‘For the first time people were truly afraid’: Antisemitism hits boiling point at Columbia U

In a rare public statement calling out antisemitism, the White House condemns ‘physical intimidation’ targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community’

Antisemitic harassment, threats and intimidation hit a boiling point overnight at Columbia University, leading the White House on Sunday to condemn “physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community.” The White House statement came shortly after a prominent Jewish rabbi at the school declared the campus wasn’t safe for Jewish students, and urged them to leave until the school addresses “extreme” antisemitism.

The reaction came amid a night of chaos and anarchy at the university and a few incidents of physical assault against Jewish students — and after a tumultuous week that resulted in over 100 arrests of anti-Israel activists. Among the most egregious antisemitic episodes: chants from protesters of “Go back to Poland”; signs with the Hamas symbol and the words “I’m with them”; chants calling for Hamas attacks on Tel Aviv; and protesters attempting to burn an Israel flag.

“The events of the last few days, especially last night, have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy,” Rabbi Elie Buechler, director of the Orthodox Union-JLIC at Columbia and Barnard, texted Jewish students on Sunday. “It deeply pains me to say that I would strongly recommend you return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved.”

In response to Buechler’s recommendation, Columbia Hillel urged Jewish students to remain on campus. “We do not believe that Jewish students should leave Columbia,” the group wrote on X. “We do believe that the University and the City need to do more to ensure the safety of our students.”  

In a statement to JI, a Columbia spokesperson said, “Columbia students have the right to protest, but they are not allowed to disrupt campus life or harass and intimidate fellow students and members of our community. We are acting on concerns we are hearing from our Jewish students and are providing additional support and resources to ensure that our community remains safe.” 

White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates released a statement condemning the “physical intimidation” against Jewish students at Columbia University, and labeled them “blatantly antisemitic.” He said the anti-Israel protesters were “echoing the rhetoric of terrorist organizations.”  

“While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous – they have absolutely no place on any college campus, or anywhere in the United States of America.” Bates said. “And echoing the rhetoric of terrorist organizations, especially in the wake of the worst massacre committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, is despicable.”

“We condemn these statements in the strongest terms,” Bates added. 

President Joe Biden, in his annual Passover greeting to the Jewish community, also alluded to the antisemitism at Columbia University. “Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews,” Biden said in his statement Sunday evening.

After Saturday night’s widespread antisemitic harassment on campus, several Jewish Columbia students said they felt afraid for their safety for the first time.

“[Saturday night] was an absolute breaking point and the first time people were truly afraid,” Eliana Goldin, a third-year political science major, told Jewish Insider. “My friends and I saw [non-Columbia students] sneak onto campus through a gap in the fence and we were verbally harassed, and some of my friends were physically assaulted. Public safety and NYPD did not help us. We were essentially stalked and followed as we tried to leave the escalating situation.” 

According to Goldin, the physical assaults included assailants slapping a Jewish student, another pouring water on several students and others attempting to grab Israeli flags and run away with them. 

“They yelled at us to go back to Poland, that we have no culture and chanted, ‘Strike strike Tel Aviv,” Goldin recalled. “My rabbi’s decision to tell everyone to stay away from campus was the right decision,” she said of Buechler’s statement, “because last night proved that the NYPD isn’t capable of protecting us… the environment here is openly hostile and possibly dangerous.” 

Goldin said she will return to campus after Passover because she feels “a strong responsibility as a Jewish leader on campus.” But she has at least one friend who plans to remain home for the rest of the year — and won’t come back in the fall if the situation continues. 

“Physical safety is at risk right now and until we can lock campus down from non-affiliates, we need NYPD on campus because no one was there for us and that was really scary,” Goldin said, noting that the escalation was a result of students helping non-affiliates enter campus by giving their IDs to help them swipe in or showing them the gap in the gate to enter. “[Students] definitely enable these more extreme protesters,” she said. “The rhetoric may be similar.”   

Noah Lederman, a freshman studying philosophy and pre-law, has signed an open letter with dozens of other students requesting to take Zoom classes as a safety precaution. “I’m afraid to come back to campus,” he told JI. 

“But I’m going to go back because I need to be there for my fellow Jewish students, who are like family to me now.” Lederman left campus on Sunday to spend Passover in Florida — a trip that was planned long before the unrest that unfolded last week. He told JI that several classmates are abiding by Buechler’s recommendation. 

“Within 20 minutes of [Buechler’s message], I’ve gotten six or seven texts from friends who are home for Pesach saying that they’ve pushed back their return flights to campus. Instead of coming back on Wednesday after yom tov, they’re tentatively waiting until Friday because they don’t feel comfortable.”

