Even In a Pandemic, Columbia Students Promote BDS

They can’t vote in person right now, but that’s not stopping undergraduates at one of the world’s most prestigious universities from trying to pass a boycott of Israel.

A group of students at Columbia University protest the visit there of Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations on February 13, 2017. Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

A group of students at Columbia University protest the visit there of Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations on February 13, 2017. Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

March 31 2020
About the author

Tamara Berens, a former Krauthammer Fellow at Mosaic, is the director of young professional programming at the Tikvah Fund.

This coming Sunday, April 5, the undergraduate student council at Columbia University in New York will vote on when to schedule an online referendum that has nothing to do with the academic upheaval caused by the coronavirus. Instead, students at this prestigious ivy-league school will be turning their attention to the urgent issue of . . . boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The referendum will be held either in the coming weeks or next semester.

Who is behind it? Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) is the coalition of two anti-Israel clubs: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Since 2016, its constituent members have proposed successive motions before the student council asserting that Israel is an “apartheid state” and should therefore be regarded by university officials as a target for divestment.

At first, CUAD’s petitions were unsuccessful as pro-Israel students packed each meeting to demonstrate their affinity with the Jewish state. But, year after year, the “anti-” side smartened up, electing more likeminded members to the council even as fatigue set in among Israel supporters and their attendance at meetings dwindled. At this year’s vote to approve the motion of a campus-wide referendum on divestment, proponents felt free enough to voice naked hostility not only to the Jewish state but also to Jews and to Judaism: a faith “co-opted,” in the reported words of one outspoken participant, “by white supremacy.”

Meanwhile, at Columbia’s sister college Barnard, 64 percent of all students have already voted in favor of divesting from Israel. The conventional wisdom is that Columbia’s undergraduates are likely to follow suit. (Columbia and Barnard students can take classes at either college, and Barnard students can join Columbia clubs, but each college has its own student government.) While anti-Israel referendums of this kind are typically not acted upon by university administrations, their success notches an ideological victory for enemies of the Jewish state and is often accompanied by the increase of anti-Semitism on campus. Only recently, Columbia’s East Campus dormitory was twice defaced with swastikas.

At Columbia, a majority “yes” vote will surely be interpreted as a college-wide consensus, perhaps even a shining example of the “cohesiveness within the entire undergraduate population” that the student council prides itself on fostering in its role of representing student opinion to the faculty and administration. Following up, the council will formally request the administration’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing to comply with the punitive guidelines provided by BDS.

Why has Columbia, of all places, with thousands of Jewish undergraduates making up almost a quarter of its student population, proved so fertile an environment for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activism? It’s not that pro-Israel students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have been silent. But they face a hyper-organized consortium far more dedicated to radical activism than to college studies.

When it comes to the referendum, the anti-Israel coalition enjoys three important advantages. First, clever phrasing. In the wording approved by the student council, the proposal does not argue but simply states as fact the slanderous claim that Israel practices South Africa-style apartheid; uninformed students are more likely to accept the lie by virtue of the council’s formal approval. Then the referendum misleadingly asks students whether the university should “divest its stocks, funds, and endowment from companies” that “profit from or engage in” apartheid as defined by the UN. Although BDS is not mentioned explicitly, passage of the referendum would be understood as a win for the global campaign against Israel.

Second, timing. Now that, fortuitously, the leadup to the vote will likely take place solely online, CUAD can deploy to the full its large presence on social media. The Columbia Facebook page for Students for Justice in Palestine boasts over 3,400 likes; Jewish Voice for Peace, 1,500 likes; and CUAD, more than 1,900 likes. On these pages there is no shortage of mis- or disinformation about Israel. As was the case during Israel’s military conflict with Hamas in 2014, when images from the Syrian civil war were falsely labeled as scenes from Gaza and “shared” online by anti-Israel organizations, it is much more difficult to dispel such myth-making than it is to reason with individuals through in-person discussion.

