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13 April 2024

Inside Columbia’s campus wars

Divisions over Israel-Palestine have morphed into a fight for free speech and thrown the Ivy League university into crisis.

By Kiran Moodley

In a classroom tucked away in Fayerweather Hall on Columbia University’s campus in New York City, two students seated side-by-side are doing what two students seated side-by-side should be doing: having a debate.

“What does intifada mean?” says Mohsen Mahdawi, a Palestinian born in the occupied West Bank. “We went into the details and you reject to understand the meaning of intifada. It’s not true that our group is being anti-Semitic.”

“What I think about when we talk about intifada,” responds Elisha “Lishi” Baker, a Jewish student from Massachusetts, “are buses blowing up. People being stabbed on the street.”

Mohsen and Lishi are discussing the use of the word “intifada”, which has become a regularly used chant by pro-Palestine protesters on campus and a reference to the two uprisings against the Israeli occupation that saw many killed on both sides.

“[It’s] not only your Jewish experience,” Mohsen replies. “More Palestinians have been killed in both intifadas than Israelis. Are you saying that Palestinians are calling for the death of their own people?”

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“That doesn’t feel like a fair argument,” Lishi says, shaking his head, as a teacher, Jean Krasno, steps in to resume control of her weekly class “Peace Making and Negotiation”.

Conversations like this can be hard to find at Columbia, where two camps have become more entrenched and further divided since the events of 7 October. Lishi and Mohsen are from the opposing sides. Lishi is co-chair of a Zionist student group on campus called Aryeh. Mohsen is one of the leading organisers of protests against the war in Gaza.

Their interaction is a rare moment when these two sides come together to discuss their differences. As small a moment as it might be, it at least shows some hope for conciliation, even if they cannot agree on the right words. And that debate over language is what the Columbia president Minouche Shafik will have on her mind when she testifies on Capitol Hill on 17 April, in a congressional hearing entitled “Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University’s Response to Anti-Semitism”.

On campus, the war started with a battle of statements. Over the weekend of 7 October, two deans at Columbia sent emails to students regarding the “terrible deadly terrorist acts of this weekend in Israel”. Some students were disappointed that the statements, one from Barnard College’s Leslie Grinage and the other from the School of General Studies’ Lisa Rosen-Metsch, did not mention the suffering of Palestinians within Gaza, given that Israel’s military response to Hamas’s attack had begun within hours.

There were two student replies. One was a joint statement from Palestine Solidarity Groups, a collection of campus organisations supporting the pro-Palestine movement, published online with the headline “Oppression Breeds Resistance”. The other response was an open letter from Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Both responses criticised the deans’ letters and called on Columbia to cut its ties with Israel, including the university’s dual-degree programme with Tel Aviv University.

That wasn’t the end of it. The responses were also criticised, in particular by Jewish students. Many were incensed that the joint statement said “the weight of responsibility for the war and casualties undeniably lies with the Israeli extremist government” and that the open letter said the Columbia deans had “obfuscated Palestinian resistance as ‘terrorism’”.

Events on campus moved quickly. On 10 October, a rally of around 100 people was held by the group Students Supporting Israel. The next day, an Israeli student was attacked on campus with a stick by a 19-year-old woman who was reportedly caught tearing down hostage posters. The perpetrator, a former student, was later charged by police for assault and a hate crime.

On 12 October, pro-Palestine students gathered for a large rally on campus, while a counter-protest was held by pro-Israel students nearby. There were reports of intimidation on both sides, with accusations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. On 18 October, a leading New York law firm rescinded job offers for two Columbia students because they had signed the pro-Palestinian joint statement from earlier in the month.

A week later, a “doxxing truck” (ie, one distributing personal information) appeared on campus, displaying a large poster with the names and images of students below the words “Columbia’s Leading Antisemites”. Protestors surrounded the truck, which was deployed by the group Accuracy in Media, whose president Adam Guilette is neither a student nor alumnus of Columbia. The university described these tactics as harassment and intimidation. One student who was named on the truck’s sign sued Accuracy in Media for defamation.

