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Columbia University, Barnard College silent after faculty letter calls Hamas terrorist attack a legitimate ‘military action’

CEO of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values: ‘We don’t just have an antisemitism problem, we have an education problem.’

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A woman participates in a rally at Columbia University in support of Israel in response to a neighboring student rally in support of Palestine at the university on October 12, 2023 in New York City.

Columbia University declined to comment to Jewish Insider after 144 members of its faculty signed an open letter on Saturday that called Israel an apartheid state while referring to Hamas’ terrorist attacks as a legitimate “military action.”

The professors wrote that they are uneasy about students being deemed antisemitic if they “express empathy for the lives and dignity of Palestinians, and/or if they signed on to a student-written statement that situated the military action begun on Oct. 7 within the larger context of the occupation of Palestine by Israel.”

“In our view, the student statement aims to recontextualize the events of October 7, 2023, pointing out that military operations and state violence did not begin that day, but rather it represented a military response by a people who had endured crushing and unrelenting state violence from an occupying power over many years. One could regard the events of October 7th as just one salvo in an ongoing war between an occupying state and the people it occupies, or as an occupied people exercising a right to resist violent and illegal occupation, something anticipated by international humanitarian law in the Second Geneva Protocol,” the faculty letter said. 

“In either case armed resistance by an occupied people must conform to the laws of war, which include a prohibition against the intentional targeting of civilians,” it continued. “The statement reflects and endorses this legal framework, including a condemnation of the killing of civilians.”

Even as some of the protests have turned violent, the letter defended the student demonstrators against the “egregious forms of harassment and efforts to chill otherwise protected speech on campus [that] are unacceptable.” Earlier this month, an Israeli student was beaten with a stick outside Columbia’s main library after confronting a woman ripping down flyers with names and pictures of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas. 

Columbia’s faculty demanded that the administration “cease issuing statements that favor the suffering and death of Israelis or Jews over the suffering and deaths of Palestinians.” 

When asked whether administration condemns the letter and thinks it is antisemitic, a spokesperson for Columbia told JI, “on this, we have no comment.” 

About two dozen of the 144 signatories were faculty members at Barnard College, which is affiliated with Columbia but is a separate institution. Barnard did not respond to JI’s request for comment. 

Faculty members from Columbia and Barnard wrote in the letter that Hamas’ attack caused “very disturbing reverberations on our campus” and that they have “grave concerns about how some of our students are being viciously targeted with doxing, public shaming, surveillance by members of our community, including other students, and reprisals from employers.” 

The faculty went on to defend a ​​student-written “Joint Statement from Palestine Solidarity Groups at Columbia University regarding the recent events in Palestine/Israel: Oppression Breeds Resistance.” 

Columbia’s student body is roughly 22% Jewish. Around 20 Jewish Columbia and Barnard students spoke at a rally on campus on Monday, slamming the university’s lack of response to incidents including the assault of an Israeli student, online death threats and swastika graffiti.  

Barnard psychology student Jessica Brenner, 20, said she is now anxious while walking to class. “I feel walking on campus many people just want me to die,” Brenner reportedly said at the rally. “Now I get it, I actually understand how the Holocaust happened. When Columbia professors band together and sign a letter that basically justifies Hamas’ actions, I do not feel safe.”

Also on Monday, four Jewish faculty members published a letter rebuking the initial letter from Columbia professors. The open letter had an additional 94 signatures hours after it was published on Monday night. 

“There is no excuse for Hamas’s barbaric attack on Israeli civilians, which was an egregious war crime,” the letter said. “There is no justification for raping and murdering ordinary citizens in front of their families, mutilating babies, decapitating people, using automatic weapons and grenades to hunt down and murder young people at a music festival celebrating peace, burning families alive, kidnapping and taking hostages (including vulnerable populations of elderly, people with disabilities, and young children), parading women hostages in front of chanting crowds, and proudly documenting these nightmarish scenes on social media.”

“We are horrified that anyone would celebrate these monstrous attacks or, as some members of the Columbia faculty have done in a recent letter, try to ‘recontextualize’ them as a ‘salvo,’ as the ‘exercise of a right to resist’ occupation, or as ‘military action,’” the letter continued.”We are astonished that anyone at Columbia would try to legitimize an organization that shares none of the University’s core values of democracy, human rights, or the rule of law.” 

Several national Jewish leaders who have been focused on the rise of antisemitism on campus  condemned the Columbia faculty letter. 

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told JI that the group calls “on university leaders to denounce this hate and take necessary action against those who signed it.” 

“Campuses, including Columbia and Barnard, must maintain a safe learning environment for Jewish students,” Greenblatt said. “With an increase in antisemitic incidents on college campuses across the U.S., Jewish students are feeling threatened just as they are grieving the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. This letter, signed by those who are supposed to be supporting all students, is completely unacceptable. There is no way to justify Hamas’ war crimes and unconscionable atrocities.”

David Bernstein, CEO of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and author of Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews, told JI, “We don’t just have an antisemitism problem, we have an education problem.” 

“What we are witnessing at Columbia and Barnard among both the students and faculty is the product of a highly ideological education that divides up the world into oppressed and oppressors. These students lay the blame on Israel entirely for the Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians. They cannot bring themselves to condemn the ‘Palestinian Fighters’ who massacred Israelis. It didn’t come from nowhere,” Bernstein said.

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