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Columbia University: Actions speak louder than words

Admitting that anti-Semitism exists is a good first step, but university president Lee Bollinger needs to commit to providing a discrimination-free environment for the university’s Jewish and Israeli students and faculty.

An anti-Israel "apartheid wall" on display at Columbia University during "Israeli Apartheid Week" in 2017. Source: Facebook.
An anti-Israel "apartheid wall" on display at Columbia University during "Israeli Apartheid Week" in 2017. Source: Facebook.
Gerard Filitti
Gerard Filitti

Columbia University president Lee Bollinger acknowledged in a recent statement that he has “increasingly become concerned about anti-Semitism” on campus. He further acknowledged that Jewish students are feeling “hatred and demonization, and invidious discrimination,” stating, “I feel it, and it’s wrong.”

Admitting that there is a problem is an important first step to fixing it, and Bollinger should be given credit for finally recognizing that Jewish students at Columbia are being subjected to “invidious discrimination.”  However, despite his artful rhetoric, Bollinger still refuses to acknowledge the full extent of the problem; he claims that “[n]o Jewish student” believes that “Columbia is an ‘anti-Semitic’ institution with systemic bigotry.”

This claim is simply untrue, and goes to the heart of the complaint that The Lawfare Project filed on behalf of Jewish students with the Department of Education, highlighting the university’s violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint identifies a pattern of indifference and failure to act by the administration in connection with anti-Semitism on campus that was identified and expressly reported to university officials.

One stark, recent example is the way in which the university handled concerns (addressed to Bollinger in writing) about a faculty member who gave a speech in November 2019, essentially praising “the armed resistance of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.” The al-Qassam Brigades comprise the armed wing of Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization by countries including the United States and Israel, as well as by the European Union. The university did nothing to address these concerns; Bollinger was silent.

In April 2019, the student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—the group that has been aggressively demanding divestment from Israeli persons and companies, the same divestment that Bollinger now opposes—published a statement advocating the boycott of Jewish student groups on campus and the rejection of the civil rights movement of the Jewish people. Given the very public nature of this statement and the nature of what was occurring on campus, the university had an obligation to protect the members of the Jewish and Israeli communities from discrimination and harassment. Yet the university did nothing; Bollinger was silent.

SJP—sanctioned by the university—is an organization run amok. When it doesn’t publicly shun Jewish students or refuse to acknowledge them, its adherents accost members of the Jewish and Israeli communities, creating a hostile atmosphere that is unbefitting for any academic institution. When concerns about this continuing and constant behavior were raised to administration officials, the university did nothing. President Bollinger was silent.

In May 2018, a faculty member—who has a history of making anti-Semitic remarks, including equating Israel with Nazi Germany and Islamic State and accusing Jewish citizens of having dual loyalties—posted that “[e]very dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious happening in the world just wait for a few days and the ugly name ‘Israel’ will pop up in the atrocities [sic].”

A coalition of more than 250 Columbia students, alumni, faculty and community members sent a letter to the university asking it to publicly condemn such postings and affirm that Jewish students are as welcome as the rest of their peers at Columbia. The university actually responded, citing the professor’s right to “freedom of expression.” Nowhere did the university cite the right of Jewish and Israeli students to be free of discrimination, harassment and intimidation.

These are but a few examples of anti-Semitism identified in the complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights. Taken together, the incidents show that discrimination against the Jewish and Israeli communities at Columbia is hostile, pervasive and ongoing. Bollinger himself admits that Jewish students feel “invidious discrimination,” even as he dismisses these students’ complaints as “assertions by outsiders.” Columbia insiders have identified systemic bigotry at the university, and their concerns remain unaddressed.

Bollinger has finally spoken, but it is disingenuous for him to say that he has “become concerned about anti-Semitism” while at the same time dismissing the complaints and concerns of the Columbia University community. Words are not enough—action is needed. Admitting that anti-Semitism exists is a good first step, but Bollinger needs to commit the university to providing a discrimination-free environment for its Jewish and Israeli students and faculty.

Gerard Filitti is Senior Counsel at The Lawfare Project, an American nonprofit think tank and litigation fund that works to protect the human and civil and rights of Jewish and pro-Israel communities worldwide.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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