In February, while wearing a shirt with an Israeli flag on it during a pro-Israel demonstration on campus, Lederman was shoved, pinned against a wall and, told by a pro-Palestinian protester to “keep f—ing running.” Nearly three months later, he said that antisemitism on campus “is 100 percent worse… because the university is unable, or unwilling, to protect its Jewish students.” 

Antisemitism has skyrocketed on Columbia’s campus since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel and subsequent Israel-Hamas war. But according to Lederman, “things got really bad starting on Wednesday.” 

Last week, Lederman traveled with a group of students to Washington, D.C., to see Columbia’s president, Nemat Shafik, testify before a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on unchecked antisemitism at Columbia. 

“We returned Wednesday night to see the encampment, which was terrifying,” he said, referring to the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment”— a demonstration in which protesters occupied the space on the university’s South Lawn for 30 hours. On Thursday, 108 people were arrested and issued summonses for trespass — including Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) daughter, Isra Hirsi. 

“There were flares lit up in the streets and we were offered escorts back by public safety to get back to our dorms,” Lederman said. “Then on Saturday there were protests on campus attempting to burn an Israeli flag.” 

As for Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Sara Jacobs (D-CA) and Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), three of the Columbia alumni serving in Congress, none responded to JI’s requests for comment on what was happening at their alma mater. 

Nadler later posted on X that “the anti-Semitic speech and protests taking place at and around Columbia has crossed a line and is creating an environment that is unsafe for Jewish students.” He called on the school to “do everything they can to protect students and ensure all feel safe on campus.”

Those who opted to weigh in — on both sides of the aisle — have largely condemned the chaotic scenes unfolding in New York and demanded Columbia take action to protect Jewish students. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a statement released Sunday evening, said: “College campuses must be places of learning and discussion. Every American has a right to protest, but when protests shift to antisemitism, verbal abuse, intimidation, or glorification of Oct. 7 violence against Jewish people, that crosses the line. Campuses must remain safe for all students.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said in a statement she is “appalled at the virulent antisemitism being displayed on Columbia University’s campus.”

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, whose district includes Columbia University, wrote on X: “At the heart of every moment in history, there has been a tipping point, and at no other time in modern day society has the current climate of antisemitism been more prevalent and pronounced as it is today.”

In response to Rabbi Buechler’s urging of Jewish students to go home until the campus is safe again for them, Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY) argued that the onus was on the school administration to provide that protection.

“Recommending Jewish students go home is not the answer. Expelling students who have engaged in this antisemitic behavior is,” Lawler wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “@Columbia and all universities across America must make it clear there will be zero tolerance for antisemitism or threats of any kind. Time to clean house!”

Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY) wrote on X that, “The situation at Columbia Univ is unacceptable. While everyone has a 1st Amendment right to protest, students do not have a right to threaten violence and cause fear within the Jewish community on campus. @Columbia and @NYPDPC must ensure a safe environment for all students.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), the No. 3 House Republican who questioned Shafik during last week’s congressional hearing, called on Columbia to fire the current president and board in a statement.

“While Columbia’s failed leadership spent hundreds of hours preparing for this week’s Congressional hearing, it clearly was an attempt to cover up for their abject failure to enforce their own campus rules and protect Jewish students on campus,” Stefanik said. “Over the past few months and especially the last 24 hours, Columbia’s leadership has clearly lost control of its campus putting Jewish students’ safety at risk. It is crystal clear that Columbia University – previously a beacon of academic excellence founded by Alexander Hamilton – needs new leadership.”

“President Shafik must immediately resign,” Stefanik continued. “And the Columbia Board must appoint a President who will protect Jewish students and enforce school policies.”

Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) announced on Sunday that he would “be coming to Columbia University to walk with the Jewish students” in the wake of the protests. 

“If the University won’t protect them, Congress will!” Moskowitz wrote on X.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) used his condemnation to call on Congress to pass his legislation with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) combating antisemitism on college campuses.

“I never imagined seeing this in America. @Columbia’s cowering to antisemitic hate has let terrorist sympathizers take over campus & threaten Jewish students,” Scott wrote on X. “We must pass @SenatorTimScott & my Stop Antisemitism on College Campuses Act & pull all federal funds from Columbia NOW.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), wrote on the platform that, “Hamas & Iran want Jews to feel unsafe everywhere. ‘Til now they couldn’t reach U.S. Jews. Thanks to pro-Hamas campus rioters & feckless administrators, threats to Jews only grow. Incitement is not free speech. College leaders must stop enabling terror & keep Jewish students safe.”

Even Israeli President Isaac Herzog weighed in on the exploding antisemitism at Columbia University and other elite college campuses. 

“Firm and strong action must be taken to prevent antisemitism on campus. American academia must wake up to the threat, a clear and present danger to academic freedom and to the very lives of Jews on campus,” Herzog said.

This story was updated on Monday, April 22, at 10:52 a.m. ET.

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