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Nearly 100 faculty rebuke Columbia University's plans for new Tel Aviv centre

Academics at US university warn that scholarly collaborations with Israel are difficult when 'they exclude a large part of the population of the country'
People walk past the Alma Mater statue on the Columbia University campus on 1 July 2013 in New York City.
People walk past the Alma Mater statue on Columbia University's campus in New York City, on 1 July 2013 (AFP)

Columbia University's announcement to open a centre in Tel Aviv has drawn outrage from nearly 100 faculty members who say the university should reverse the decision because of the new far-right government in Israel, as well as Israel's discrimination against Palestinians.

The plans for the new centre, announced on Monday, would include programmes on climate change, technology and entrepreneurship and would build on several programmes the university already has with Israel. Columbia has several study abroad and exchange programmes with Israeli universities.

But in the weeks leading up to the announcement, Columbia law professor Katherine Franke began to circulate a letter in opposition to the centre. As of 3 April, the letter has 95 signatures, according to the Columbia Daily Spectator.

“The state of Israel, through formal and informal law, policy, and practice, refuses to abide by international human rights laws and norms both domestically and in its treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories,” Franke wrote in the letter.

English professor Mariane Hirsch, an immigrant from Romania who first visited Israel after the 1967 war, also signed Franke’s letter.

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“I’ve been watching with great sorrow and shock some of Israel’s policies against Palestinians and against its own Palestinian population,” Hirsch told the Columbia Daily Spectator. “The hope that I felt when I first went to Israel as a teenager has dissipated.”

“The issue really is that those academic collaborations have become more and more difficult when they exclude a large part of the population of the country and also the neighboring population.”

A separate letter in support of the university's decision has received around 172 signatures, according to The New York Times.

The letter opposing the new centre also argued that Israel would bar certain faculty members based on their identity, politics, and scholarship.

A number of faculty and students at the university have been barred from entering Israel in recent years including Franke, who in 2018 was denied entry after being detained and interrogated at Ben Gurion International Airport for 14 hours over her political positions.

Israel's far-right government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been receiving sharp criticisms from a number of segments of society in the United States, including liberal Jewish organisations.

However, while this newfound criticism has been levelled against the country, many academics and activists have for years been critical of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, while human rights groups inside and outside of Israel have said it amounts to apartheid.

Concerns over donor influence

Columbia previously faced backlash in 2019 when it announced it would be launching a dual degree programme with Tel Aviv University. 

petition by students affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) urged the university to reconsider the degree or face becoming part of the oppressive architecture of the Israeli state.

"Israel has targeted Palestinian students, graduate workers and faculty members based at American universities with years-long travel bans from their homeland and research sites, often with little to no clear justification," the petition read.

Students accuse Columbia University of 'importing racism' from Israel
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"Without providing due recourse to address such issues and support university affiliates, Columbia risks abetting systemic anti-Palestinian racism and reproducing the racial inequalities of Israeli policies on our own campus." 

Franke wrote in the letter circulating over the past few weeks that she also had “substantial concern about the power of donor money” in the decision-making process.

The issue of donor influence was also brought up earlier this year when former Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth was denied a fellowship at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights.

Roth told Middle East Eye at the time that the decision to deny him a fellowship position had to do with his criticism of Israel, saying that while he wasn't sure whether donor influence played a role, he could not think of any other reason.

The Nation reported that several major donors to the Harvard Kennedy School, which houses the Carr Center, are also ardent supporters of Israel.

"If donor objections, real or anticipated, are behind this, it impoverishes the discourse at the Kennedy School, and understandably leaves Palestinians, or frankly anybody who is willing to look at the Israeli situation objectively, thinking that their views are not welcome."

Soon after, Harvard's Carr Center reversed its decision and offered Roth the fellowship, but the dean of the Kennedy School denied that donors had anything to do with the decision.

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