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  • Ufon Umanah

The Long Game

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Columbia students are still debating Israel–Palestine after decades of little progress.

By Ufon Umanah

Council hosted its second debate on Columbia’s engagement with the Israel-Palestine conflict. As a practical consequence of the size of the Lerner Hall’s Satow Room, seating was limited, much to the chagrin of students who had been camped in line all day to debate the question at hand from Columbia University Apartheid Divest: “Do you support Columbia’s divesting its stocks, funds, and endowment from categories of companies identified by CUAD’s campaign (i.e. divestment)—a tactic which CUAD’s Statement to the Columbia Community says is embedded in the BDS movement?”

The March 10 meeting marked the third consecutive time student councils have debated the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement. And yet, it’s extraordinarily unlikely CUAD’s electoral defeat, 17–20, will alter the discourse. In fact, the Columbia community has disagreed on this subject for decades, and while the conflict itself has changed, the debate at the University hasn’t for a long while.

In tracing the origins of the modern Israel-Palestine debate, Students for a Democratic Society provides a good starting place. In the Columbia annals, SDS is best known for its association with the 1968 protests that froze campus and captured global attention for years since. However, by October of 1970, SDS as an organization wanted to “make people think more objectively about the Middle East,” since in their view “most people are cramped into a Zionist interpretation of the Middle-East crisis.”

That October could be considered a difficult month for the forefront activist group. On the 7th, SDS led protests against David Fahri, then a professor at Hebrew University in Israel speaking at the Men’s Faculty Club at Columbia. SDS also clashed with members of the Jewish Defense League, which in 1970 had a Columbia chapter. The JDL has been widely denounced today, and their violent tactics led the moderate pro-Israel lobby of the time, Kadimah, to condemn their actions.

That didn’t mean that Kadimah and SDS got along, quite the opposite. Later, on October 29th, the two organizations agreed to what the Columbia Daily Spectator described as a heated debate. A former president of Kadimah, Steve Cohen, insisted that Israel had a “right to exist as an independent, sovereign nation state,” and that even with the country’s flaws, “do they warrant the destruction of Israel?” A SDS spokesman, Barry Sautman replied that “the Zionists have turned their state into a racist state” in a speech that ended, according to the Spectator, with Sautman alleging “that there was Nazi-Zionist collaboration during World War II.” One member of the audience drew laughter and applause by challenging “Barry, what kind of Jew are you?”

The anti-Semitism that this debate tends to invoke, as the testimonies in Satow on March 10th would indicate, appears to be very present in the 70s. In 1971, a letter to the Editor describes a flyer designed by the Columbia Anti-Imperialist Movement which featured “a tasty looking pie labeled ‘Palestine’…surrounded by an American ‘pig’ waiting eagerly to carve it up,” and “a grim skeleton wearing an eyepatch and bearing a Star of David on its chest, its greedy hand the only one in the pie.” While C.A.I.M apologized that their depiction of Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defense of Israel, had upset people, they defended the image as a critique of Israel’s role in securing US oil interests. For a representative of Kadimah, however, the depiction was “where the flyer stops being political and degenerates into the worst kind of anti-Semitic propaganda.”

However, the 70s also show the beginnings of intersectionality between pro-Palestinian activists and other identity groups on campus. Take, for example, a letter to the Editor from the Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters in 1973, which starts with the assertion that “Israel is a imperialist” and continues to say that Zionists in Israel removed “the native Arab population of Palestine in the same way that Indians in America and Africans in South Africa were removed.” Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students argue to this day about the relevance of both Native Americans and South Africans to the state of Israel. It is worth noting that when Columbia students protested Henry Kissinger in September 1978, the march was sponsored by the Committee Against Investment in South Africa, which within a week would also campaigned for “affirmative action, dismantlement of the TRIGA reactor, gay rights and student housing demands.” Those four things aren’t directly involved in South African politics. But their sponsorship of the march seems to indicate a level of intersectional solidarity in the South African divestment campaign that pro-Palestinian students seemed to have in 1973.

That also seems to be where the differences end. In May of 1978, the University Senate voted in favor of selling stocks from corporations with South African holdings that showed ‘indifference’ to apartheid and divestment from banks that lent money to the South African government, according to the New York Times. What indifference meant in this context was unclear, speakers worried that the proposal would cripple Columbia’s fragile finances and scare investors, and the Senate narrowly voted down a proposal that would have divestment from companies that refused to remove their South African holdings. But it was a victory that the Trustees upheld. The quick trajectory of a win on South African divestment, which started in September 1977, dwarfs the progress CUAD has made in the same time period, and even the struggle for Palestinian rights starting from the early 70s.

That isn’t to say the fight ended in 1978. Readers might be more familiar with efforts in 1985, which eventually led to full divestment from South Africa, though a year before Congress would authorize sanctions against the country. A new group, Coalition for a Free South Africa (CFSA), arraigned a blockade of Hamilton Hall after being disappointed with Trustee inaction. At its height, protesters were able to keep a thousand students maintaining the blockade at all times. However, victory on South Africa said nothing about situation in Israel…until 1986.

“The Palestinian and the South African people are fighting the same war. Our oppressors have come together under the umbrella of the United States of America.” These were the words of a Jeanne Butterfield in a March 1986 event titled “Racism in South Africa and Israel,” two semesters after Columbia divested from South Africa. CFSA was a co-sponsor to the event, along with the Arab Club of Columbia. The comparison drew arguments from both sides, with pro-Israel students, in and outside Columbia, dismissing the comparison of a free Israel to an oppressive South Africa, and pro-Palestinian writers arguing that it was a open question “whether one can be pro-Zionist without being anti-Palestinian.”

For our purposes, we get a clear crystallization of the shape of the pro-Palestinian coalition in 1988. The Columbia Jewish Office wanted to spark discourse between the Arab and Jewish communities on campus by inviting Israeli Judge Advocate General and retired Brigadier General Amnon Straschnow to the Law School. The protest that would shut down this event was led by a coalition of the “Student Committee for Palestinian Human Rights (PHRC), the Arab Club at Columbia, Columbia Students in Solidarity with Nicaragua, Columbia/ Barnard Democratic Socialists of America, and the Black Students Organization.” The Black Students Organization still exists today and remains in support of the CUAD campaign, along with 15 other left-of-center and identity organizations.

The point of all of this isn’t to religitate the past for one side or the other. Both sides can draw on Columbia’s history to argue that they either have a mandate to resolve this issue consistent with Columbia’s history of respecting human rights, or that invoking this issue will inevitably bring forth anti-Semitic dog-whistles and bullhorns. What’s true is that the discourse has stayed in a holding pattern for decades, apropos of adjacent student campaigns, campus discourse, and at this point three referenda results.

In a Senate plenary on March 8th, University Senators introduced a town hall model for controversial topics, spurred by a controversial speaker series hosted by the Columbia University College Republicans and unrelated to the history described here. There’s no telling whether a town hall hosted by the University Senate would avoid the pitfalls of either the CCSC debates or the October 29th debate. However, the reality is that with CUAD failing to get two-thirds majority for a referendum in CCSC, activists are running out of options to demonstrate broad student support, one of the criterion for recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing. An open-ended town hall, with no immediate conclusion or controversial referendum item on the table, might be the only way to get one of the University’s most powerful governing bodies to pay attention in a controlled environment where anti-Semitism can be nipped in the bud.


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