to dissent, students are
responsible to challenge their peers and their professors, for
universities were never meant to be echo chambers. To do so, band together,
know you will be challenging the status quo, and be strong in your truth. It is
only through creating an environment where the academic freedom of students is
protected that truth can be sought after through real, vigorous debate.