OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Next on the congressional docket: Columbia’s radical antisemitism

The problems at the Ivy League school in New York City have spanned a spectrum and include discrimination, assault and open support for terrorism.

Protesters hold anti-Israel, anti-Jewish banners outside of Columbia University's campus after the academic institution suspended its Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, Nov. 15, 2023. Credit: Here Now/Shutterstock.
Protesters hold anti-Israel, anti-Jewish banners outside of Columbia University's campus after the academic institution suspended its Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, Nov. 15, 2023. Credit: Here Now/Shutterstock.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein
Melissa Langsam Braunstein
Melissa Langsam Braunstein is an independent writer in metro Washington, D.C.

If Americans were horrified to learn on Dec. 5 that “calling for the genocide of Jews” doesn’t always violate the codes of conduct at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, they should buckle up. The details that emerge from Columbia University’s hearing on the Hill, set for April 17, should be significantly uglier.

Columbia has spent decades perfecting its antisemitic atmosphere. Indeed, the university initially known as King’s College is a true national leader in ignoring and downplaying Jew-hatred. Given the extremism that’s been on display for years, but especially since Oct. 7, this hearing could be explosive.

Problems at the Ivy League school in New York City have spanned the spectrum and include discrimination, assault and open support for terrorism. Yet university leaders, including its president, Minouche Shafik, have managed to ignore nearly all of it.

The Flag Guy, who visits American campuses holding U.S. and Israeli flags, “defending Jewish honor,” according to his bio on X, posted about Columbia: “Of all the campuses I’ve been to, this one felt most dangerous … .”

Nearly 180 members of Columbia’s faculty signed a statement calling Oct. 7 “a military response by a people who had endured crushing and unrelenting state violence from an occupying power over many years.” The dean of the School of General Studies, a member of the school’s Task Force on Antisemitism, allegedly told a student “that Columbia is ‘a historic antisemitic institution, and it has been the whole time I’ve been here, and there’s really nothing I can do about it.’”

Thankfully, others dissent. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating alleged civil-rights violations. Columbia is also being sued.

In one federal suit, a student from Columbia’s School of Social Work (CSSW) alleges “discrimination and retaliation” from faculty when Shabbat prevented participation in an activity. Faculty also refused her request for distance learning after Oct. 7, pushing her out of her program.

The second suit has multiple plaintiffs. Among its voluminous allegations: The dean of the Graduate School of Architecture repeatedly called Israel “Palestine” while lecturing. A professor told a student, “‘It’s such a shame that your people survived just in order to perpetuate genocide.’” Public Safety said it couldn’t protect pro-Israel students near an anti-Israel rally. A professor photographed and laughed at a Jewish student silently protesting Columbia’s disregard for Jewish students. An assistant dean at CSSW distributed umbrellas to conceal “speakers’ identities” during an unauthorized event. Faculty joined a protest that included violent chants and a Jewish student’s assault.

Lest these incidents be dismissed as one-offs, the Columbia Spectator interviewed 50-plus Jewish and Israeli students last fall and found that “34 reported feeling unsafe on campus since Hamas’s unexpected attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Thirteen students said that they personally experienced incidents where they felt attacked or harassed, either in-person or online. Ten students reported avoiding or fully staying off campus at some point since Oct. 7. Twelve students said they tried to hide or veil their Jewish identity when walking around campus. Seventeen students said they have been negatively affected or offended by Columbia-affiliated online spaces.” When the Spectator recently interviewed 20-plus Jewish Zionist students, they found stigmatization.

Barnard College sophomore Jessica Brenner said that campus has seemed quieter since spring break, but previously, “the war was shoved in your face everywhere.” An Orthodox American Jew, she described being “surrounded by students in keffiyehs everywhere I go. As I walk to class, I hear chants. Even in class, they reverberate through the classroom,” adding that “it’s created this divide, this hostility on campus you feel as you walk around” and has “made it completely unenjoyable to be a student.”

She described the unease as “psychological danger.” It’s less about physical attacks than social and academic interactions with peers and professors who’ve excused Oct. 7. Brenner observed that “this antisemitism was always there but was below the surface. When the war started, it ripped off the blanket, and it’s probably here to stay.”

Brenner has repeatedly emailed and met with Barnard’s administrators. “They’re open to listening to what you say, but I felt like they weren’t taking it into actual consideration.”

Congress should press Shafik on Columbia’s disregard for students’ concerns.

Daniella Symonds, an American who served in the Israel Defense Forces, had her first semester at Columbia punctuated by Oct. 7.

“One of the things that was incredibly sad was I didn’t get to be excited about my experience in university. I was excited about attending Columbia because of the way they marketed themselves as the premier destination for all veterans and non-traditional students. That let-down was incredibly difficult for me, even beyond my affiliation with Israel and my Jewish identity,” said Symonds, who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Columbia.

Initially, she didn’t concentrate on Columbia’s view of “Israel or Jews.” After  Oct. 7, though, “it was completely all-consuming.” She estimated that last semester, there was “a massive rally or bringing a speaker that was speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, oftentimes in a very one-sided way, oftentimes in a way directly supporting Hamas—university faculty as well” at least twice weekly.

When Symonds wears her Students Supporting Israel sweatshirt around campus, she says she is faced with “a lot of sour, sour looks.” Her friends “have received a similar, if not worse response” while wearing their own hoodies, a Star of David or religious-oriented garments.

The bright spot for these students has been Columbia’s vibrant Jewish community, especially Hillel and Chabad on campus.

“We have a very large and unified Jewish community on campus,” noted Symonds. “Especially after Oct. 7, we came together, but 1,000% we feel isolated from Columbia.”

That makes sense when Columbia welcomes events like Resistance 101 with Samidoun, “which is considered by the Israeli government to be a terrorist organization. It’s banned from Germany. The heads of that organization spoke on campus,” said Shai Davidai, assistant professor in the business school.

Columbia has suspended four students associated with Resistance 101, just in time for Shafik’s testimony. Davidai, however, pointed out that the event “was co-hosted by 94 student organizations,” making the punishment look symbolic. Meanwhile, administrators allowed another unauthorized protest on April 4.

This is the time to choose. Columbia’s leadership must decide whether campus radicals run the university or whether they prefer enforcing university rules or endless litigation and investigations. Choose wisely.

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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