On 27 October, a swastika was found drawn on a bathroom wall in the International Affairs building. On 10 November, Columbia suspended the two pro-Palestine groups, SJP and JVP, for holding unauthorised protests which went against campus policies.

That was all just in the first month.

This division is about Israel and Palestine, but also about freedom of speech and the right to protest. That is protected by the First Amendment, but the US constitution’s protections apply to government action – not private institutions. Columbia can abide by the First Amendment fully, or it can formulate its own code of conduct that restricts or bans some speech, such as hate speech.

That tension was on display at congressional hearings in December, when the Republican representative from New York, Elise Stefanik, asked university presidents whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” was “against their code of conduct”. She was referring to chants made by protesters, some calling for intifada. Elizabeth Magill, the University of Pennsylvania’s president, replied by saying it was a “context-dependent decision”, while Harvard’s Claudine Gay agreed “it depends on the context”. Magill resigned four days later, while Gay left her position a few months later, facing criticism not just for her testimony but accusations of plagiarism.

What should Columbia do in response to constant cries of “intifada” and “from the river to the sea” (seen by critics as a call for the eradication of Israel) heard during protests? Allow freedom of speech, even if some find the phrases abhorrent? Or restrict speech, something that may go against the core of what the university is meant to offer?

Pro-Palestinian students say Columbia chose the latter, pointing to the suspension of SJP and JVP. Campus authorities said they had violated campus policies. “The university has picked a side,” Mohsen tells me during a walk along Broadway, which runs along the western side of Columbia’s main campus. “The university has been biased against the pro-Palestine groups. The university has systematically discriminated against our groups. They have shut our events down.”

The demonstrations continue. As Mohsen and I crossed the road to Columbia’s Barnard College a small group of protesters were talking in a huddle, most of them wearing face masks, some wearing a keffiyeh headdress. They told us they had been demonstrating against a “Zionist professor” but had been asked to leave the campus grounds because they were using a megaphone. The students said this clearly showed that free speech was being silenced.

In many ways, the campus protests have become as much about the war in Gaza as about Columbia’s response. There had been a sense on campus that after the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, students who once felt marginalised were finally being heard. Now, it felt like a step back.

Yet some Jewish students feel they are the ones not being listened to. I asked one of the Barnard protesters, a student with a face mask who did not want to give her name, about the fact that some Jewish students found their rhetoric intimidating. “The feeling of being threatened and unsafe is different from the state of actually being unsafe,” she replied. She said the pro-Palestine movement was about standing up for minorities. I said that Jews would say they are a minority too. She replied: “I plead the Fifth” – meaning she declined to answer any more questions.

Jewish students like Lishi worry that their concerns are being dismissed. I met him at the Hillel Centre, a community space for Jewish students, also just off Broadway. “We should care about the impact of our words more than the intent behind them. That’s what people keep talking about. The fact that Jewish experiences of language on campus are not being centred is, to me, an anti-Semitic double standard.”

Lishi takes me outside as he puts up posters calling for the Israeli hostages to be brought home. He points out places where some have been torn down. Lishi hangs several more. When we returned the next evening, some had already been removed.

This isn’t the first time Columbia’s campus has been divided over free speech and protest. In 2007, the School of International and Public Affairs invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s then-president, to speak during a visit to New York City for the United Nations. The invitation sparked criticism and protests on campus, given that this was a man who questioned the Holocaust and claimed that there were no homosexuals in Iran.

Columbia’s president at the time, Lee Bollinger, let Ahmadinejad speak, but not before introducing the Iranian leader with a blistering rebuke of his record and ideology, calling him “a petty and cruel dictator” who was “either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated”.

One student told the New York Times, “I’m proud of my university today. I don’t want to confuse the very dire human rights situation in Iran with the issue here, which is freedom of speech. This is about academic freedom.”

