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One, Two, Three, Four, Can a Columbia Movement Rise Once More?

Chris Kulawik, 20, junior, president of the College Republicans  

The left should thank Kulawik. He had awakened the ghost of activism. Lillian Udell, the freshman from Long Island, was in the back of the hall that night, wanting to hear the speech, uncertain about the rightness of rushing the stage. In the weeks that followed, she felt energized.

“I was glad the whole thing happened,” Lillian says. “Something about Minuteman felt different. I thought, This is what the sixties felt like. There was an incendiary spark to it. It refocused media attention on the campus. And I thought we can use that advantageously, in terms of national and foreign policy.”

The incident also exposed what left-wing students saw as corporate hypocrisy on the university’s part. Two weeks before Minuteman, Columbia stopped plans for a speech on campus by Iran’s notorious president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, citing security concerns and “logistics.” Ahmadinejad had been invited by the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; at a time of international tension, the speech would undoubtedly have been important. Whose free speech counted? Bollinger’s critics said he had deferred to big donors out of concern for his legacy: Columbia’s planned campus in West Harlem. And now Columbia was standing up for the rights of a right-wing fringe group, the Minutemen—“a hate group—as identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center,” David Judd said on the front page of the Spectator.

Olivia Rosane, an aspiring writer from Seattle, was radicalized by the episode. “The protesters were instantly vilified, rather than the university saying, ‘What were you trying to do, what happened?’”

Two of those left-wingers became campus figures after Minuteman. David Judd engaged in sharp debates on the undergraduate-student magazine’s blog, Karina Garcia debated Nat Hentoff on campus and did a speaking tour in California. I heard Karina described as a revolutionary. She is a shy person, and I was careful when I asked her about her political education.

“You know, I don’t have any illusions anymore,” she told me. “[Minuteman] opened my eyes. I used to consider myself a Democrat, too. The only change that can be made in this country is through organizing masses of people. Not lobbying the Democrats and praying they will change their minds. The people will make the change. Not the politicians.”

When she got up to go, she had a girlish smile. “Fuck it, I am a radical. I’m just not crazy.”

Israel-Palestine is the great wound in Columbia student life. There are many Jewish students, and the pro-Israel contingent often seems the predominant political bloc. But the pro- Palestinian activists are a vocal minority. When a Jewish student impishly invited Saifedean Ammous, a Palestinian grad student whose grandparents lost their land to Israel, to a party celebrating Israel’s birth on May 15 last year, Saif went, in his kaffiyeh, and angry words were exchanged. For liberal Jewish kids, the criticisms of Israel are agonizing, and the debate over its role in American foreign policy has stymied the antiwar movement.

“Palestine is the undercurrent in every conversation between the two sides of the progressive movement,” says coalition member Jake Matilsky. “It is emotionally charged, and not addressed in a pragmatic fashion … We need to lock ourselves in a room, the two sides of the argument, and talk about justice and its practical applications to Palestine. But we need to do it in a way that does not frighten away the Jews.”

Here again, the right wing has been an important actor in campus politics. Three years ago, a pro-Israel group called the David Project made a film called Columbia Unbecoming, documenting instances in which Arab and Muslim professors apparently badgered Zionist students over their views. It became a cause for pro-Israel groups. “Reporters from the New York Sun were on a witch hunt on campus,” says Zach Wales, a pro-Palestinian grad student. “Joseph Massad [a Palestinian professor] had to outrun a reporter. If he sneezed, they knew how hard.”

There are two narratives about the David Project on campus. Pro-Israel students say that it was inevitable. “MEALAC [Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures] was teaching students garbage,” says Andrew Avorn, formerly head of the Pro-Israel Progressives. “Those professors were saying things that were so untrue—it would be like if a physics professor gave you the wrong number for g [gravitational force].”

But left-wing and Arab students invariably describe it as a “witch hunt.” They saw professors intimidated. “Students were afraid. Professors were shown to be vulnerable,” says Sakib Khan. “[MEALAC] had a stifling effect on pro-Palestinian speech on campus.”

Columbia’s investigation of the case sought to balance the free-speech right of the professors against another right, that of students not to be intimidated. Arthur Eisenberg, a free-speech expert for the NYCLU, says the school deferred too much to an outside group that was trying to change Columbia’s curriculum. “The David Project crossed the line in ways that raised academic freedom concerns,” he says. “The Columbia academic committee that investigated the episode was insufficiently alert to that issue.”