Third, and most critically, the anti-Israel camp claims the support of all other social-justice groups on campus—including, to name just three, the black students’ organization, the queer students’ alliance, and the Native American council—each with its own broad social-media network. Thanks to the appearance of such campus-wide solidarity, most students, as a pro-Israel professional at Columbia confirmed to me, “automatically vote yes to any [such] referendum. Divesting from the coal industry—they voted yes. Divesting from the private-prison industry—they voted yes. It’s packaged as a deal.”




But that’s not all. In the broad historical sense, the looming success of BDS at Columbia is not some one-off event but rather the latest manifestation of a long-term development, one that provides a natural backdrop to today’s drama. As on other American campuses, this is a story whose roots lie in the radical activism of the 1960s: a moment when the energies of the New Left, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the black-power movement, and other signature agitations of the era powered large-scale student revolts, often of a violent nature. With rare exceptions, the rioters met with only the meekest of responses by faculty and administrations, and sometimes even earned the assent or tacit support of their professors.

In 1968, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), alongside the Afro-American Students Association (ASA), brought life at Columbia to a standstill for weeks as they seized, occupied, and randomly trashed campus buildings in protest against the university’s alleged involvement in military research and the proposed building of a new gym on the border with Harlem. The campus police having proved ineffective, the administration was eventually compelled to summon New York City police; in one of the largest mass arrests in the city’s history, 700 students were detained and 100 were injured in skirmishes.

But the protesters won, then and later. Within a year, plans for the new gym were canceled and the university’s system of governance was overhauled in deference to the rioters’ demands. On the 50th anniversary in 2018, the university’s current president, Lee Bollinger, would mark the occasion by taking ownership of the rioters’ cause and retroactively decrying the then-administration’s call for police intervention. “Part of the present-day identity of Columbia,” Bollinger averred, “is reinforced by what happened here in 1968.”

That is undeniably true.

Among the other cardinal flashpoints of that same era was the June 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East, which Israel had the effrontery to win. By the following year, European and American liberal elites had embarked on a historic reversal of the hitherto broadly accepted view of the sources and causes of the Israel-Arab conflict, with Israel now flipped into the role of imperialist, expansionist aggressor and the Arabs—and the Palestinians in particular—its innocent victims.

Special to Columbia at this juncture was the presence of a rising young academic star named Edward Said. Born in 1935 and raised in Cairo by affluent parents, Said was educated at an elite American boarding school, followed by Princeton and Harvard. In 1963 he joined Columbia’s English department, quickly becoming an object of adulation on the part of innumerable students, including Jewish students, besotted with his charm, his air of sophisticated “otherness,” and his comfortably anti-establishment views.

In 1978, Said would publish Orientalism, his most famous work: a critique-cum-deconstruction of, and assault on, Western scholarship on the Islamic world. The book was rapturously received. (It was also authoritatively debunked, most notably by the late Bernard Lewis, for its ignorance and shoddy scholarship.) To this day, it commands unparalleled influence in a variety of unrelated academic fields, is assigned reading in hundreds of university courses, and has shaped curricula and professional attitudes not only in Middle East studies but in areas as diverse as literary criticism, political science, and anthropology.

As the European and American left began its turn against Israel, Said proceeded to apply to Israel his “academic” excoriation of the West. In particular, he came out as a supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the terrorist group led by Yasir Arafat, and would soon become one of the most prominent members of its legislative body, the Palestinian National Council. A key conduit for Arafat to the West, he translated the PLO leader’s speech before the United Nations in 1974. Nor did his anti-Israel orbit stop there: by 1993, he would outflank Arafat on the left, loudly repudiating the latter’s “cowardly and slavish” act of signing the Oslo Accords with Israel.