The fault lines on campus today don’t just divide students. With pro-Palestine students believing they were being unfairly targeted, some faculty members signed an open letter of their own on 30 October. It called on the university to protect students from “doxxing, public shaming, surveillance by members of our community, and reprisals from employers”.

However, that letter was criticised by other members of the faculty, who took issue with the claim that students in their original statement had simply sought “to recontextualise the events” of 7 October and that one could regard that day as “just one salvo in an ongoing war between an occupying state and the people it occupies”.

So a new open letter was written, this time by faculty who stated that “we doubt anyone would try to justify this sort of atrocity if it were directed against the residents of a nation other than Israel”.

Joseph Howley, an associate professor of classics, has been a prominent defender of pro-Palestine students and has spoken at rallies. I met him at his small, cluttered room in Hamilton Hall, and asked him whether he was a free speech absolutist or he felt restrictions were needed. “I would never say that part of my commitment as an educator is making people feel uncomfortable,” he said. “The basic principle is that the university should do as little as possible to interfere with speech. It is also really important that our students have the right and the opportunity to work these things out for themselves. They even have the right to say the wrong thing without facing serious punishment.”

Howley is Jewish, and said the fact that some Jews were part of the pro-Palestine movement, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace group, had been forgotten. In reality the campus dispute had been far more nuanced than it has been portrayed in the media, and yet the university had put them into two blocs. “We are seeing Columbia bring really aggressive disciplinary action against students who have protested on behalf of Palestine, and none against the Zionist counter-protesters who have also been extremely disruptive.”

Howley pointed to an incident on 19 January, where a group of students holding a pro-Palestine protest on the steps of the Low Memorial Library were allegedly sprayed with a foul-smelling and hazardous substance. Some protesters believe it was “skunk”, a chemical used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The university said that “the alleged perpetrators… were immediately banned from campus”. A New York Police Department investigation is ongoing. However, pro-Palestine students felt the university was not doing enough to make them feel safe and instead had prioritised the other side. Howley said: “We have this purported task force on anti-Semitism that is being run by people who have already said that they think criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism.”

The university announced the creation of its Task Force on Anti-Semitism on 1 November as part of its “commitment to ensuring that our campuses are safe, welcoming, and inclusive for Jewish students, faculty, and staff, and all of us”. The same day, Columbia also created a Doxxing Resource Group to help students who had been targeted by the truck.

I sat down with Nicholas Lemann, a former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism and a member of the task force, at his office inside Pulitzer Hall. I asked him whether the group would determine that anti-Zionism was anti-Semitic. “This is a very contentious topic. There are at least three extant definitions of anti-Semitism. There is a lot of disagreement,” he said, adding that “because there is so much dispute over the definition… it is not necessarily the case that we will choose a definition and endorse it”.

Lemann agreed with Howley that the Jewish community on campus was diverse and declared, “I hate the doxxing truck.” But he said the task force was responding to “stakeholders” as well, such as parents and alumni concerned about what they were seeing and reading about on campus. “We would like to try to find ways to make people feel heard. This is something universities have been doing a lot over the last at least ten years, with respect to other subcategories of the Columbia community who are having these feelings of being excluded.”

Amid this tense atmosphere, the university appears to have taken a rather bureaucratic approach. On 19 February, Columbia introduced new interim rules on demonstrations, stating that there were now designated spaces and times where protests were allowed to take place. The university said that while every community member had the right to free speech, “they also have a corresponding responsibility not to interfere with the rights of others to speak, study, teach, and learn”.

In March, the Task Force on Anti-Semitism released its first set of recommendations. The report said that while the university must protect speech, Columbia’s rules of conduct also state that it “may restrict expression that constitutes a genuine threat of harassment”. It also conceded that more clarity was needed. While the university had said that calls for genocide against the Jewish community were against its policies, “many chants… are viewed differently by different members of the Columbia community: some feel strongly that these are calls to genocide, while others feel strongly that they are not”.

