The morning after the Columbia spectacle two things bother me. The first is that the majority of protesters outside the Columbia campus and inside were Jewish students. In fact, those marching in the street were more likely than not to be wearing the kippas (boys) or long skirts that identify them as Modern Orthodox — though a fair number of not obviously observant Jewish students were present too. And it was clear from the extensive plastering of the campus that the Hillel organization had been working overtime to produce compelling, inclusive posters that pointedly demonstrated that Jews are not the only targets of Shiite extremism in Iran. Of course there were non Jewish protesters — but not in any proportion to their numbers at Columbia. (Non-Jews are, just to be clear, the vast majority of the student body.)
So, where were the gay activists? They are not usually shy when faced with even perceived injustice. Why weren’t the campus Socialists, (whose posters are always in evidence), Republicans and Democrats out there?
I find it troubling that, because of Ahmadinejad’s vitriol (and nuclear threats) against Israel, and his denial of the Holocaust, non-Jewish students seem to regard this as a Jewish problem, about which they can comfortably be passive, and evaluate the speaker as if his words, occasionally reasonable, had any relation to his actions. There is nothing sophisticated about the intellectual pose, common among students, that one must listen and evaluate “each side.” (Which, in any case, they don’t mean when it comes to conservatives.) Listening legitimates. At very least it makes strange and repellant ideas seem normative. (Conservative ideas, of course, are normative in the US.)
Columbia was always rather derogatorily understood to be the “Jewish Ivy.” It appointed Jewish scholars to professorships in the humanities in the 1930s, when Harvard, Princeton and Yale would not. Jewish students felt comfortable there decades before the same could be said of, say, Dartmouth. Jews are no longer the dominant intellectual presence on the campus that they once were — because the system opened up, and because newer immigrant groups, and minorities have joined the student body in great numbers. But having an intellectual and culturally comfortable “home” at a university should not be about sheer numbers of one’s ethnic group. What with the documented hostility from the Middle Eastern Studies department — which is not merely pro-Palestinian, but pretty anti-Semitic — it is an open question how much longer Jews will find Columbia so comfortable.
The second troubling point is that the people with power to set standards in this and other similar matters all seem to have punted. You don’t get to be a Trustee of Columbia University — or it’s subsidiary, Barnard College, (which is having its own current debate over the tenure decision of Anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-haj — a scholar whose work seems to deny the existence of ancient Israel) by being a shrinking violet. It is time for the ladies and gentlemen of the boards to use their clout and lay some ground rules about what sort of public profile they wish the University to have. Laughingstock? Moral reprobate? Naughty and risqué? Or intellectually serious, great University? Acting Dean Coatsworth of SIPA, who invited Ahmadinejad to begin with, should lose his position promptly. That’s easy, because that school awaits a “permanent appointment.” I am not alone in believing that President Bollinger has forfeited his claim to intellectual seriousness, and is no longer an asset to the school. Were he to lose his position, as Larry Summers lost his over political miscalculation, it would send a healthy signal to the academic community about where the limits to political grandstanding lie.
And perhaps all of those irate — or is it merely irritated? — Jewish alums and parents of students, should stop sighing and begin using that economic clout that is the stuff of legend among fundraisers everywhere, to make this happen.