[Apartheid notwithstanding] US: Columbia University to open research centre in Tel Aviv

Middle East Monitor  /  April 5, 2023

Columbia University has announced that it is to open a Global Centre in Tel Aviv, despite 95 faculty members objecting to the decision due to Israel’s human rights violations.

“The centre will connect with individuals and institutions, as well as with the alumni community in Israel, drawing them closer to the ongoing life of the University,” said outgoing Columbia President Lee Bollinger on Monday. “It is more important than ever for Columbia to continue seeking to advance inquiry and learning across borders.”

According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, law Professor Katherine Franke has shared an open letter against the establishment of the centre in Tel Aviv, which has been signed by 95 faculty members. The letter addressed the issue of the extreme far-right Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been indicted on corruption charges. Netanyahu’s government was sworn in on 29 December, following a parliamentary election in November which gave the right-wing bloc a simple majority allowing it to form a coalition government.

“We are particularly concerned that Columbia University would take the bold step of opening a Global Centre in Tel Aviv at this particular moment, with the newly seated government that is widely, if not almost universally, regarded as the most conservative, reactionary, right wing government in Israel’s history,” said the letter’s signatories. “For Columbia to pre-emptively invest in a new Global Centre in Israel at the very moment when the domestic and international community is pulling away as part of a concerted and vehement objection to the new government’s policies would render Columbia not only an outlier, but a collaborator in those very policies.”

The letter also addressed Netanyahu’s controversial judicial overhaul plans, which have caused one of the biggest domestic crises in Israel’s 75-year history. He has faced weeks of mass protests after his religious-nationalist coalition sought changes to the judiciary that would give the government sway in choosing judges and limit the Supreme Court’s power to strike down laws.

Established in various places since 2009, Columbia’s Global Centres are research hubs aimed at promoting the private, New York-based university’s international presence with a focus on climate change, technology, entrepreneurship, arts, the humanities, biology, health and medicine.

Faculty supporters of the Tel Aviv Global Centre argue that, like the other centres, it will be independent of its host country’s government, and will not represent its politics. Their letter in response to the protest letter has 172 signatories.

According to the New York Times, Columbia University has yet to announce when it will open the Tel Aviv centre. It currently has nine Global Centres with locations including Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Athens.

“The decision to locate a centre in all of these countries was never determined by political considerations, but rather to enhance Columbia as a global research university,” the response letter explained. “For a country its size, Israel has an unusually rich infrastructure of universities and other scholarly, cultural, religious, scientific, technological, legal and artistic resources that have intellectual connections to every school at Columbia University.”