The report noted that “at some point, courts and the Department of Education are likely to offer additional guidance… In the interim, the university’s legal team should provide more guidance on this issue.”

Whereas once it was those on the right arguing that free speech was being curtailed and “woke culture” was cancelling conservatives on campus, the campus wars have prompted an inversion of that dynamic. “The polarity on free speech has flipped,” Lemann told me. “Elise Stefanik was kind of having it both ways [in the December hearings]: claiming to uphold free speech while asking the presidents to say they would ban free speech.”

Nadia Abu el-Haj, a professor at the departments of anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University, also thinks conservatives have influenced how debates like the Israel-Palestine conflict are framed. She has defended Columbia’s pro-Palestine students and groups. “They have been censoring all sorts of curricula from primary schools up through universities, in states that are controlled by Republican governors,” she said from her office in Millbank Hall. “The most powerful campaign of what one would call cancel culture has, since the rise of Donald Trump, been the right wing of the Republican Party.”

That has most notably been seen with figures like Bill Ackman, the Harvard alumni and hedge fund billionaire who has been openly critical of how his alma mater has responded to concerns about anti-Semitism on campus – and was vocal in calling for the resignation of Claudine Gay. While Ackman has donated to the Democrats and has said he was neither right wing nor a bully, he has been embraced by conservatives. He has attacked university DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) programmes, believing that this method to encourage under-represented groups is discriminatory. Republican legislatures across the United States are now seeking to defund or ban DEI initiatives.

The question has emerged: who controls what happens on campus? For El-Haj, Columbia’s decision-making has been too influenced by those from outside. “I think that the concern of faculty as a whole is about the changing structure of governance at universities that is more arbitrary, more centred in the president and the high administration, and deeply influenced by mega-donors,” she said.

Lemann takes a different view. “It is not so easy to keep the ecosystem together,” he told me. “If you are a faculty member, it looks like everything is fine: I teach my classes and do my research. But if you are in the administration, you see there are all these outside forces that a faculty member might see as meddlesome, but actually, if you take them all away, the university cannot operate. Columbia gets well over $1bn a year from the federal government.”

The university told the student newspaper the Columbia Spectator that it “is committed to combating anti-Semitism and we welcome the opportunity to discuss our work to protect and support Jewish students and keep our community safe”. And president Shafik will testify on Capitol Hill just days after suspending “a number of students” because of an unauthorised campus event which “featured speakers who are known to support terrorism and promote violence”. That referred to Khaled Barakat, who spoke at a Resistance 101 meeting on 24 March. He denies being a member of a terrorist group.

If the campus war has morphed from a debate about Israel-Palestine to one about free speech, and then to how the university operates, it is still at its heart about students trying to navigate university life.

On my last day at Columbia, a large pro-Palestine rally took place. Mohsen was a speaker. Lishi stood nearby with a small group of counter-protesters, flying the Israeli flag. They were outnumbered.

Following the event, Mohsen and Lishi bumped into each other at the corner of 116th Street and Broadway. In a brief moment outside a Shake Shack, in this climate of entrenched positions, there was a desire to find a way through.

“What do we agree on, you and I?” Mohsen asks.

“We agree on the importance of keeping the conversation going,” Lishi replies. “Which I really appreciate.”

“And we agree that the life of an Israeli child is equal to a Palestinian child?

“That is pretty easy to agree on for me.”

“That is excellent. So if we agree on these fundamentals, we are stuck in the details. We can go further, that is why we are in the class.  

“That is why we are in the class. That’s why we are doing this. I got to run for Shabbat.”

“Shabbat Shalom,” Mohsen says.

“Shabbat Shalom,” Lishi replies, as he walks back down Broadway.

It is just five days until their next class on “Peace Making and Negotiation”.

Kiran Moodley is a correspondent at Channel 4 News. Unreported World returns for a five-episode run on Friday 19 April, beginning with “Campus Wars USA”, which airs on Channel 4 from 7pm. 

[See also: Can Turkey be saved?]

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