Students at my alma mater, Columbia University, have recently been confronted with a problem that had little to do with passing their midterms.
Some of those taking courses in Middle East studies have reported that pro-Palestinian professors have intimidated them, and that an atmosphere of bias against Jews and Israel exists in some departments.
Following the showing of a documentary about the problem titled "Columbia Unbecoming," university president Lee Bollinger responded by appointing a committee to investigate. Given the fact that Bollinger had responded to prior complaints along the same lines with a committee that found no bias, student protesters have little faith in the process.
Why should they? Among those newly appointed by the university to investigate bias against Jews are faculty members who have signed a petition calling for divestment of university holdings from companies that do business in Israel.
The situation grew worse last week when famed Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim gave a university-sponsored lecture at the Morningside Heights campus in Upper Manhattan, in which he blasted his homeland as being responsible for the rise of international anti-Semitism. He also justified Palestinian terrorism.
The occasion for his speech was an event held to honor of the memory of his late friend Edward Said, the Palestinian literature professor at Columbia who was better known for his lifetime of advocacy against Israel's existence.
Of course, the dominance of left-wing politics in the cultural life of Columbia, a campus that was famous for its violent anti-war protests in the 1960s and '70s, is nothing new. What's different now is that Jews and Israel seem to be absorbing a lot more of the heat that otherwise might have been directed elsewhere.
WHO'S IN THE CROSS-HAIRS?
But what interests me most about this story is the fact that several students have noted that they, and not the professors who stand accused of bias, have become the focus of comment.
Other students have been quoted as being tired of the whole controversy and wishing it would go away. The resentment against those who have made trouble about bias seems to have outpaced negative reaction about the real wrong-doers.
This isn't a unique reaction. Jews who speak up too loudly about hate are never going to win popularity contests.
As the world paid homage to the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last week, it has become increasingly clear that making a fuss over the Holocaust has been no impediment to a process of delegitimization for Israel.
Dead Jews are popular at places like the United Nations and European capitals, where Holocaust ceremonies were held on Jan. 27. Live ones who have the chutzpah to defend themselves are rarely the flavor of the month.
But as the stench of hatred for Jews rises from an increasingly militant Arab world, and as contempt for Israel and Zionism rises in Europe, what we are faced with is the question of how best to respond to these incidents. While some of us are prepared to rush to the barricades, there is growing sentiment in some quarters for a new, softer approach to anti-Semitism.
In particular, those defense agencies that have specialized in outrage about the situation are now, like the students at Columbia, as much in the cross-hairs as the Israel-bashers.
The Anti-Defamation League and its ubiquitous leader, Abraham Foxman, have become whipping boys for those who see it as being too noisy about anti-Semitism. For some, it was Foxman's fault that Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" gained so much media attention even before the film opened.
While there was something to the argument that the ADL leader was outfoxed by Gibson's public-relations machine, the notion that Foxman, and not the filmmaker, should be the object of criticism has it all wrong.
The same thing happened last year when some of those throwing rhetorical bricks at the Bush administration about the conflict in Iraq began to talk about the so-called "neoconservatives." That term was widely perceived as a code word for prominent Jewish intellectuals who had advocated for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The libel that America's war was fought for the sake of Israel and/or the Jews was despicable, and generated protest from many in the Jewish community.
But before long, some like retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni or former CIA analyst and author Michael Scheuer who had been in the forefront of this nastiness began trying to turn the tables on their critics by alleging that the mere act of identifying and condemning their flirtations with anti-Semitic libels was itself objectionable.
Not for the first time, Israel-bashers sought to paint themselves as the victims and put the defenders of the Jews on the defensive.
Predictably, this tactic has resulted in some of us second-guessing ourselves. Indeed, the opinion pages of some secular newspapers have become the place for Jews not to condemn anti-Semitism, but to condemn the Jews who speak up against it. They would have us lower our voices and stop being so heavy-handed.
Jews in this country are not powerless, nor are they without the resources to defend themselves. The same is true of the Jews of Israel, even though they have paid dearly in blood in the last decade for their survival.
But this is not the time to be silent. And the occasional blunder by our defense agencies notwithstanding, it is not the time for us to be seeking to handcuff their efforts at advocacy.
Those who speak up should expect to be attacked. And yes, as even a cursory examination of Jewish history will quickly reveal, they must also accustom themselves to attacks from Jews from those who sincerely believe that outspoken defense is misguided, and those whose self-loathing betrays darker motives.
As the young Jewish men and women of Columbia University have learned, standing up for Jewish ideals is not for the weak of heart.
But for a people whom the Bible itself describes as "stiff-necked," there is no safe alternative to outspoken action.