During the second intifada in the early 2000s, Said aroused controversy at Columbia when he hurled a rock from southern Lebanon’s border with Israel toward an IDF guardhouse on the other side. Still, though the action was deemed inappropriate, the administration came to the defense of its beloved professor. At home, meanwhile, Said had done much to inspire a group of activist Columbia professors who, after their mentor’s death in 2003, would coalesce around the university’s venerable Middle East Institute (founded in 1954) and its more recent Center for Palestine Studies (founded in 2010 to “honor the legacy of Edward Said”).

The politicized classroom views of these professors quickly grew into a consensus, not to say an orthodoxy. Let’s take a passing glance at four leading lights.

Rashid Khalidi teaches Arab history and holds an endowed chair at Columbia in Said’s memory. He is the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies and the author of a dozen popular books, of which the most recent is The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. In his introductory course on the history of the Middle East, the minds of more than 100 freshmen who arrive each year knowing little or nothing about the region are formed by Khalidi’s perspective. Central to this perspective is that Israel is a settler-colonial entity responsible for the “replacement of Palestine,” as he put it in a 2018 article in the Nation. Khalidi has been described as “slick” and even-tempered, but he is also prone to conspiratorial outbursts against Jews. (A glimpse: in a 2017 radio interview, Khalidi repeatedly railed at the “Jews” who “infest” the Trump administration.)

Joseph Massad, a professor of Arab history to whom we’ll soon return, once singled out for vituperation an Israeli student who asked a question at a talk. “How many Palestinians have you killed?” he demanded.

George Saliba, an Islamic scholar, informed a student that she couldn’t possibly claim ties to the land of Israel because, unlike him, she had “green eyes” and therefore was not “Semitic.”

Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and a contributor to the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram, mused in 2004 about the effects that “half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left” on Israelis’ physiognomy, pointing as evidence to the “deep marks on the faces of these people” and the “vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of [Israeli] culture.”

Anti-Israel statements made inside and outside the classroom by Khalidi and other professors were copiously documented in a chilling, student-made film, Columbia Unbecoming (2004). The film elicited sufficient media attention and protests by Jewish organizations to prompt an internal investigation by order of Bollinger. The 24-page report found the academics not guilty of any significant wrongdoing—effectively exonerating them; meanwhile, the students who had divulged their experiences to the filmmakers were charged with acting as “informants.” Khalidi told New York magazine that he couldn’t understand the fear being expressed by these Jewish students. So many people were working for them at Hillel, he expostulated, “it blew my mind! . . . They have ten, twelve paid employees!”

In 2007, Joseph Massad would be denied tenure on grounds of egregiously inadequate scholarship. Two years later, however, for undisclosed reasons, the decision was reversed and tenure was granted. Rarely are professors allowed a second faculty-committee review, but Bollinger ensured that the extraordinary proceedings were held, and remained, behind closed doors.

A Columbia alumnus who has asked to remain anonymous recalled to me the class with Massad that he attended as a senior. An engineering student, he had decided to shop around during his final year at Columbia and learn more about the Middle East. Early on, it became clear to him that Massad was propagandizing more than teaching, and he decided to document the professor’s falsifications in a blog. Taking notice, a campus journalist published an article about the blog in the Columbia Spectator. At the next class, Massad walked in with a copy of the newspaper. “Which one of you is [student’s name],” he demanded. “Please get out of this class.” Massad then filed a disciplinary report against him, accusing him of being a spy for the “Israel lobby.”

“Going in front of the disciplinary board was scary,” the alumnus told me. “I had to find a balance between defending myself and not getting kicked out four months before graduation.” Though the charges against him were dropped, and he was allowed to graduate, Massad continued his targeted bullying. Soon an article sharing private details about the student and his family appeared in Electronic Intifada, the scurrilous anti-Israel website whose pages are frequently graced by Massad’s effusions, some of which have been reprinted by Hamas on its official website.




The anti-Israel student groups at Columbia conduct themselves in the spirit of these professors, who dominate the teaching of the Middle East and control the discourse around Israel in class. (So far, the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, a relatively new addition at Columbia, is on the sidelines.) Outside of class, anti-Israel students dominate activist circles and control the discourse about Israel on campus.

