Columbia University’s President Testifies Before Congress on School’s Handling of Antisemitism

A campus building at Columbia University. (Google maps)

(AP/Hamodia) —Columbia University’s President testified before a House committee Wednesday amid accusations from Republicans and Jewish students who say that the New York campus is a hotbed of bias and is unsafe for Jews.

Nemat Shafik had the benefit of hindsight and months of preparation as she faced a congressional hearing on the Ivy League school’s response to antisemitism and conflicts on campus following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. She arrived on Capitol Hill four months after a similar hearing that led to the resignations of two Ivy League presidents.

From the start, she took a more decisive stance than the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, who repeatedly stated that calls for the genocide of Jews in and of themselves would not violate school policies, and that only targeting individual students for violence would be forbidden.

When asked the same question, Shafik and three other Columbia leaders responded unequivocally, yes. But Shafik waffled on specific phrases.

Rep. Lisa McClain, a Republican from Michigan, asked her if phrases such as ” from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free ” or “long live intifada” are antisemitic.

“I hear them as such, some people don’t,” Shafik said.

McClain posed the same question to David Schizer, who leads an antisemitism task force at Columbia. He responded that such phrases are indeed antisemitic.

The word “intifada” in the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations conjures up decades of terrorism against Israeli civilians, known as the First and Second Intifadas, as well as the “intifada of the knives” during the 2010’s. The word, which literally means “uprising” in Arabic, has also been used in other countries when discussing revolutions.

Shafik acknowledged a rise in antisemitism since October but said campus leaders have been working tirelessly to protect students. Rebutting accusations that she has been soft on violators, Shafik said 15 students were suspended and six are on probation for violating new rules restricting campus demonstrations.

“These are more disciplinary actions than taken probably in the last decade at Columbia,” she said. “And I promise you, from the messages I’m hearing from students, they are getting the message that violations will have consequences.”

In another heated exchange, Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and a driving force behind the hearings, grilled Shafik on faculty and staff who have expressed support for Hamas or opposition to Israel. She asked about Mohamed Abdou, an Arab studies professor who expressed support for Hamas on social media after Oct. 7.

Shafik said she shared “repugnance” over Abdou’s comments, adding that he will be terminated.

“He is grading his students’ papers and will never teach at Columbia again,” she said.

Stefanik said she heard that Abdou attended a pro-Palestinian demonstration at the Columbia campus Wednesday morning, in apparent violation of the school’s new rules.

“Mr. Abdou is not grading papers right now,” Stefanik said. “He’s on campus at the unsanctioned and anti-Israel, antisemitic event that is being supported by pro-Hamas activists on campus.”

Shafik was originally asked to testify at the House Education and Workforce Committee’s hearing in December, but she declined due to scheduling conflicts.

Although she acknowledged antisemitism on campus, she argued that the “vast majority” of demonstrations have been peaceful and said she has held more than 200 meetings on the matter since becoming president.

Her view is in sharp contrast with Jewish students and others who say antisemitism has gone unchecked at Columbia. Among the incidents cited include a Jewish student who was beaten on campus while putting up posters of Israeli hostages.

“We’ve seen far too little, far too late done to counter that and protect students and staff,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina and committee chair. “Columbia stands guilty of gross negligence at best and, at worst, has become a platform for those supporting terrorism and violence against Jewish people.”

Foxx and Stefanik appeared with Jewish students from Columbia who said they have been threatened and physically confronted. They described a student who had Star of David necklaces torn off while walking to class and taunts from students who say “the Holocaust wasn’t that special.”

During a Feb. 29 bipartisan roundtable discussion featuring students from various colleges under federal investigation for Title VI violations, Columbia undergraduate student Eden Yadegar stated that he and other Jewish students have been physically assaulted by anti-Israel protesters on campus.

“We have been attacked with sticks outside of our library…we have been surrounded by angry mobs,” Yadegar said.

Stefanik said during the hearing that Republicans will hold Columbia accountable for failing to protect students.

“Despite claims otherwise, Columbia’s leadership refuses to enforce their own policies and condemn Jewish hatred on campus, creating a breeding ground for antisemitism and a hotbed of support for terrorism from radicalized faculty and students,” she said.

In March, Shai Davidai, an associate professor at Columbia’s business school who has reported extensively on antisemitic incidents since the Oct. 7 massacre, announced that he was being investigated by the school, as detractors alleged that he targeted students in his reporting. Davidai, who stated that he only reports on student groups and not individuals, wrote that Columbia “has opened an investigation into my advocacy for the Jewish and Israeli students, faculty, and staff at the university. This is a clear act of retaliation and an attempt to silence me.”

In February, Columbia Law’s student Senate rejected the formation of a student group intended to spread awareness of antisemitism. Law Students Against Antisemitism (LSAA), was rejected partially due to its use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which includes delegitimizing Israel.

Davidai wrote on social media regarding an incident in December, after the announcement banning the phrases “from the river,” and “long live the intifada,” that “It’s been 24 hours since supposedly banned student organizations at Columbia chanted ‘Long live the intifada.’ The silence of Columbia’s President, Provost, and Board of trustees is deafening.”

Columbia suspended its chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine and the Jewish Voices for Peace groups, which support the Hamas terror group, in November. However, the group has only increased its activities since then, according to witnesses who spoke with Jewish Insider.

In an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal Tuesday, Shafik emphasized the delicate balance between protecting free speech and fostering a safe environment for students on campus.

“Calling for the genocide of a people — whether they are Israelis or Palestinians, Jews, Muslims or anyone else — has no place in a university community,” Shafik wrote. “Such words are outside the bounds of legitimate debate and unimaginably harmful.”

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