Columbia University to open learning center in Israel amid faculty backlash

Columbia University’s plans to open a learning center in Israel is being criticized by faculty members.

Earlier this month, Columbia University announced that it would open a new facility in Tel Aviv as part of its Global Centers program.

“The Center will leverage Columbia’s expertise and experience and link faculty and students to experts and resources in Israel and the wider region,” read a statement from the school. “Among others, the Center’s initial priorities will include climate change, technology and entrepreneurship, and aspects of arts and the humanities, as well as biological science, public health, and medicine. An additional priority will be to offer collaborative learning and research opportunities, working with peers, for Columbia undergraduates and graduate students.”

Franke letter

In February, Katherine Franke, the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, began circulating a letter opposing the center over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the policies of its government. “It will be impossible for the University to announce the establishment of this new Global Center and avoid creating the impression that it is endorsing or legitimizing the new government,” it reads.

The letter also raises concerns about academic freedom and Israel’s failure to comply with U.S. non-discrimination law. In 2017 Israel passed a law essentially barring foreign supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) from entering the country. In 2018 Franke, and three other members of a humanitarian delegation, were denied entry into the country over the professor’s association with the BDS movement. Franke, who was detained and questioned for fourteen hours, detailed the distressing saga in an interview with The Nation:

I was not given the opportunity to tell the immigration officer who detained me about the purpose of my trip as I just described it, because he was convinced that I was traveling to the region to promote the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions (BDS) movement. I told him I have been to Israel a half-dozen or so times, the first time in 2000 and most recently last October. All of those visits had been for work-related purposes. Several years ago I was hired by the EU to do capacity building for the Women’s Committee of the Palestinian Bar Association. Last October I was invited by Adalah to speak about academic freedom at a Palestinian Law Students conference in Bethlehem.

After I told him this trip was a mix of work and tourism the interrogation took a more hostile turn: He yelled at me: “You’re here to promote BDS in Palestine, aren’t you?” I responded that I was absolutely not. He yelled again: “You’re lying!” He then asked me if I volunteered with any groups in the US. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, so I said I volunteer with many groups, including CCR. Then he barked: “You work for JVP, don’t you?” I said I did not work for JVP, which is true. “You’re making my job easy, you’re lying to me,” he said, at which point he showed me his cell phone, displaying what I believe was Canary Mission’s page on me. This went on for over an hour.

In 2019 Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) were also denied entry into the country over their support for BDS. “We won’t allow those who deny our right to exist in this world to enter Israel. In principle this is a very justified decision,”  then-Israeli Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely said at the time.

Faculty letter in support and school ties to Israel

In response to the Franke effort, over 100 Columbia faculty members have penned a letter of their own. This one expresses support for the new center and aims to distance its construction from the Netanyahu regime. “One does not have to support the policies of the current government of Israel — and many of us do not — to recognize that singling out Israel in this way is unjustified,” it reads.

Columbia Journalism School professor Nicholas Lemann, an organizer of the second letter, told the New York Times that such a center was necessary because of the university’s many connections with Israel.

“Many alumni live there, many students and faculty go there regularly, there are many people who work with scholars at Israeli universities,” said Lemann. “There is a rich ongoing exchange there and having the center would enrich it further.”

Columbia certainly has multiple ties to Israel, but those have faced increased scrutiny in recent years. After the school announced a dual degree program with Tel Aviv University in 2019 students circulated a petition condemning the move. “How can Columbia establish an academic program with Tel Aviv University without co-signing the commissioning of war crimes and human rights violations against Palestinians, given TAU’s integration with the Israeli military-industrial complex?” it asked.

In 2020 Columbia University passed a referendum calling on the school to divest its s “stocks, funds, and endowment” from “companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians.” The final vote was 61% Yes and 27.4% No with 11.6% abstaining. The voting body made up almost 40% of enrolled students.

Columbia president Lee Bollinger immediately expressed his opposition to the referendum and made it clear that the school would not be divesting from any companies over such a “complex” issue.

Columbia’s Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi compared Bollinger’s reaction to former president Donald Trump denying the 2020 election results. “When the students express themselves this decisively you would think that the president of a university largely dependent on student tuition would at least make a gesture of respect for their democratically expressed opinion. Instead, the president has shown contempt for the democratic process,” Khalidi told Mondoweiss shortly after Bollinger released his statement. “I’m not suggesting that students should decide investment policy. I’m suggesting there should be respect for their opinions and this was disrespectful of the opinions of the overwhelming majority of the students of Columbia College. So yes the trustees are important, yes the donors are important, yes the political environment is important, yes you can’t have investment decisions made by one vote, but why not see what the whole university community thinks? In any case, a little respect wouldn’t be a bad thing.”