As Protests Continue at Columbia, Some Jewish Students Feel Targeted

By Equipo
10 Min Read

Days after Columbia University’s president testified before Congress, the atmosphere on campus remained fraught on Sunday, shaken by pro-Palestinian protests that have drawn the attention of the police and the concern of some Jewish students.

Over the weekend, the student-led demonstrations on campus also attracted separate, more agitated protests by demonstrators who seemed to be unaffiliated with the university just outside Columbia’s gated campus in Upper Manhattan, which was closed to the public because of the protests.

Some of those protests took a dark turn on Saturday evening, leading to the harassment of some Jewish students who were targeted with antisemitic vitriol. The verbal attacks left some of the 5,000 Jewish students at Columbia fearful for their safety on the campus and its vicinity, and even drew condemnation from the White House and Mayor Eric Adams of New York City.

“While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable and dangerous,” Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the White House, said in a statement.

But Jewish students who are supporting the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus said they felt solidarity, not a sense of danger, even as they denounced the acts of antisemitism.

“There’s so many young Jewish people who are like a vital part” of the protests, said Grant Miner, a Jewish graduate student at Columbia who is part of a student coalition calling on Columbia to divest from companies connected to Israel.

Reports of antisemitic harassment by protesters surfaced on social media late Saturday. A video posted on X shows a masked protester outside the Columbia gates carrying a Palestinian flag who appears to chant “Go back to Poland!” One Columbia student wrote on social media that some protesters had stolen an Israeli flag from students and tried to burn it, adding that Jewish students were splashed with water.

Chabad at Columbia University, a chapter of an international Orthodox Jewish movement, said in a statement that some protesters had hurled expletives at Jewish students as they walked home from campus over the weekend, and had said to them, “All you do is colonize” and “Go back to Europe.”

“We are horrified and worried about physical safety” on campus, said the statement, adding that the organization had hired additional armed guards to chaperone students walking home from Chabad.

Eliana Goldin, a junior at Columbia who is the co-chairwoman of Aryeh, a pro-Israel student organization, said she did not “feel safe anymore” on campus. Ms. Goldin, who is out of town for Passover, said campus had become “super overwhelming,” with loud protests disrupting class and even sleep.

In a statement, Samantha Slater, a Columbia spokeswoman, said that the university was committed to ensuring the safety of its students.

“Columbia students have the right to protest, but they are not allowed to disrupt campus life or harass and intimidate fellow students and members of our community,” said the statement. “We are acting on concerns we are hearing from our Jewish students and are providing additional support and resources to ensure that our community remains safe.”

The upheaval on and around the Columbia campus this week marked the latest fallout from the testimony that the university’s president, Nemat Shafik, gave at a congressional hearing on antisemitism on Wednesday.

Dr. Shafik vowed to forcefully crack down on antisemitism on campus, in part by disciplining professors and student protesters who used language she said could be antisemitic, such as contested phrases like “from the river to the sea.” Her testimony, meant as an assertive display of Columbia’s actions to combat antisemitism, angered supporters of academic freedom and emboldened a group of protesting students who had erected an encampment of about 50 tents on a main lawn in the campus this week.

University officials said the tents violated the school’s policies and called in the New York Police Department on Thursday, leading to the arrests of more than 100 Columbia University and Barnard College students who refused to leave. But the police involvement only fueled the uproar. Students pressed on with their “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” sleeping in the cold without tents on a neighboring lawn, and some began to erect tents again on Sunday, without Columbia’s permission.

Students who support the protesters say there is a wide range of opinion among Jewish students at Columbia. “To say that it’s unsafe for Jewish people, to me, indicates that you’re only speaking about a certain portion of Jewish people,” Mr. Miner, 27, said at the university on Sunday.

“We are totally opposed to any sort of antisemitic speech,” he added. “We are here to, you know, stand in solidarity with Palestine. And we refuse — our Jewish members refuse — to equate that with antisemitism.”

Makayla Gubbay, a junior studying human rights at Columbia, said that as a Jewish student, she has mostly been concerned for the safety of her peers protesting for Palestinians.

Ms. Gubbay said that throughout the past six months her friends — particularly those who are Palestinian and other students who are Muslim — have been injured by the police and censored for their activism. Though she was not involved in the organizing of the encampment, she went there for the Sabbath on Friday, attended a speech given by a participant in Columbia’s intense 1968 protest and brought hot tea for friends.

“There’s been a lot of amazing solidarity in terms of other students coming on campus, hosting Shabbats, hosting screenings, having faculty give speeches,” Ms. Gubbay said.

Columbia officials have previously said there have been several antisemitic incidents on campus, including one physical attack in October — the assault of a 24-year-old Columbia student who was hanging fliers a few days after the Hamas attacks on Israel in October.

While many Jewish students had left campus to celebrate Passover, which begins on Monday evening, the rising tensions led at least one rabbi on campus to suggest that the Ivy League school was no longer safe and that Jewish students should leave.

Elie Buechler, an Orthodox rabbi who works at Columbia, sent a WhatsApp message to a group of more than 290 Jewish students on Sunday morning saying that campus and city police had failed to guarantee the safety of Jewish students “in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy.” He recommended that students return home “until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved.”

“It is not our job as Jews to ensure our own safety on campus,” wrote Rabbi Buechler, the director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Columbia University and Barnard College. “No one should have to endure this level of hatred, let alone at school.”

Citing Passover preparations, Rabbi Buechler declined to be interviewed, but he said that his message was meant as a personal statement and did not reflect the views of the university or Hillel, the Jewish organization on campus.

Indeed, in an apparent response, Hillel issued a statement on Sunday afternoon saying that the organization did not believe that Jewish students should leave Columbia, but it pressed the university and the city to step up safety measures.

“We call on the university administration to act immediately in restoring calm to campus,” Brian Cohen, the group’s executive director, wrote. “The city must ensure that students can walk up and down Broadway and Amsterdam without fear of harassment,” he added, referring to the avenues that run alongside the Upper West Side campus.

Noah Levine, 20, a sophomore at Columbia and an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace, said they found the rabbi’s comments “deeply offensive.”

“I’m a Jewish student who has been in this encampment since its inception,” they said. “I’m also a student who has been organizing in this community with these people since October, and even before that, and I believe in my heart that this is not about antisemitism.”

But Xavier Westergaard, a Ph.D. student in biology, said the mood for Jewish students was “very dire.”

“There are students on campus who are yelling horrible things, not about Israelis only or about the actions of the state or the government, but about Jews in general,” he said.

Sharon Otterman contributed reporting.

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