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‘Virulently hostile’ Jew-hatred at Columbia since Oct. 7, per lawsuit

“Hamas mobs have been running rampant throughout the school, blocking entrances to classrooms,” Brooke Goldstein, executive director of the Lawfare Project, told JNS.

NYPD officers next to sign requiring ID in front of Columbia University's main gate on Nov. 15, 2023 during a protest after the suspension of anti-Israel student groups. Credit: Here Now/Shutterstock.
NYPD officers next to sign requiring ID in front of Columbia University's main gate on Nov. 15, 2023 during a protest after the suspension of anti-Israel student groups. Credit: Here Now/Shutterstock.

Columbia University refused to allow a Jewish student to take classes via Zoom during an “explosion” of antisemitism, which administrators failed to control, on campus after Oct. 7. That’s according to a federal lawsuit that Mackenzie (“Macky”) Forrest filed this week.

An Orthodox Jew from Florida, Forrest, 23, alleges that she faced discrimination and retaliation due to her religion and was “forced out” of the Columbia School of Social Work’s highly specialized dialectical behavior training program.

The Lawfare Project and the firm Eiseman Levine Lehrhaupt & Kakoyiannis filed the lawsuit in the Southern District of New York against Columbia’s trustees, the university president Minouche Shafik and André Ivanoff and Elizabeth Creel, social work faculty members.

The complaint was filed on the same day that the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce opened an investigation into Columbia’s response to antisemitism and its alleged failure to protect Jewish students.

The House committee sent a letter to Columbia and its trustees asking for documents and other information about incidents on campus that may show a lack of protection of Jewish students since Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel.

Forrest joins students at Harvard University, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley, who have filed complaints under Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 in recent weeks.

‘War zone’

Forrest alleges in the lawsuit that the campus turned “virulently hostile” after the Hamas attack, referencing protests that featured calls for the genocide of Jews, as well as antisemitic screeds in the School of Social Work.

“Columbia became a ‘war zone’,” for Forrest “simply because she is a Jew,” the lawsuit alleges.

Shai Davidai, an Israeli-born assistant professor at Columbia’s business school, has said publicly that he would not send his children to the university out of fear for their safety.

Brooke Goldstein, executive director of the Lawfare Project, told JNS that “Hamas mobs have been running rampant throughout the school, blocking entrances to classrooms.”

“They’ve been chanting genocidal chants advocating for the elimination of not just the Jewish people but also the Jewish state,” she said.

Goldstein cited “verbal and physical attacks against Jews, including one incident which resulted in a Jewish student having his hand broken. The free speech rights of the Jewish students are routinely violated.”

Forrest’s request to attend Columbia classes remotely was rejected, she claimed, alleging that the school retaliated by threatening that she would fail the program’s field placement portion. That marked the first time that the school indicated her work was unsatisfactory, according to Forrest.

“Faced with the totally fabricated threat of receiving a failing grade,” Forrest chose to leave the program, according to the lawsuit. She feared the mark would cripple her further studies and have an adverse effect on her career path.

The Columbia School of Social Work allowed students to attend classes online on Dec. 6, during a “teach-in” and discussion held by Columbia Social Workers 4 Palestine. The discussion was titled “Significance of the Oct. 7 Palestinian counteroffensive.”

The discussion reportedly featured multiple calls for support of Hamas.

Columbia University
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.

‘Leave of absence’

Forrest claims that since Oct. 7, she has faced “a virulently hostile environment on campus,” which led her to feel unsafe physically. The complaint references multiple incidents of harassment at Columbia, including a report of an assault on an Israeli student.

Forrest says her request to attend classes via Zoom “until Columbia was made safe for Jewish students” was rejected in an Oct. 19 meeting with Creel, her academic adviser. Creel told her it was an unreasonable request, as she was “the only person feeling unsafe,” Forrest alleges.

“If you need to go home now, you will need to take a leave of absence,” Creel later wrote Forrest in an email, adding that the meeting “confirmed my assumptions,” according to the lawsuit.

Goldstein told JNS that the “systemic” antisemitic atmosphere at Columbia is “rotten to its core” and has “infected every element of the school.”

“There needs to be accountability. At the very least, the faculty and administration who participate and allow this to happen or turn a blind eye to it should be immediately fired,” she said. “It is literally the definition of a hostile environment for Jewish students.”

The university announced in early November that it was forming a task force on antisemitism, but there has been no public indication of its work.

“The task force failed miserably and has done little or nothing to fulfill its alleged mandate. Jewish students, at all times since the establishment of the task force, have continued to be at risk at Columbia,” per the lawsuit. “Protecting Jewish students at Columbia is simply not a priority.”

The suit alleges that Columbia violated federal and state anti-discrimination laws, including ignoring Forrest’s “reasonable fears that she faced a hostile antisemitic environment on campus.” It also rejected a reasonable accommodation request to lessen the risk of harm she faced and retaliated against her for filing a report on the matter, it states.

The U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into Columbia in November over allegations of antisemitic and Islamophobia harassment on campus. It also received a 2019 complaint from a Jewish student who claimed the school violated Title VI, which bars discrimination based on race, color and national origin.

That complaint was also submitted by the Lawfare Project, which advocates for protecting the civil and human rights of Jewish people through legal action.

If the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights “had taken our complaint seriously back then, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in now,” Goldstein said. “Lo and behold, we were now forced to file an action on behalf of this straight-A student.”

Upon acceptance into the dialectical behavior training program—the only one of its kind in the country, according to Columbia—Forrest alleges that she informed Ivanoff, the program director, that she is Shabbat-observant.

“That is a problem,” Ivanoff responded, per the lawsuit, before adding, “Well, not a problem but an issue.”

During a three-day suicide prevention workshop (“Suicide Weekend”) from Oct. 27 to 29, Ivanoff pressured “Macky to compromise on her religious observance and attend Suicide Weekend in full,” per the lawsuit.

The program director texted her, “I really think you need to talk to both your rabbi in Florida and your adviser at Columbia. When you signed up for this program you were aware of suicide weekend which is a Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday. I assume your religious observances have not changed since that time—am I wrong?”

“I am unclear what sort of accommodation you thought might be available for missing this experiential two-and-a-half day workshop but I can tell you it is integral to DBT training,” Ivanoff wrote, per the lawsuit. “I think you need a weekend-long dispensation from your rabbi to attend this educational work and to participate fully including using computer media etc. etc. to complete this important work.”

When Forrest said that she could participate on Sunday but not on Shabbat, the program director told her not to attend the weekend at all and that she would receive a different assignment.

“Macky’s interactions with Dr. Ivanoff concerning Suicide Weekend—specifically, Dr. Ivanoff’s repeated inquiries asking Macky to compromise on her religious beliefs to attend Suicide Weekend—demonstrated to Macky that her religious observance was indeed a ‘problem’ or ‘issue,’ just as Dr. Ivanoff had indicated during their first conversation upon Macky’s acceptance into the DBT program,” per the lawsuit.

JNS sought comment from Columbia University and directly from Forrest.

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