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Barenboim Comments Spark Anger As Controversy at Columbia Builds

January 28, 2005
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It’s not often that someone compares the anti-Semitic German composer Richard Wagner to Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism. But at Columbia University on Monday — the day the United Nations marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — the Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim reportedly did just that.

Barenboim, who sparked outrage several years ago by performing Richard Wagner’s music in Israel, where it was taboo to play the work of Hitler’s favorite composer, excoriated the Jewish state at a memorial lecture for his late friend Edward Said, the Columbia professor who was a member of the Palestine National Council.

According to news reports and comments from audience members, Barenboim compared Herzl’s ideas to Wagner’s; criticized Palestinian terrorist attacks but also justified them; and said Israeli actions contributed to the rise of international anti-Semitism.

The lecture is emblematic of an escalating crisis embroiling

Columbia, where faculty members in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures departments have been accused of intimidation by pro-Israel students.

In October 2004, the David Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group, screened a documentary called “Columbia Unbecoming,” airing claims that faculty members harass students who don’t share their anti-Israel views.

Two months later, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger announced the formation of an investigative committee, which is due to issue a report by the end of February.

Pro-Israel students had complained of faculty intimidation before. In 2003, Bollinger responded by appointing another committee to assess the matter. That group found no evidence of bias.

This time around, some are taking issue with the five committee members chosen. Among them are faculty members who signed petitions urging Columbia to divest its holdings in companies that do business with Israel, as well as the former adviser of one of the faculty members accused of intimidation.

Meanwhile, Columbia’s campus newspaper reported Wednesday on the second instance of anti-Semitic vandalism in recent months: A swastika and racial slurs were scrawled in a men’s bathroom at the student union Monday.

In light of the ongoing concern among Jewish students on campus, Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s U.S. ambassador, canceled plans to attend a Columbia conference on the Middle East peace process scheduled for Thursday, according to Israel’s consul general in New York, Arye Mekel.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who coordinated the conference, said he would reschedule the event for September. In an e-mail to JTA, Mitchell explained that several expected guests, including Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, had faced travel difficulties that made the conference inconvenient.

Many Jewish students on campus say they’re distressed by the latest developments.

“I’m feeling really worn out by the whole thing,” sophomore Bari Weiss said. At the same time, she said, “the active Jewish students are committed to being really unrelenting about this whole thing.”

Weiss, who will represent herself and other students before the university committee, is working with Columbians for Academic Freedom. According to its Web site, the group is compiling student grievances to “put a stop to the abuse of professorial power in the pursuit of political ends.”

Weiss just finished a course with Joseph Massad, one of the professors accused of intimidation in “Columbia Unbecoming.”

Weiss said Massad had claimed that Zionism destroyed Jewish culture, said Israeli schoolchildren killed in a terrorist attack were casualties of “crossfire,” and made sarcastic comments about the ongoing investigation into his conduct that silenced critical students. Massad could not be reached as of press time.

“I feel scared because I don’t trust the committee,” Weiss said — but added, “We don’t really have a choice at this point.”

Bollinger, the university president, attended the Barenboim lecture, applauded and failed to criticize his statements, according to several audience members.

Bollinger asked Barenboim “what alternative perspectives must be entertained in order to bring about the resolution we all desperately want” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, according to Susan Brown, a university spokeswoman.

“As a university it is our responsibility to discuss the most controversial and intractable issues of our day, and Columbia must be resolute in its tolerance for those who express unconventional, unpopular and sometimes even offensive views, with which we don’t necessarily agree, in the course of public debate,” Brown said.

Publicist Shira Dicker and her husband, Ari Goldman, dean of students at Columbia’s School of Journalism, were outraged by the lecture.

“I have never encountered such intellectual dishonesty,” said Dicker, who wrote a letter of protest to Bollinger after the lecture.

“Anybody who tries to frame” the debate “as academic freedom is out of their mind,” she said. “It’s bullying.”

Goldman said he was booed when he asked a critical question of Barenboim. He left before Barenboim played the piano following his speech.

Barenboim’s comments were “very disturbing, especially in the charged atmosphere at Columbia now over Israel,” Goldman said. “I know he’s a great musician, but when he started to play, I left. I couldn’t listen to music from someone who had such scary things to say about Jews.”

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