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

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

Plans for the new center, announced Monday, would include programs on climate change, technology and entrepreneurship and would complement the various programs the university already has with Israel. Columbia has several study abroad and exchange programs with Israeli universities.

But in the weeks leading up to the announcement, Columbia law professor Katherine Franke began circulating a letter opposing the center. As of April 3, 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 comply with international human rights laws and conventions at home and in its treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories,” Franke wrote in the letter.

English professor Mariane Hirsch, a Romanian immigrant who visited Israel for the first time after the war in 1967, also signed Franke’s letter.

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“I have watched with great sadness and shock some of Israel’s policies against Palestine and against its own Palestinian population,” Hirsch told the Columbia Daily Spectator. “The hope I felt when I first went to Israel as a teenager has dissipated.”

“The real issue is that those academic collaborations are becoming more and more difficult when they exclude a large part of the country’s population and the neighboring population.”

A separate letter supporting the university’s decision has received about 172 signatures, according to The New York Times.

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

Several faculty and students at the university have been barred from entering Israel in recent years including Franke, who was denied entry in 2018 after being detained and questioned at Ben Gurion International Airport for 14 hour over their political positions.

Israel’s far-right government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is receiving sharp criticism from some sections of society in the United States, including liberal Jewish organizations.

Although this new criticism has been leveled against the country, however, many academics and activists have for years criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, and human rights groups inside and outside Israel have said that apartheid it.

Concerns about donor influence

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

A petition from students affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has urged the university to reconsider the degree or face of being part of the oppressive architecture of the state of Israel .

“Israel has targeted Palestinian students, graduate workers and faculty members based at American universities with multi-year travel bans from their homeland and research sites, often without any clear justification,” the petition read.

Students accuse Columbia University of ‘importing racism’ from Israel

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“Without an appropriate mandate to address such issues and support university affiliates, Columbia risks perpetuating systemic anti-Palestinian racism and the racial inequity of Israeli policies on our own campuses to reproduce.”

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

The issue of donor influence was also highlighted earlier this year when the former director of Human Rights Watch, 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 was related to his criticism of Israel, saying that while he was unsure whether donor influence played a role, he could think of no other reason.

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

“If donor objections, real or projected, are behind this, it disrupts the discourse at the Kennedy School, and understandably leaves the Palestinians, or anyone willing to look at the Israeli situation objectively, thinking that welcome their comments.”

Soon after, the Harvard 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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