Two days ago Columbia College undergraduates voted overwhelmingly to divest from companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians under “apartheid” law. The university’s president Lee Bollinger promptly repudiated the vote saying it was a “complex” issue on which no campus consensus exists.
Speaking to the Arab Center Wednesday, Columbia history professor Rashid Khalidi said the vote, in a city that has the largest Jewish population in the world, was a remarkable sign of change. I called Khalidi, who is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, to elaborate.
Rashid Khalidi: I think we are seeing something really quite remarkable, at least on college campuses. There was a similar vote at Barnard College in 2018 and another recently at University of Illinois [Urbana-Champaign]. Let’s look at the Columbia students’ vote. The final count was:
Yes – 1081 (61.0%)
No – 485 (27.4%)
Abstain – 205 (11.6%)
So that was a resounding majority in a vote that represents– 1771– nearly 40% of the students at Columbia College. This is not some meager turnout. [Enrollment was 4675 in 2019, per Columbia’s own numbers.]
This is the result of extensive mobilization on both sides. Both sides got out everyone they could get out is my sense. There are just not that many undergrads at Columbia who support what Israel is doing to Palestinians, even among people who are Zionist or pro-Israel in some way, especially given the hardline Israeli government.
But universities are not a democracy?
No. But students are an important constituency of the university. Obviously, universities don’t base investment decisions only on what the students want. But Lee Bollinger’s statement reminds me of what Trump said during the first debate, when he refused to say that he would respect the result of a democratic vote on November 3, thereby confirming his contempt for the democratic process. This statement rejecting the overwhelming student vote on divestment at Columbia shows the same contempt for the democratically expressed views of a key component of the university community, undergraduate students.
And I think it shows that there are communities to which he pays more attention. And clearly for a university president whose main job is fundraising, those are donors. Also I recognize that the political environment that he operates in is very largely pro Israel.
Nevertheless, it would be very easy to show some respect for the opinions expressed by over 1000 undergrads after a lengthy campaign in which both sides had ample opportunity to put forward their views, but instead he is just disregarding them. This shows contempt for student opinion in an attempt to pander I think to people for whom the very idea of BDS is an outrage.
What do you mean by political environment?
The New York political environment is still dominated by people like Chuck Schumer. They’re leaving the House but Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel represent the generation of politicians who are still in charge of the Democratic Party here, people like Governor Cuomo. Now you have new politicians coming up who represent the grassroots but is our senatorial contingent changing? No. Is our overall House contingent for New York changing? No. Will the majority of them still vote for anything Israel wants? Yes. So yes Mondaire Jones won, Jamaal Bowman won. But Schumer and Cuomo are still there. As are many others. At the top things haven’t changed. It’s percolating up but it has not yet reached the top.
You said on the Arab Center talk yesterday, New York has the largest Jewish population center in the world, the city where the Biltmore declaration went through in 1942,” when US Jews threw in with hardcore Zionism [the declaration advocated the transformation of Palestine, a country that then had a 65% Arab majority, into a “Jewish commonwealth”]. Are you saying that we may be seeing a counter shift in the Jewish community?
Columbia has a high percentage of Jewish students. [Hillel International lists Columbia at 15th among private universities; and another Jewish website says its numbers approach 30 percent]. The point is that this happening at Barnard and Columbia College signifies something. This is not just a coalition of Arab students or minority students – JVP [Jewish Voice for Peace] is leading this, together with SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine]- which is enormously important I think. And this is not a tiny minority of Jewish students. This is a sizeable group within that population.
The divide between the students on the one hand and the administration, trustees and donors to the University is similar to the difference between the Democratic Party base and the establishment leadership of the Democratic Party, which is completely unchanged in what I would call their fealty to a set of established tenets: Israel is more important than Palestine. Israelis should have more rights than Palestinians. The U.S. is committed to doing what Israel and AIPAC want in terms of American domestic law, in terms of Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East, in terms of normalizing Israel in the Middle East notwithstanding its treatment of the Palestinians. These are bipartisan views. So the Democratic Party establishment is far to the right of the base, if you believe Shibley Telhami’s polling data he went over yesterday [in Arab Center talk], and every other recent poll, whether by the Pew Research Center or Brookings. So the party leadership is in one place and the base is in another, and that’s true of the Columbia administration on the one hand and our students on the other. You have the Barnard vote two years ago, you now have the Columbia College vote.
If you polled graduate students, you’d probably have an even more pro-divestment outcome. If you were to add professional school students, it would perhaps be a slightly different outcome. The law school, the business school—you’d have students who are probably more against divestment. If you add social work and teachers college and journalism and SIPA, you’d probably have more support for divestment. The university community is very varied, but the older more powerful people tend to be more conservative, anti-BDS, while younger people are much less conservative and more open minded. Just as older, richer more established Democrats are more conservative on Israel.
