Lessons Learned at Columbia

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.

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