Academic intifada

new york | Israelis and Palestinians may one day manage to resolve their differences — but it’s likely that their supporters at Columbia University will still be fighting each other.

It sounds like a sad joke, but Alan Dershowitz is serious.

“The kind of hatred that one hears on campuses like Columbia, and especially Columbia, is a barrier to peace,” the famous Harvard law professor told hundreds of students at Columbia University’s student union earlier this week.

Dershowitz was contrasting the progress being made in the Middle East with the polarized atmosphere at the Manhattan university.

Ever since the public screening a few months ago of “Columbia Unbecoming,” a documentary film in which pro-Israel students claim they have been harassed for their views by their Middle Eastern studies professors, the campus has been embroiled in a crisis that has captured national attention.

Columbia’s administration has responded to the charges by appointing five faculty members to a committee that is hearing testimony and is slated to report its findings by the end of the month.

But pro-Israel advocates and students say the committee members are not free of bias, noting that two of them have signed petitions calling for the university to divest from companies that do business with Israel.

Since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada over four years ago, U.S. college campuses have seen intense debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In many cases, the on-campus debate has spawned criticism of Israel that borders on anti-Semitism. It’s not uncommon to hear Zionism compared to the worst racist or fascist regimes.

Dershowitz’s speech on Monday, Feb. 7, was sponsored by the David Project, the Boston-based advocacy group that produced “Columbia Unbecoming.”

The group’s representatives tried unsuccessfully last week to find a professor to introduce Dershowitz. Excuses ranged from too little notice to the excessively political nature of Dershowitz’s message.

For some audience members, Dershowitz’s speech struck a chord.

“After you listen to him speak, you sort of get some pangs of guilt that you’ve been apathetic about something that’s pretty important,” said Jonathan Levav, an Israeli assistant professor of marketing at Columbia who approached Dershowitz after the speech to ask how he might help Israel’s cause.