The Spine

Inside The Columbia Drama


Columbia is "reeling," reads the headline in Wednesday's New York Times. Columbia is the Sulzbergers's university, and they had traditionally put a wordy buffer between what really happened at the institution and their paper's readers. Of course, that's virtually impossible to do these days. Still, it is not the Times that has excelled in reportage on Columbia during the past few tempestuous years. It is the Sun which has taken on that burden -- and, with some pleasure, I would think, since the university is a model of what the upstart daily thinks of as paradigmatic of the cowardice of liberal institutions in general. Or worse, the pusillanimity of liberal institutions when their very liberalism is being undermined from within.

In any case, Columbia is really reeling; and its wobbliness about what it stands for has been magnified since Lee Bollinger became president. He is simply scared out of his wits by Edward Said's less bright heirs on Morningside Heights. I have posted on this matter before. Actually, I am sure that Said would never have condoned an invitation to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a lower class thug and a Shi'a besides, both an offense to Said's elitism and to his ill-fated Christian maneuvering to make Arab nationalism safely secular. I note that, with his usual discretion and allergy to street fights, Rashid Khalidi has not been heard from on the A'jad matter. He has bigger fish to fry: making sure that that vulgar practitioner of critical theory and deconstructor and rewriter of narratives, Joseph Massud, gets tenure. And that the Barnard tenure aspirant, Nadia Abu El-Haj, who believes that archeology proves there were never any Hebrews in the Holy Land, also is tenured. My guess is that, this time, the gang loses.

Of course, it is not only Columbia that is reeling. It is Bollinger himself. The faculty see this; the students certainly see this; and the trustees who typically will give a president enough rope to hang himself see that he has. My conclusion is that Bollinger is on his way out. The mandate of heaven has deserted him. He has no authority, least of all moral authority.

I also have a speculation about why the earnest protestations of Jewish students and others who were pro-Israel never could touch Bollinger about their terrible experiences in classes in the Middle East: he himself is Jewish, maybe an ambivalent Jew, maybe a frightened Jew, but a Jew nonetheless.

There are three people who have played a curious role in this drama.

One is John Coatsworth, whom Bollinger lured from Harvard to replace the sneaky Lisa Anderson as dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. What can one say about Coatsworth without having oneself strung up as a McCarthyite? Let's leave it at this: at least since graduate school at the University of Wisconsin he has been extremely radical. Why would a radical find common cause with an Islamic fascist? By the way, Coatsworth signed the Harvard divest-from-Israel petition. Did Bollinger imagine that such a person could (or would want to) restore calm to the Middle East programs at Columbia that were in his SIPA portfolio?

Richard Bulliet is the Columbia historian who negotiated with the Iranians for their president's visit. I've read what I believe is a wonderful book of his, The Camel and the Wheel, although I admit that my credentials for judgment are slight. I've also read parts of The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, a cross-your-fingers-and-hope book, predictably well-reviewed by Juan Cole, which is by now even worse than getting a good review from John Esposito. Bulliet was a supporter of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

There's a personal angle for me in this saga. It involves a Columbia professor, Michael Stanislavski, whom I have known since he was an undergraduate at Harvard and I an assistant professor. He is a very good historian, and I've read three of his books on Jewish history. Moreover, I've learned from them, although my view of E.M. Lilien (someone you don't know of) is different than his. About two years ago, I was scheduled to speak at a Columbia meeting protesting the patent bias of the Middle Eastern faculty against Israel. Michael asked me not to come, arguing that, among other things, it would be unfair to Bollinger who was well-intentioned on the matter and would take deliberate action to solve the situation. I had no interest in inflaming it. So I called the student who had invited me and told him why I would, in the end, not speak. Still, I left out Professor Stanislavski's role in my decision. Stanislavski and I have had difficult exchanges since on these matters. He even wrote a letter to the chairman of a Jewish scholarly institution saying Columbia would not cooperate with it as long as I was on its board. It was a preposterous communication: one professor's pique doesn't decide whether his university would have an institutional relationship with another part of the academy.

As this drama has unfolded I wondered what Stanislavski made of Bollinger's canceling A'jad last year, giving permission for his speaking this year. Inviting him and then attacking him, a cowardly act followed by an act of spurious bravery. There is in Jewish history the figure of the court-Jew. This Jew did financial and commercial business for the prince. Sometimes he was a medical doctor and cared for the prince and his family. He also tried to intercede for the Jews when trouble was coming their way. Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes he failed. I guess Michael failed. But Jews no longer need court-Jews, and they haven't for at least a century. It must be sad trying to fill a function that has been obsolete for so long.

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