CUAD, through its constituent Students for Justice in Palestine, preaches and practices “anti-normalization,” that is, the refusal to recognize or treat Israel as a normal state: a stance inspired by the Arab League’s age-old boycott approach. Ofir Dayan, the current president of the pro-Israel group Students Supporting Israel (SSI), explains: “Nobody here talks about settlements. Nobody cares about that. The question around Israel is whether or not it has a right to exist.” SJP believes that it does not; therefore, any and all forms of “resistance” to Israel are justified. No one should be seen to be friends with, converse with, or even listen to a Zionist.

Romy Ronen, SSI’s vice-president, concurs. “[SJP’s] activism consists in not having a conversation. It’s about negating and opposing.” Citing an SSI event organized to promote Zionism and pride in the Jewish state, she continues: “they came by, stepped on our displays, brought a Palestinian flag, and started chanting and screaming at us.” As the two of us sat in a Columbia outlet of Joe, a local coffee emporium, a woman walked by in a “F*** Israel” t-shirt.

Pro-Palestinian campaigners at Columbia often partake in open anti-Semitism. Last year’s poster for Israel Apartheid Week featured a sketch of a Palestinian activist throwing a spray can used for graffiti at an Israeli soldier’s head, giving him an odd-shaped bump like a devil’s horn.

Why, at an institution of higher learning, do intelligent students feel free to indulge themselves in such outright aggressions against their peers? In part, surely, because of the license, tacit or explicit, given them by their professors. In part, too, because they are unafraid of a backlash from their peers. None exists.

To the contrary, the aggressors naturally command the support of the university’s greatest influencers: the social-justice groups and their crushing weapon of “intersectionality.” Indeed, that was precisely the banner under which the Columbia campaign for BDS was first launched. A few months after the summer 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, SJP hosted a panel discussion on black-and-Palestinian solidarity under the tell-all title: “Race, Violence, Resistance—from Gaza to Ferguson.” Linking the “long history [sic] of solidarity between the struggle for Palestinian liberation” with the “African American struggle” at Columbia, Jeff Jacobs, a former organizer for SJP, declared that he’d been inspired to get involved in BDS by the “tradition [again, sic] of grassroots activism throughout our past.” His one piece of evidence was Columbia’s 1985 support for divestment from South Africa.

In February 2016, SJP joined forces with Jewish Voice for Peace, the second identity-politics group forming CUAD’s coalition. JVP’s so-called authentic “Jewish voice” is regularly invoked to absolve BDS of the stain of anti-Semitism. Joseph Hier, a Jewish student who attended this year’s meeting where the BDS referendum was finally approved, recalled that during the discussion, “anytime a Jewish student expressed discomfort with a club that looks to single out the Jewish state [for opprobrium], a Jewish student from Jewish Voice for Peace appeared to say ‘I’m Jewish and it doesn’t offend me, so it shouldn’t offend you, either.’ It provides them with a cover.”

BDS soon received the praise of other “victim” groups on campus as well. No Red Tape, an anti-sexual-assault organization, issued a statement “recognizing” the link between sexual violence and the Israeli treatment of Palestinian women. The Student-Worker Solidarity, a labor group campaigning for a campus minimum wage, lauded “the resilience of Palestinian workers” organizing strikes against such early foes as Zionist settlers and British occupiers and such latter-day foes as the Israelis “struck” by stone-throwers in the first intifada.

Being anti-Israel, in short, has become part of a “woke” package that operates as a ticket to popularity on campus. Yaira Kobrin, student president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, put it this way: “If you come to Columbia and are a liberal, there is a whole checklist of liberal ideologies that you are ‘told’ to subscribe to. One of these is that you should side against Israel.”




One might think that on a campus in which these problems have festered for so long, a plan of action would have long been put in place by interested pro-Israel parties—Hillel, alumni donors, and tenured faculty—to support Jewish students. Instead, it appears that most Jewish students, to the extent they haven’t completely walled themselves off from the fracas, are confused, uncertain, and/or cowed.

