Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Columbia Unbecoming

One of the purposes of my trip to "town" last Sunday was to visit the Columbia Unbecoming event, at (you guessed it) Columbia U. (Other purposes were to meet up with a couple people, and to spend some time walking around the interesting parts of Lower Manhattan, which I'd never been to.) Here are my impressions of CU.

Organizationally, the event seemed very poorly done. The event apparently took place in a classroom which seats only 75 or so people. Predictably, this room filled up extremely fast (I was the 273rd person to register online) and the remaining people were sent to adjoining classrooms, where we watched the events on remarkably bad-quality video screens.

I arrived too late to hear Sharansky speak, and when I came in the video "Columbia Unbecoming" was playing on the video screens - after it ended, it took me a while to figure out I was watching a live lecture and not just another section of the movie. Then Alan Dershowitz spoke for a while, followed by Nat Hentoff, Efraim Karsh, and some others whom I didn't consider worth sticking around for.

The word which I think best sums up the movie is "whiny". After watching, I am fully convinced that some Jewish students have indeed been insulted and humiliated by their Palestinian-sympathizing professors during political discussions. While both I and the protagonists clearly find such behavior to be personally offensive, the movie never tried to explain why it necessitates disciplinary action. I don't agree with what Joseph Massad say, but why must I fight with my life for him not to be able to say it? Perhaps, I thought, Columbia has a strict speech code which prohibits insulting speech, but due to some anti-Israel bias was not invoked in this case. But if this is the case, then say so. "When professor John Aryan intimidated Jane African-American you fired him, but professor Massad did the same and you're giving him tenure?" Or else, point out what condoning terrorism does for Columbia's reputation. (Hint: it doesn't go over well in Middle America.) Either of these would have been a much stronger argument, in my mind.

Dershowitz has a reputation (in my mind) for brilliance, and this time he preached eloquently, but strictly in the direction of the choir. He brought up historical events to prove Israel's righteousness, while of course the Palestinians have their own history (perhaps less truthful - but such an argument was not clearly made, and in any place would have been out of place) which proves that justice is in fact on their side.

The next two speakers, as far as I can remember, explained how academia has become increasingly hostile to Israel in recent years. True - but these speeches reminded me of an occasional pastime of mine, which is visiting Palestinian web sites that document the "tragedy" of expanding settlements in the West Bank. When Israel decides to, say, build 1000 new homes in Beitar Ilit, they see it is an evil imperialist machination, but I am overjoyed that thousands of Israelis are moving to a portion of their Biblical homeland whose settlement will make the entire country safer and more defensible. (Keep in mind, I don't agree with everything individual settlers have done, but as a movement I believe they've done much more good than harm.) Similarly, the only reason I saw advanced for why academic hostility is bad is that it hurts Israel's cause. True again, but of course the "other side" thinks this is a good thing, and will work all the harder to keep it that way.

In short, I don't think the video or event convinced anyone of anything. It merely served to entrench everyone's positions. If you want to convince the other side in a political debate, you must (1) insist on consistency of argument, even if it makes your assertions slightly less persuasive, and then (2) show how their postulates support your conclusions. Otherwise, you lose credibility in their eyes. The event was certainly well-intentioned, but gained no credibility from the other side.

I wonder what my father would think of all this. He's strongly right-wing on Israel issues, but also a maverick professor who champions faculty independence and has an extreme distaste for speech codes, affirmative action, and any other university policies which don't align with his ideal of a laissez-faire meritocracy. I should ask him.

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