You likened Bollinger’s statement to Trump comments about the election, not accepting the results. Elaborate.
“The Columbia College student body has voted to recommend that the University should divest from companies profiting from or otherwise supporting Israeli policy toward the Palestinian people.
“At Columbia, questions about possible divestment of endowment funds are not decided by referendum…. —
“I made clear earlier this year that I do not support the referendum. To do so would contradict a long-held understanding that the University should not change its investment policies on the basis of particular views about a complex policy issue, especially when there is no consensus across the University community about that issue.”
Now you can look at the university’s divestment from thermal coal companies  and other moves related to climate change and you can see that’s not true, opinion does have an effect on how they invest. But admittedly in that case there is consensus. All good thinking liberals think that climate change is bad and coal companies are bad. Would we have consensus on divestment if they asked all students and all faculty? I do not know. But I bet they would not dare to ask.
Bollinger went on:
“Furthermore, in my view, as I have expressed many times over the years, it is unfair and inaccurate to single out this specific dispute for this purpose when there are so many other, comparably deeply entrenched conflicts around the world.”
Now what conflicts around the world do major corporations have major investments in? None. How many countries around the world, besides Israel, get $4 billion in US aid? None. You could go on and on in blowing that old talking point that he got from his advisors out of the water.
“And, finally, I have also raised concerns about how this debate over BDS has adversely affected the campus climate for many undergraduate students in our community.”
So some pro Israel students have complained that their feelings are hurt to hear Israel criticized. That’s just illegitimate. I’m sure there are other students whose feelings are being hurt by hearing their political positions challenged. We’re not a kindergarten, where the “campus climate” is interpreted to mean, “my feelings are hurt.” If there’s racist, or overtly harmful language, or threats of violence, if people’s ethnicities or religions are being impugned, that’s a legitimate argument about campus climate. Here we’re talking about political debate about a foreign country of which the United States is virtually the only global supporter, and whose practices are supported by major corporations, in which the university is invested.
I don’t think you can say that what Russia is doing in the Ukraine has corporations supporting it that the university can divest from. Or what is happening in Myanmar. I could cite eight or nine conflicts. I would be all for divesting from arms corporations that sell weapons to Saudi Arabia or the UAE, whose American-made planes are destroying Yemen. It ain’t going to happen. But I’d be in favor of it. U.S. corporations are deeply invested there, and the pro divestment people say they are opposed to those autocratic regimes as well.
“Of course, I remain an unflinching proponent of robust debate over contested issues such as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.”
What is the call for divestment but a demand for a robust debate? Everyone knows that the University is not going to do it, but this referendum has opened up an uncomfortable debate that the other side wants to shut down. Of course we all want to be comfortable, but challenging comfortable, unexamined beliefs is part of what universities are supposed to be about. If people want to stay in their little cocoons, why should they waste all that money on tuition? Let them save their money and stay comfortably at home without anyone around to challenge their fixed ideas.
“Such discussions and debates are part of the essential purpose of the University, and we should all welcome the critical thinking that so often emerges and leads to improvements in our world. But altering our endowment in order to advance the interests of one side is not among the paths we will take.”
Just three paragraphs. Read them and weep! Bollinger is essentially taking sides, reproducing the talking points of the losers of this election. Singling out this dispute – “why are you focusing on poor little Israel?” That’s the oldest talking point in the book. Similarly this stuff about the “campus climate.”
What’s the analogy to Trump saying I will ignore the election results.
The analogy is to say that these things are not decided by referendum, and you have to have consensus across the university community. If those things are true—if the university does take into account opinion, as it should, why are only donors and trustees stakeholders? Why aren’t students stakeholders? Why aren’t the faculty consulted on this? The president doesn’t want to consult the faculty because he might lose. He might not. There are some faculty up at the medical school and over at the business and law schools, who are virulently opposed to BDS. But I don’t think he’s interested in democratic consultation on this issue.
When the students express themselves this decisively you would think that the president of a university largely dependent on student tuition would at least make a gesture of respect for their democratically expressed opinion. Instead, the president has shown contempt for the democratic process. I’m not suggesting that students should decide investment policy. I’m suggesting there should be respect for their opinions and this was disrespectful of the opinions of the overwhelming majority of the students of Columbia College. So yes the trustees are important, yes the donors are important, yes the political environment is important, yes you can’t have investment decisions made by one vote, but why not see what the whole university community thinks? In any case, a little respect wouldn’t be a bad thing.