As a Columbia alumna, I am appalled by the university’s silence in the face of the brutal murder of one of its brightest young alumni by a malevolent geopolitical force. Elan Ganeles of West Hartford, Connecticut, was the kind of remarkable young man who took full advantage of his educational opportunities at our renowned ivy league institution, pursuing double majors in both Sustainable Development and Neuroscience and Behavior. Not only that, he found time to be an active participant in campus activities, including Tamid, a student group focused on Israeli business, as well as Jewish learning programs. One friend remembered him as the sweet boy with a great sense of humor who enjoyed playing the saxophone. A poignant statement from Columbia/Barnard Hillel said: “We will miss his wry humor and thoughtful manner of discussing challenging or controversial topics.”
It’s worth recalling these beautiful moments from Elan’s life because all of his promise and potential was brutally cut short last month when, at the young age of 27, he was cruelly shot to death by two Palestinian terrorists. Elan, a Connecticut resident, had been visiting Israel for a friend’s wedding near the Dead Sea. He was driving on the Route 90 Highway near ancient Jericho when two men pulled up to his car and indiscriminately opened fire. After killing Elan, the terrorists continued to shoot at two other cars on the highway before setting their own car on fire and fleeing on foot to Jericho.
Columbia’s administration has been too tepid by half in condemning this outrage. An email sent to General Studies students on February 28 by Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch recognized with “profound sadness” that Elan “was killed by a gunman in a terror attack just outside Jericho yesterday.” However, nowhere did she discuss the greatest tragedy of all: that Elan’s killers and those who directed them can expect to receive a stipend greater than the average Palestinian monthly salary from the Palestinian Authority (PA) Martyrs Fund, often termed “pay-for-slay.” It is believed that the PA’s direct payments to terrorists in the year 2016 totaled an astonishing $300 million USD. This is truly incredible, considering that the PA rules the impoverished West Bank largely based on foreign aid and that it struggles to pay public employees. Nevertheless, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been clear that maintaining the Martyrs Fund is a top priority for him, saying: “Even if I will have to leave my position, I will not compromise on the salary (rawatib) of a Martyr (Shahid) or a prisoner[.]”
Columbia has a long and mixed history with its Jewish students, moving from discrimination to warm acceptance. In the 1920s and 1930s, Columbia maintained a special satellite college in Brooklyn, Seth Low Junior College, which, according to the Columbia Spectator was “fundamentally a place where Columbia would send Jewish applicants.” In more recent decades, however, Jewish inclusion has soared at Columbia, to the point that Barnard College has a higher percentage of Jewish students than all but four colleges: Yeshiva University, Jewish Theological Seminary, American Jewish University, and Brandeis University — all of which have Jewish missions. Columbia/Barnard Hillel reports that the colleges have a combined enrollment of 1,500 Jewish Students, about 22.3% of the total. Columbia features a kosher cafe and a kosher meal plan, and minyanim for Jewish religious services three times daily. Columbia’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies is renowned as Columbia University’s center for the academic study and discussion of Jewish life, history, and culture. Yet in the age of the new antisemitism, at least one alumna, Jaimie Kreitman, who was a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1980s, filed a complaint against the university describing what she describes as “hostility and toxicity” from her professors and classmates because of her Jewish background. Today, the watchdog StopAntisemitism gives Columbia a failing grade in opposing antisemitism on campus; the university, however, has responded by providing robust resources for students who confront antisemitic speech or activity.
For many Americans, pay-for-slay became impossible to ignore after the shocking murder of Taylor Force of Lubbock, Texas, a former US Army officer who was studying at Vanderbilt University after completing successful tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Force was visiting Israel with a tour group from Vanderbilt’s graduate management program when he was stabbed to death in a terror attack that left ten others wounded in an old section of Tel Aviv. After the family of Force’s killer began to receive Martyrs Fund stipends, the United States Congress enacted the Taylor Force Act in 2018, cutting off aid to the PA unless these payments are halted. Following the murder of Elan Ganeles, US Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas plans to refile legislation to strengthen existing legislation by restricting foreign banks from facilitating Martyrs Fund payments to terrorists or providing services to the terror group Hamas from doing business in the US or with US dollars.
This isn’t even the first time this has happened to a Columbia student. In 1996, Barnard College alumna Sara Duker was murdered alongside her boyfriend, JTS graduate student Matthew Eisenfeld, and 24 other innocent people when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up their commuter bus in Jerusalem. The terrorist who coordinated the attack, Hassan Salameh, is believed to have received up to $300,000 in “martyr payments” from the Palestinian Authority.
Enough is enough. How many more talented people will we allow to be murdered by a society that provides a financial incentive for killing? Columbia University must put the lives of its alumni and students first and speak out strongly now against pay-for-slay. This is not the time for tepid acquiescence: it is the time for bold words and action to halt the financing of these wanton killings threat once and for all.