Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger Thursday night criticized as “grotesque and offensive” a faculty-sponsored petition calling for the university to divest from Israel.
“The petition alleges human rights abuses and compares Israel to South Africa at the time of apartheid, an analogy I believe is both grotesque and offensive,” Bollinger said in a statement. “As president of Columbia … I want to state clearly that I will not lend any support to this proposal.”
Bollinger’s statement comes as two opposing petitions are competing for the support of the Columbia University community.
A committee formed by some Columbia and Barnard faculty members is calling for a targeted divestiture campaign against American corporations that manufacture military equipment used by Israel against the Palestinians.
The petition, which has gained about 400 signatures at its Web site, also calls on Columbia to use its financial and political influence to lobby the U.S. government to suspend aid to Israel.
However, a counter petition launched last week by pro-Israel forces has gained more than 5,000 signatures. The counter petition, which is also being circulated among New York’s Jewish community, criticizes the divestment campaign as one-sided and discriminatory against Israel.
Columbia Jewish chaplain Rabbi Charles Sheer, who coordinated the counter petition, called Bollinger’s remarks “a very fine statement. It’s short and to the point.”
In his statement, Bollinger noted that the conflict in the Middle East “continues to be the subject of intense and emotional debate around the world and on university campuses.
“Recently, some Columbia and Barnard faculty formed a committee and launched a petition campaign demanding that Columbia University divest from all companies that produce or sell arms or other military hardware to Israel.
“There are procedures established at Columbia for considering proposals of this sort. Anyone can submit a proposal to the University’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing for resolution.”
The pro-divestment group will appear before the advisory committee on Wednesday.
Bollinger also stressed he supports open debate as essential to the university’s environment.
“It is equally clear to me that a rigorous and open debate about the issues in the Middle East-and, in particular, about the policies of the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership, is not only appropriate but also essential to life in an academic institution. “Every member of our community is free to express his or her opinion or views on all aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or any other issue. Political debate should, and will, flourish at Columbia.”