Columbia University’s plan to open a new center in Tel Aviv has drawn criticism from nearly 100 faculty members who say the university should reconsider the move because of Israel’s human rights record and ongoing political crisis.
Plans to open the center, announced Monday, have been an open secret on campus but have attracted renewed criticism after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election this fall with the help of far-right political allies. Since then, he has pushed judicial reforms that have deeply divided Israel, even as he faces trial for corruption.
Criticism of the Columbia University plan has exploded into the open in recent weeks: Ninety-five faculty members have signed an open letter against the proposal. A competing faculty letter in support of the center garnered 172 signatures.
Professors who have written in opposition to the new center have cited concerns about academic freedom, compliance with US non-discrimination law and “the university’s role in world politics” in light of Israel’s record.
The letter stated that “the State of Israel, through formal and informal law, policies, and practices, refuses to abide by international human rights laws and norms both domestically and in its treatment of Palestinians.”
Columbia did not say when it will open the Tel Aviv Center, which will serve as a research center for professors and graduate students, but will not host undergraduate programs. It will join the university’s 10 other global centers in cities including Beijing, Istanbul, Paris and Nairobi.
In a statement announcing his intent to construct the facility, Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger said the World Center program was “fundamental to Columbia’s mission to connect with the world.”
“It is more important than ever that Colombia continues its quest to promote inquiry and learning across borders,” he said. Samantha Slater, a spokeswoman for Columbia, declined an interview request on Tuesday.
In the letter in favor of the center, faculty members argued that the facility would be separate from Israeli politics.
“One does not have to support the policies of the current government of Israel — and many of us do not — to admit that singling out Israel in this way is not justified,” they wrote, adding that the Tel Aviv Center’s opposition was based on the argument that it “places Israel in a special category of institutional disapproval.” Colombia does not apply to dozens of other countries where its students and faculty work.”
The announcement of the Tel Aviv center comes at a delicate time. Mr Netanyahu’s judicial proposals have led to street protests that have brought the economy to a standstill, and unrest in the military has deepened concerns about the nation’s security.
Critics say the proposed reforms will weaken Israel’s judiciary and undermine its democracy.
Similar concerns raise some concerns about Columbia’s expansion into Tel Aviv. Other concerns include Israel’s 55-year occupation of the West Bank and 15-year blockade of the Gaza Strip, and its practice of denying entry to travelers on the basis of their political views, race or national origin.
This practice, based on a 2017 law, led Israel to bar two US members of Congress from entering the country in 2019.
“It’s not about the occupation specifically, it’s about the entry ban, the travel ban and the question of who’s going to be allowed there,” said Marian Hirsch, a professor of English and comparative literature who signed the letter opposing the plan.
Rashid Khalidi, a history professor at the university, said a number of faculty and students at Columbia University have been denied entry to the country in recent years. He added that this raises questions about topics that can be discussed freely in the new facility.
Kathryn Frank, a Columbia University law professor, was denied entry to Israel in 2018 after being detained and interrogated at the airport for 14 hours over her political positions.
The academic center will expand Columbia’s presence in Israel, where students can already earn a dual degree from Tel Aviv University; Study abroad in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem; or pursuing short-term studies in business administration, medicine, or the Yiddish language.
Mr. Al-Khalidi said human rights and academic freedom should guide the university’s approach to dealing with overseas facilities, regardless of the host country.
“There are problems elsewhere where Colombia has global centers,” he said, citing China, Turkey and Jordan. “These considerations may not have been thought of before the other centers were created, but if we create a new center, we now have an opportunity to think about these things.”
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