in The Hot Seat

Columbia president pressed at hearing about profs who support Hamas

Pledging a tougher line on antisemitism, Nemat Shafik told lawmakers, ‘Any faculty member at Columbia who behaves in an antisemitic or discriminatory way should find somewhere else to go’

Alex Wong/Getty Images

President of Columbia University Nemat “Minouche” Shafik (L), and David Schizer (R), Dean Emeritus and Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law & Economics, testify before the House Committee on Education & the Workforce at Rayburn House Office Building on April 17, 2024 in Washington, DC.

Columbia University President Nemat Shafik largely escaped the fireworks at a Wednesday congressional hearing that brought down two of her Ivy League colleagues last year, but nonetheless faced a grilling over the school’s handling of antisemitism, particularly regarding professors who have made pro-Hamas comments. 

Questioning from lawmakers on the House Education and Workforce Committee highlighted Joseph Massad and Mohamed Abdou, who expressed support for Hamas and other terrorist groups, and Katherine Franke, who said that IDF veterans are too dangerous to remain on Columbia’s campus.

Shafik said that she was “appalled” by Massad’s comments and condemned them, adding Massad had been “spoken to,” an answer Republican lawmakers found inadequate. Shafik said Massad remains under investigation. 

Massad, lawmakers noted, is also the chair of a review committee in Columbia’s school of arts and sciences.

Shafik claimed that Massad was no longer chair of the committee, but walked that claim back when Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) said later in the hearing that he still appeared to be named as such on Columbia’s website. She said she’d clarify the record following the hearing. Pressed on whether she would commit to removing Massad as the committee chair, Shafik hesitated, but then said that she would.

Claire Shipman and David Greenwald, the co-chairs of Columbia’s board of trustees, who appeared beside Shafik at the hearing, said that Massad should not retain that committee chairmanship.

Asked whether Massad could be fired despite his tenure status, Shafik said there are “very complex issues around that.” She suggested the outcome of the school’s investigation could prompt his firing. But she said she would not have approved Massad’s tenure if he were applying today.

Shafik said that Abdou, who is teaching at Columbia on a limited basis, will serve out the remainder of the semester but will be banned from teaching at Columbia again.

“He has written and said things that are in support of Hamas, which I find very problematic,” Shafik responded, when asked if Abdou is antisemitic.

According to Shafik, Franke has also been spoken to by senior Columbia officials, during which conversations Franke backpedaled on her comments; Shafik said she encouraged Franke to apologize and that the professor plans to “clarify her position.”

“Any faculty member at Columbia who behaves in an antisemitic or discriminatory way should find somewhere else to go,” Shafik added, speaking broadly.

Stefanik retorted that private conversations, as in the case of both Massad and Franke, are not a sufficient response, and that they effectively send the message that Columbia tolerates that behavior and commentary.

Stefanik said following the hearing in a statement, “If it takes a member of Congress to force a university president to fire a pro-terrorist, antisemitic faculty chair, then Columbia University leadership is failing Jewish students and its academic mission. No amount of overlawyered, overprepped, and over-consulted testimony is going to cover up for failure to act.”

She accused the Columbia leaders of “arrogance” and said that the school is “in for a reckoning of accountability.”

In her opening statement, Shafik declared that “the ultimate answer to antisemitism in all its forms is education, and we should not lose sight of the powerful impact of our core mission.”

“Will it work?” she continued. “There have been periods in our history when antisemitism is in abeyance, and they were characterized by enlightened leadership, inclusive cultures and clarity about rights and obligations. Those are the values I cherish and that I am determined to bring to Columbia.”

Shafik also found herself at odds during the hearing with Shipman, Greenwald and David Schizer, the Columbia law professor who chairs the school’s Antisemitism Task Force.

In one striking moment, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) questioned whether there had been protests at Columbia “saying ‘We are against Jewish people,’” to which Shafik said no — a position that the other members of the panel later contradicted.

Schizer said, “I think there have been antisemitic protests, so I would say yes.” 

Shipman referenced one incident “that the students were trying to call a ‘protest,’ but it was an event to harass admitted students who were Jewish, and it’s outrageous.”

Greenwald likewise said, “There have been antisemitic events on campus, which I interpret as anti-Jewish.”

Shafik was subsequently pressed on the content of some of the protests, which she said was “completely anti-Jewish, completely unacceptable, horrible… anti-Jewish things were said at protests, yes.”

The exchange mirrored another moment earlier in the hearing, when Shafik was asked if the slogans “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “long live the intifada” are antisemitic.

Shafik initially said that she finds the slogans “very upsetting” and that she “hears them” as antisemitic but “some people don’t” and that “it’s a difficult issue because some people hear it as antisemitic, other people do not.”

But after Schizer offered a simple “yes” in response to the same question, Shafik said that she agrees and that there should be consequences for those on campus using those slogans.

Shafik also said that she finds calls to “globalize the intifada” to be personally unacceptable, but that Columbia’s current policies don’t reflect that.

Later in the hearing, Shafik said that some Jewish people say they don’t see the slogans as antisemitic, even if the majority do. She said that Columbia leadership has also sent a joint letter to the Columbia community describing the slogans as “hurtful.”

The Columbia leaders highlighted steps the school has taken to address antisemitism, and largely aimed for a non-combative approach, acknowledging that antisemitism remains a significant problem on Columbia’s campus and that the school has more to do to address it. 

Notably, panel members highlighted specific incidents of antisemitism in their opening statements to the committee.

Schizer said that an assault on a Jewish student on campus reminded him of his own ancestors’ experiences during the pogroms in modern-day Ukraine, describing that and other incidents as “unacceptable.”

“It’s also heartbreaking that many Jewish and Israeli students feel uncomfortable in student groups having nothing to do with the Middle East,” Schizer said. “This sort of pressure, signaling that Jewish are accepted only if they reject a core part of their religion and identity — well, it sounds like old-fashioned bigotry to me.”

He said, however, that the school is working hard to address issues, noting that Columbia is implementing recommendations from the task force on campus protest limiting locations of protests, improvements in policy enforcement, pursuing a “major initiative” to combat antisemitism and efforts to ensure that Jewish students’ reports of feeling uncomfortable are treated the same as those from other groups.

Schizer said further reports and recommendations are forthcoming.

Panelists also noted that Columbia had contacted the FBI and enlisted private investigators in response to a student-hosted virtual event that featured a Palestinian activist with ties to a U.S.-designated terror group.

“I am not satisfied with where Columbia is at the moment. As co-chair of the board, I bear responsibility for that,” Shipman said. “Our systems clearly have not been equipped to manage the unfolding situation but with each challenge, we have moved to adapt.”

“We are far from done,” she continued. “I am outraged by the vile sentiments I continue to hear by those who ignore our rules, and we are holding them accountable.”

Greenwald, who is Jewish, noted that he has personally been the subject of antisemitism.

“When [campus] debates devolve into antisemitic harassment, discrimination or violence, as has unacceptably happened at Columbia after Oct. 7, there must be consequences,” Greenwald said, adding later, “The antisemitism on our campus makes me sick to my stomach.”

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