The presidents of Columbia University and Barnard College are publicly opposing a faculty-sponsored campaign calling for their institutions to divest from Israel.
Lee Bollinger of Columbia and Judith Shapiro of Barnard issued written statements last week as a group of faculty and staff members prepared to lobby Columbia’s Board of Trustees to endorse their divestment petition this week.
"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 wrote in his one page statement. "As president of Columbia … I want to state clearly that I will not lend any support to this proposal."
Shapiro, president of the college for women affiliated with Columbia, also said she wanted "to make clear my opposition to a divestment demand that singles out one country in an unsupportable way."
"The approach taken by the divestment petition does not begin to do justice to the historical complexity of the current crisis," Shapiro stated.
She noted "strong doubt" over the claim by some signers of the petition that it was intended to foster debate, saying "we have already seen that it is serving only to further polarize views on the Middle East conflict, with the likely result that positions become more entrenched."
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. It also calls on Columbia to use its financial and political influence to lobby the U.S. government to suspend aid to Israel.
The petition, launched Oct 25, had about 537 signatures at its Web site as of Monday.
The divestment group was to appear Wednesday night before the university’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing.
A counter-petition launched several days later by pro-Israel forces had gained 24,829 signatures as of Monday. Most of the signatures were generated from the greater New York Jewish community.
The counter-petition criticizes the divestment campaign as one-sided and discriminatory against Israel.
Columbia Jewish chaplain and Hillel director Rabbi Charles Sheer, who coordinated the counter petition, applauded Bollinger for taking "a clear and moral stance" on the divestment issue.
Rabbi Sheer said that by rejecting any comparison between Israel and South Africa’s apartheid policies of the 1980s, Bollinger is "clearly accepting our view of the Middle East situation that the comparison is malicious and grossly untrue."
Rabbi Sheer, who planned to speak before the advisory committee on Wednesday, said the ultimate decision on what Columbia does rests with the Board of Trustees, but the position of the president is significant.
Columbia anthropology professor Brinkley Messick, a leader of the divestment campaign, told The Jewish Week Tuesday his group plans to protest Bollinger’s letter because it prejudices the debate process.
"We believe a chief executive must not express an opinion pre-emptively while a matter is still under review at a lower level," he said. "We are going to protest to members of the advisory committee [that] their role and authority has been undermined and compromised."
Bollinger said the conflict in the Middle East "continues to be the subject of intense and emotional debate around the world and on university campuses."
He stressed that he supports open debate as essential to the university’s environment. "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," Bollinger said. "Political debate should, and will, flourish at Columbia."
But Messick said Bollinger is "hypocritical" in talking about free debate "when he has come out on one side in such a hostile and exaggerated fashion. He must retract his communication and return to a position of neutrality."
Shapiro noted that other members of the Columbia-Barnard and international academic communities have condemned the divestment campaign as "an attempt to target Israel by demanding unilateral concessions from it alone in the Middle East conflict."
"The divestment campaign, moreover, is taking place in the context of such occurrences as boycotts against Israeli scholars and the withholding of scholarly texts from Israeli universities by publishers," she said.
But Shapiro also stressed the need for the exercise of free speech. "The goal that I trust we share," she said, "is for Barnard to remain a place where intelligent, constructive debate and engagement can take place with regard to the conflict in the Middle East, as well as to other grave situations that we currently face."