And for good reason: those willing to step up receive little support from influential figures within the university’s orbit, and they must also contend with pressure from those who favor the quietist approach.

As early as 1990, Ze’ev Maghen, now a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel but then a Philadelphia-bred graduate student at Columbia, diagnosed the underlying problem while attending a talk on campus by Professor Leonard Jeffries of the City College of New York. Jeffries, an anti-Semite in the most candid and unignorable way, was known for hour-long diatribes about “rich Jews” and their role in the financing of the slave trade and the destruction of black culture. At the Empire State Black Arts Festival in 1991, he calumniated the education expert Diane Ravitch, then serving in Washington as the assistant secretary of education, as a “sophisticated debonair racist” and a “Texas Jew.”

Maghen was perturbed by the fact that Jeffries had been invited to Columbia in the first place. But what really drew his ire, and occasioned a full-length essay, was the response of the campus Jewish community. Outside the talk, Jewish students held up signs expressing their polite mistrust of Jeffries as one whose racial views merited “no place in multiculturalism.” Maghen was shocked at the timidity and the defensiveness. “A man calls you a pig. Do you walk around with a sign explaining that, in fact, you are not a pig?” he asked in “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” disseminated the next day around campus. His words sprang from the page: “Fellow Jews, where the hell is your dignity?

When I met with Maghen recently in Israel, he reiterated his concern about the lack of positive Jewish feeling at Columbia back in the 1990s, and his greater worry now about a deficit in Jewish pride in both Israel and the United States.

Again, however, it’s not as if such feeling is nonexistent. The Kraft Center, the towering student Hillel on 115th Street, built with Jerusalem stone and high windows, is home to a fully stocked beit midrash or space for Jewish learning, a staff dedicated specifically to the welfare and flourishing of students, and multiple rooms for student-run events. On any given evening the building pulsates with life—club meetings, religious services and study, a kosher café that does double duty as a place just for gathering to chat and/or work. A few blocks uptown on Broadway is the Jewish Theological Seminary, where many Columbia undergraduates who are enrolled in the two institutions’ joint-degree program avail themselves of classes in Jewish history, literature, and thought.

Outside these precincts, however, one doesn’t have to look far to sense the disintegration of Jewish pride that Maghen was pinpointing back in the 1990s. A friend tells me about a strange incident at her sorority last year. While leading a formal discussion about anti-Semitism, she was asked whether BDS exhibits hatred of Jews. “I said yes, in my personal opinion, BDS is anti-Semitic.” She received no negative feedback in the room, but later learned that a sorority sister had reported her, behind her back, for having politicized the conversation. She was asked not to bring up the topic of Israel again. “It’s sad,” she comments, “that in a group where I’m meant to be at my most comfortable, I have to be careful what I say because I’m worried I’m being political or offending someone.”

Many Jewish students are altogether too afraid to bring up the topic. “If you take on anti-Israel activism you are branded as an ‘Israel person,’” a recent alumnus explains: “no one wants to be that.” Adds Romy Ronen of SSI: “Students are either scared or don’t really feel like actually being participatory and defending their own religion, their own nationality. A big group of Jewish students are in a bubble.”




But then there are those who, aware of what they are up against, are ready to fight. Rudy Rochman, who graduated in 2018, is one. An IDF veteran, he enrolled at Columbia after reading that it was the worst college in the United States for Jewish students. He wanted to change that. Recognizing that he was entering an ideological war zone, he took up arms. “Instead of using my hands, I had to use my tongue.”

Rochman was the founder of Students Supporting Israel at Columbia. The group is non-partisan, but its expressly activist stance differentiates it from other Jewish bodies. “If something anti-Semitic happened on campus, neither Jews nor non-Jews were willing to say anything. I proposed that we would not allow that to be the case.” At Columbia, SSI initiated Hebrew Liberation Week, a platform for Jewish students to counter Israel Apartheid Week with their own narrative about the national liberation of the Jewish people.

