Officials at a Columbia University department established in 2005 to balance an anti-Israel tilt in Middle Eastern scholarship at the university have appointed as its director a professor who signed a letter labeling Israeli policy "the occupation and oppression of another people."
Supporters of Israel on campus say they are disappointed about the appointment of Yinon Cohen as the new director of the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, in light of his previous statements.
A Columbia business professor and co-chair of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Awi Federgruen, called the administration's decision "deeply, deeply troubling."
"It's clear that he represents a very extreme segment of the political spectrum in Israel," Mr. Federgruen said. "I also think he is in fact distorting in a major way the history of the region and the history of the country."
In May 2002, Mr. Cohen, then a professor at Tel Aviv University, endorsed a statement that supported Israelis who refused to serve in military operations in Gaza and the West Bank during a violent uprising by Palestinian Arabs. The letter was signed by 358 faculty members at 21 Israeli colleges and universities.
"Such service too often involves carrying out orders that have no place in a democratic society founded on the sanctity of human life," the letter read. "For thirty five years an entire people, some three and a half million in number, have been held without basic human rights. The occupation and oppression of another people have brought the State of Israel to where it is today."
A Columbia professor of epidemiology and vice president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Judith Jacobson, called Mr. Cohen's letter "very insulting."
"I am offended because in May 2002, the Intifada was going on actively, and people within Israel, not beyond the green line, were being killed. The idea of the refusal to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories was so harmful to Israel. I'm offended," she said.
Mr. Cohen began his academic career at Tel Aviv University after receiving his Ph.D. in sociology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He joined Columbia's sociology department last year, and his recent research projects have explored income inequality in Israel, the transformation of the Israeli labor system, and sociological patterns of immigrants in Israel, Germany, and America. At Columbia, Mr. Cohen teaches a graduate course on Israeli society.
Students on campus are reacting to the news of Mr. Cohen's appointment, which was reported earlier by Martin Kramer's Web log, Sandstorm, with respect for academic freedom.
"Professor Cohen voiced his criticism of Israel in a reasoned and responsible manner," a spokesman for a pro-Israel student group, LionPAC, Jacob Shapiro, said in an e-mail message. "Regardless of his personal beliefs, we hope that Professor Cohen will continue to demonstrate his commitment to meaningful discussion about Israel and its role in the international community."
The New York Sun previously reported that the Columbia search committee responsible for hiring a director included one of academia's most outspoken critics of Israel, Rashid Khalidi, as well as a professor who supported an anti-Israel divestment campaign on campus, Lila Abu-Lughod. The Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies was created with $3 million from donors that included the commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, and financiers Richard Witten, Philip Milstein, and Mark Kingdon.
None of the donors could be reached for comment.
Mr. Cohen did not respond to two voice messages and an e-mail message from the Sun left during a two-day period.