columnSchools & Higher Education

Shai Davidai’s war on campus antisemitism

It takes courage and a dire situation for a left-wing academic to risk his livelihood and social standing to combat Hamas-inspired Jew-hatred.

Pro-Hamas protesters set up tent encampments on the campus of Columbia University in New York City, April 2024. Source: YouTube screenshot.
Pro-Hamas protesters set up tent encampments on the campus of Columbia University in New York City, April 2024. Source: YouTube screenshot.
Ruthie Blum. Credit: Courtesy.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, an author and award-winning columnist, is a former adviser at the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Due to his battle for the past six months against campus antisemitism—unleashed in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 massacre in southern Israel—Columbia University business school assistant professor Shai Davidai has become an Internet sensation.

His impassioned, unscripted speeches on the premises of the Ivy League institution in Upper Manhattan have gone viral since they first emerged, less than a week after Hamas terrorists perpetrated the worst atrocities against Jews since the Holocaust. The latest example is a clip of his confrontation on Monday morning with Columbia Chief Operating Officer Cas Holloway, who denied him access to the main campus.

When Davidai arrived to hold a peaceful sit-in and discovered that his ID card had been deactivated, he berated Holloway for preventing Jews from entering an area where pro-Hamas demonstrators were welcome to hold a protest. He then addressed the COO on X.

“Cas, you’re a really great guy,” he wrote. “[But] I am still trying to understand how you could … keep a straight face when you capitulated to the pro-Hamas mob … I think I know how. You were just doing your job. … Look, I get it. You’re scared. You are worried about how the pro-Hamas extremists (and the brainwashed cult they’ve amassed) will react if you try to disperse them. … The problem is that you are not alone. There are thousands of administrators like you all over U.S. campuses who are also scared. … Like you, they are just doing their jobs. And there were millions of Germans like you in the 1930s. Good Germans, upstanding Germans, who were just doing their jobs. Who do you think ran the universities of Berlin and Munich and Heidelberg and Frankfurt in the 1930s? Who helped the Hitler Youth check out books by Jewish authors to burn outside of campus? Administrators. Just like you…”

It takes guts these days for an academic to entertain an independent thought, let alone shout it from the rooftops when his tenure isn’t yet secured. But this is only part of the reason that Davidai’s courage is worthy of note.

More remarkable about his unabashed campaign to defend Jews from Hamas lies is his background. The 40-year-old native Israeli—like his spouse, with whom he moved to the United States in 2010—is on the far-left.

He’s always been critical of and demonstrated against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governments; he continues to oppose Israel’s “occupation;” and he asserts that “people should be pro-Palestine, because Palestine deserves a state.”

In fact, a mere few hours before the massacre, he was hosting his parents for a Friday-night dinner and their conversation turned to Gaza. The topic arose, he recounted last month in an interview, because his wife was in the midst of translating a collection by the radical Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence.

The discussion, he added, was about the “importance of shedding light on the wrong things that Israel has done, so we can hold ourselves accountable to do better.”

As a result, he said: “For many Americans, I was the perfect Israeli and perfect Jew—their dream Jew—someone who’s going to say that Israeli policy is bad. But I will never say that Israel is bad or that it shouldn’t exist. And I think that’s why now people are mad at me for being Israeli.”

That anger hasn’t deterred him, however, which is also impressive. Despite his wide fan base on social media, those lauding him tend not to be from his political camp.

His initial realization about the pernicious nature of the protests came with the release of a statement by Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, co-signed by Columbia Jewish Voice for Peace, hailing the massacre. SJP referred to the mass murder of men, women and children as “an unprecedented historic moment for the Palestinians of Gaza, who tore through the wall that has been suffocating them … for the past 16 years.”

Dismissing claims that the beheadings of babies, rapes of women and abduction of 250 additional innocents constituted an “unprovoked attack,” the statement—which included an invitation to an Oct. 12 protest against “our university’s complicity in Palestinian oppression”—went on to dub Hamas’s actions a “counter-offensive [by Palestinians] against their settler-colonial oppressor.”

Davidai went to the quad that afternoon, as did a group of about 200 grieving Jewish students, holding posters of hostages. They stood in silence, save for occasional sobbing.

On the other side of the space were some 800 protesters, all wearing keffiyehs, sunglasses and COVID masks to keep their faces hidden. They loudly celebrated Oct. 7. This event, by the way, took place two full weeks before a single Israeli soldier had set foot in Gaza.

Of greater shock to Davidai than the vile message conveyed by the students was the lack of reaction to it on the part of Columbia’s administration, headed by president Minouche Shafik. You know, the same grande dame who last week was grilled by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce.

 “Trying to reconcile the free-speech rights of those who want to protest and the rights of Jewish students to be in an environment free of discrimination and harassment has been the central challenge on our campus and numerous others across the country,” she told the committee. She also stuttered a vow that there would be consequences for antisemitic students and faculty.

Yeah, right.

A mere five days later, the incident involving Davidai’s being forbidden from entering the main campus occurred. And this was while Hamas-lovers were living it up on the quad with chants of “intifada, revolution,” “from the river to the sea” and “burn Tel Aviv to the ground.”  It’s not coincidental that such calls for Israel’s destruction were accompanied by admonitions that Jews should “go back to Poland and Belarus.”

As Davidai keeps pointing out on his growing platforms, none of this is “pro-Palestinian.” It is, rather, reminiscent of the atmosphere in Europe before and during the Holocaust. Ditto for the cowardice—amounting to complicity—of Shafik and her counterparts at elite schools around the country.

There’s no question that Davidai, a self-described atheist, is doing God’s work. Whether it ends up costing him his job and the sympathy of fellow leftists remains to be seen.

But one thing is clear: For a person of his ilk to be willing to risk both of the above, the situation must be far worse than it already appears.

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