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Columbia Fails to Protect Its Jewish Community

A toothless task force and other measures haven’t stopped antisemitism from flourishing on campus.

By Michael Oren

Police broke up a pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University Thursday, arresting more than 100 protesters for trespassing. The effort followed six months of violent anti-Israel demonstrations that left many Jewish students and faculty members feeling abandoned. Columbia, they said, has become a hotbed of antisemitism and, apart from rhetoric, the administration had done little to combat it. The question is whether Columbia President Nemat Shafik’s decision to summon the police is a one-time response to an endemic threat or a turning point in the fight against Jew-hatred, one that will set an example for universities across the U.S.


The encampment was timed to coincide with Ms. Shafik’s testimony Wednesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Avoiding the mistakes of her Harvard, Penn and MIT counterparts, who in December played down the plight of Jews on campus, she affirmed that calls for the genocide of the Jews were antisemitic and pledged to punish those using violent language. “Columbia’s policies and structures were sometimes unable to meet the moment,” she admitted. Ms. Shafik listed measures Columbia had taken, including restricting anti-Israel protests to designated campus areas and appointing a task force to recommend ways to fight antisemitism at the university.

For weeks after Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on Israel, Columbia’s administration looked on passively amid campus demonstrations supporting the slaughter, rape and abduction of more than 1,200 people.


Missing was an admission of the university’s failure to enforce the measures it had enacted to protect its Jewish community. She didn’t address how, under the banner of free speech, Columbia became inhospitable to Jews. She didn’t acknowledge how incendiary demonstrations such as the encampment were the product of the university’s inaction.


For weeks after Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on Israel, Columbia’s administration looked on passively amid campus demonstrations supporting the slaughter, rape and abduction of more than 1,200 people. Expressing solidarity with Hamas’s “resistance,” members of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), hounded Jewish passersby with chants endorsing the murder of Israel’s Jews. Protesters disrupted classes and blocked access to some academic buildings.


Nowhere was safe. Daniel Kroll, a junior, was accosted in a kosher dining area by a student shouting “F— the Jews.” Eden Yadegar, another junior, testified at a congressional roundtable in February: “We’ve been attacked with sticks outside our library, we’ve been surrounded by angry mobs, and we have been threatened.”


Only after Jewish alumni threatened to withhold donations did Ms. Shafik finally, on Nov. 10, suspend SJP and JVP for violating university policies and for “threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” Both groups were back by March, in the framework of “Resistance 101,” which gathered in a Barnard building in support of “our friends and brothers in Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the PFLP”—the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Though four students were reportedly suspended for their actions, the organizers returned to Columbia less than two weeks later for another unauthorized demonstration.


The antisemitic atmosphere has also penetrated the classroom. Joseph Massad, a Middle East studies professor, hailed the Oct. 7 attack as “awesome.” Law professor Katherine Franke decried Columbia’s suspension of SJP and JVP and—along with about 170 other faculty—signed a letter calling the Hamas massacre “a military response . . . by an occupied people exercising a right to resist violent and illegal occupation.” A Jewish student spoke of being told by a professor that “it’s such a shame that your people survived just in order to perpetuate genocide.”


Meanwhile, the professor most outspoken in defending Jewish students, Israeli-born Shai Davidai of Columbia’s Business School, is the subject of an official inquiry. “I guess the university somehow thinks that supporting terrorism [is] a protected class,” he said. “That could be the only explanation for this investigation.”


Antisemitism at Columbia isn’t new. During the first half of the 20th century, President Nicholas Murray Butler, an admirer of Benito Mussolini, instituted Jewish quotas and established Seth Low Junior College in Brooklyn to divert Jews from Columbia’s main campus. In 2004 Jewish students accused professors in the Middle East Department of disparaging and intimidating Jews. Three years later Columbia hosted a lecture by Iran’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who has called for Israel’s annihilation. Antisemitic agitation expressed as anti-Zionism has since taken root, surging during spates of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. The percentage of Jewish students at Columbia is barely half what it was in 1967.


This isn’t what the university was like when I was a student in the 1970s. Columbia at that time embraced Jews from diverse backgrounds and political outlooks. We could disagree with one another as well as with our non-Jewish classmates, many of whom were Arab. The Columbia I encountered during a visit in November is different. I asked a gathering of Jewish students whether, given their traumas after Oct. 7, they would still have chosen Columbia. Not one said yes.


This is the tragic situation Ms. Shafik failed to address. Yes, a task force exists, but it has no authority to enforce its recommendations or even the ability to define antisemitism. In the past, decisions were made to contain the anti-Israel activities that often bleed into Jew-hatred, but those decisions were ineffectively implemented. Will that now change?


As of this writing, the protesters have reassembled their encampment, with no further action against them. It remains to be seen if Ms. Shafik will fulfill the pledges she made in her testimony and whether Jews at Columbia will ever feel safe. By responding to hatred with deeds, not mere words, she can uphold Columbia’s highest ideals and create a precedent for universities everywhere.


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