SSI operates outside of Hillel. Ofir Dayan, its current president, recalled that her own “red line” occurred in 2016 when Hillel decided to host Breaking the Silence—a non-governmental organization that sends veterans of the IDF abroad to spread denigrations of the Jewish state. “As an Israeli who served in the IDF, I felt like it was an attack on me.” For SSI, running events independently of Hillel has allowed a greater focus on engaging non-Jewish students in the pro-Israel cause. Last year they launched a student-led trip to Israel for fifteen non-Jewish leaders on campus. (Hillel operates such trips as well.) Their Hebrew Liberation Week runs once every semester, meaning that Israeli flags are present on Columbia’s quad before the malignant Israel Apartheid Week takes place, typically in early April.

The pro-Israel club operating within Hillel’s orbit is Aryeh, which hosts events, often in partnership with SSI, to educate students on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Recent speakers have included Dennis Ross, the former U.S. diplomat, and Ron Prosor, the former ambassador of Israel to the UN. Some students complain that in light of the high stakes and hot tempers of the debate around Israel at Columbia, Aryeh’s approach is too mellow.

In addition to SSI and Aryeh, other volunteers for pro-Israel activism have come from the Jewish fraternity AEPi and from individuals enlisting of their own accord and willing to put in the time to make a difference.

One notable independent initiative has introduced students to “pay-for-slay,” the Palestinian law guaranteeing financial rewards for terrorists committing slaughter. In a 1996 suicide bombing attack in Israel, the Barnard alumna Sara Duker was murdered alongside her boyfriend, Matthew Eisenfeld, a JTS graduate student, and 24 others. The terrorist who carried out the attack has received almost $300,000 from the Palestinian Authority as a “salary” for his crimes. Sophia Breslauer is among five students petitioning Columbia and Barnard’s administrations to seek justice for Duker, Eisenfeld, and the other victims by demanding that the Palestinian Authority cease all such inducements to murder. “We’re taking back the narrative. We are reframing who is the villain, who is the victim, and who is the hero,” Breslauer, a junior majoring in political science, tells me.




Will any of this influence how Columbia students vote in the BDS referendum? With the vote now detached from the mood on campus, it is hard to say. And in this connection, another wrinkle is worth keeping in mind: some Jewish students don’t regard a “Yes” to BDS as the worst outcome. Indeed, they believe that fighting BDS is a distraction from what is really important. Yaira Kobrin, paraphrasing her peers, explains the rationale. “If [the referendum] passes, maybe we can just turn our focus to Israel and Jewish-identity programming on campus.”

A larger point lurks in the background here. In order to make a long-term difference at a wealthy and respected institution like Columbia, one has to get through to the administration and other players with clout. As an alumnus formerly involved in pro-Israel activity at Columbia told me, “The fact that on a college campus, students come and go every four years means that, as effective as a student group may be, what they are doing is at best a several-year project. In order to effect real change, we have to engage the administration, the faculty, the donors, and the trustees. It is these people who have a relationship with the university for 35 or 40 years.”

In this area, Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger is the man to convince. The highest-paid private college president in the United States, Bollinger recently issued a statement in anticipation of the upcoming BDS referendum. Voicing concerns about “the risk” of a rising anti-Semitism on campus, and mentioning BDS only in passing as “but a variant on a vast and ever-present debate,” he expressed his specific opposition to the use of divestment proposals as “a means of protest against Israel’s policies.”

There’s little to be gained in quarreling with this last-minute intervention with its artfully muffled formulations. On the merits, it was better than nothing. But it does raise the question of where Bollinger, a respected scholar of the First Amendment, has been for the last seventeen years of his tenure.

Not so long ago, Columbia’s president invoked his commitment to “free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas” as the reason for his decision in 2007 to invite to the campus Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Iranian president, and, in 2019, Malaysia’s prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. At Ahmadinejad’s talk, Bollinger opened with a staged rebuke of his guest of honor—“I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for”—and then proceeded to justify the Iranian president’s appearance (which at one point had been canceled and then reinstated) by emphasizing the importance of knowing one’s enemy.

But of course Ahmadinejad had already made himself easy to be known as, precisely, a vocal authoritarian, homophobe, anti-Semite, and proponent of Israel’s destruction. Nothing new was learned from what he had to say that evening, and the same went for the evening twelve years later with Mahathir bin Mohamad, another hater of Israel and the Jews.

In any case, the constitutional rights guaranteed in the First Amendment have already been under assault by students at Columbia who demand trigger warnings and the censoring of ideas they disagree with and by those who rush to “protect” them. And, as we’ve seen, Bollinger’s relation to the First Amendment is at best inconsistent, at worst self-serving. In 2006 he came under national scrutiny for allowing aggressive protesters to shut down a speech at Columbia by an anti-immigration group. Then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a series of harsh public rebukes, and Bloomberg was not alone. In the case of Columbia Unbecoming, Bollinger altogether ignored the need to protect the rights to free speech of students. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education made clear in its published research on the issue, the report commissioned by Bollinger arbitrarily decided that professors’ rights superseded students’ rights.

More recently, Bollinger has demonstrated his unwillingness to protect the free speech of pro-Israel clubs. In 2018, SSI submitted a detailed document outlining the aggressive behavior of SJP and its contravention of university policy with, for instance, its open calls urging members of the Columbia community to join it in disrupting free speech at pro-Israel events. Thus far, the administration has offered only lame excuses for its inaction in response to this report.

At the 2017 Seixas dinner held each year at Hillel, named for the first Jewish trustee (1787-1815) of Columbia College, Bollinger addressed Jewish students directly. He apologized for—or humble-bragged about—allowing his free-speech principles to outweigh his alarm about the anti-Jewish rhetoric employed by some students and faculty members. In his most recent statement, he again makes it clear that protecting his institution comes before tackling the hatred of Jews for what it is. Instead, Bollinger characterizes the suggestion that Columbia is or has become an anti-Semitic institution as “preposterous” and an “absurdity.” One need only consult the openly anti-Semitic remarks made by tenured professors in respected fields, or the aforementioned news that swastikas appeared on campus just as students were vacating because of the coronavirus scare, to wonder on what planet the president imagines himself to be living.




Where, finally, is the Jewish community in all of this? In past struggles, the organized American Jewish community was careful always to frame its defense of Jewish rights, and its policy toward anti-Jewish discrimination, in terms of the liberties due to all other Americans similarly under threat. The approach, which had its drawbacks, was logical and justifiable even if not always successful. But whatever its virtues or deficiencies, as a strategy and a policy it is useless in the present situation. No other group at Columbia is under such systematic attack; in this fight, Columbia’s Jewish students are entirely alone.

That the referendum on Israel will likely be taking place online means there will likely also be reduced fanfare surrounding its result. Whatever happens, though, the hardships faced by Columbia’s Jewish students appear destined to endure. Many will continue to opt out of taking classes on the Middle East or in a range of other fields (like anthropology and modern history) because they recognize that, as Ofir Dayan puts it, “as soon as the professor realizes who you are, you are never allowed to talk again.” They will shy away from associating themselves publicly with Israel, be wary in picking their friends, and exercise discretion even among their fraternity brothers and sorority sisters and in their student clubs.

This academic year, for the first time in recent memory, Jewish students at Columbia did not even sing Hatikvah—the emblem of Jewish hope, and the Israeli national anthem—at their annual Simḥat Torah celebration. No doubt, they refrained out of an “abundance of caution,” as we’re all now learning to say.

It is common knowledge that among Columbia’s major donors are many Jews who are likewise heavily involved in the Jewish community. How bad will things have to become for those with power and influence to take action?

More about: Academia, BDS, Columbia University, Israel & Zionism