Columbia Must Do Better

Twenty one years ago, I was the president of Columbia University’s main pro-Israel student group, LionPAC. It was a politically eclectic body, with members active in both right- and left-leaning political causes; the common thread was our dedication to a strong US-Israel relationship. As the group’s leader I felt it was critical that we build bridges with students and faculty of all political stripes and cultural backgrounds. So, in an effort to find common ground, I reached out to and attended meetings of College Democrats and Republicans; pro-choice groups and pro-life ones; women’s, LGBTQ, Black, Indian, Asian and even Arab student groups.

When a colleague and I made a short presentation to a meeting of the Anti-War Coalition, a student responded with a tirade against Zionists and how we had no place at the gathering. But to their credit, the Coalition’s student leadership came to our defense and acknowledged our efforts to engage in respectful dialogue and build consensus, even if we ultimately wouldn’t agree on every issue.

I wasn’t entirely surprised by that — I found interactions between students to be generally civil back then. (The much more serious issue at that time, in my mind, was the abhorrent manner in which certain professors comported themselves, particularly inside the classrooms.)

To be sure, tensions on campus were often high — there were large scale anti-Israel demonstrations and efforts to pressure the university to divest from Israel, not to mention a few instances of overt, “classical” antisemitism. But even during those anti-Israel gatherings on College Walk, certain lines were rarely crossed; although I recall one friend describe an instance of feeling physically intimidated, I thought that, in general, Columbia distinguished itself from other universities in that overt expressions of Jew-hatred, physical threats, and actual assault were exceedingly rare.

Times have really changed.

What has transpired at Columbia in the past few weeks in particular — culminating in anti-Israel protesters breaking into and barricading themselves inside a campus building — has been utterly depressing.

The way I see it, Columbia has been struggling to balance three ideals: (1) the right of students and faculty to speak and protest freely; (2) the duty to provide an educational environment free of pervasive bullying and intimidation; and (3) the rule of law. The university’s performance has been atrocious.

(1) There are few concepts more quintessentially American than the right to speak and protest freely. It’s one of the principles that most separates our society from the totalitarian regimes of the world. Though private universities like Columbia are not bound by the First Amendment, the right of students to assemble, protest, and promote viewpoints — even unpopular ones — should be core to any academic institution’s mission. As a microcosm of American society, college should be a place where ideas are exchanged freely and students’ assumptions are challenged.

With that in mind, there must be space on campus for students and faculty to advocate for Palestinian rights and to criticize Israeli policies. There is nothing inherently antisemitic about either of those notions. Indeed, I myself support increased Palestinian rights in Israeli society, and I often criticize Israeli officials. Though I find accusations of genocide lodged against Israel to be grotesque and inaccurate, I will nevertheless support any student’s right to make such an unfounded claim. I would rather live in a society where I have an opportunity to freely respond to viewpoints I take issue with, than one in which elites control which opinions can be expressed at all.

Unfortunately, the student protesters don’t seem to share those same ideals. Video has surfaced of one of the protest organizers directing fellow protesters to form a human chain and “push” “Zionists” out of the tent encampment last week. (This same student had previously stated that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.”) Other videos show Jewish or Israeli students trying to civilly engage with protestors, only to be met with curses and epithets (e.g., “You’re literally all Nazis.”). I can’t help but think that these protestors don’t care at all about grappling with contrary viewpoints.

Moreover, the double-standard applied by the protestors is deeply problematic. I may have missed it, but I don’t believe there have been any mass protests by Columbia students against the Hamas regime, who brutally seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007 and have repressed Palestinian civilians ever since. On the contrary, from the videos I’ve seen, to the extent the protestors at Columbia mention Hamas at all, it is in support of the terrorist group (e.g., “Al Qassam [Hamas], we love you. We support your rockets, too”; “long live Hamas”; “we are Hamas”).

(2) While I support students’ rights to advocate for their causes, it is imperative that they do so in a manner that does not devolve into hate speech or harassment. It is the responsibility of the university to provide an educational environment free of pervasive bullying and intimidation. Unfortunately, protesters at Columbia, especially in the past few weeks, have strayed well beyond legitimate political protest and have created an atmosphere of fear for Jewish and Zionist students.

The examples demonstrating this point are numerous. Jewish students trying to leave campus for Passover were told to “get the hell out of here,” “go back to Europe” and “go back to Poland.” Others were called “Nazis,” as they were warned that “October 7th” will happen “10,000 more times.” A protester near campus proudly proclaimed that he’d “do just like they did to all the soldiers on October 7th.”

Chants of “we don’t want no Zionists here,” “Israel will fall,” “intifada revolution,” “we don’t want no two states, we want all of it” are regularly heard on campus these days. Calls for the eradication of the world’s only Jewish state are antisemitic. One protester held a sign that directed Hamas where to send its rockets — at the students standing behind her, waving Israeli and American flags. Another protestor declared that the Israeli flag is a “Nazi flag.” One of the encampment tents is adorned with a sign that urges solidarity not only “with our corpses” but also “our rockets.” Another sign reads in Arabic, “With a rifle we will free Palestine.” I’ve omitted the examples containing obscenities.

Meanwhile, pro-Israel people on and directly outside of campus have been pushed, punched, had rocks and water thrown at them, and had their Israeli flags stolen, ripped, and trampled on.

More ominously, events occurring during the early hours of Tuesday morning, April 30, represented a dangerous escalation. Videos showed protesters smashing windows, breaking into buildings on campus, barricading themselves into Hamilton Hall, and hanging flags reading “Intifada,” among other things, from multi-story buildings. Masked, hooded outsiders were filmed scaling walls and sneaking into dormitories from outside of campus. Trespassing, vandalizing school property, and occupying a campus building only increases the sense of fear and lack of security.

These are not the words or actions of peaceful protesters who simply want a ceasefire in Gaza.

Some of these incidents clearly constitute actionable assault, vandalism, and criminal trespass. Taken together, these examples reveal a toxic environment for Jewish and Zionist students. The university administration has allowed an atmosphere of widespread harassment and bullying of certain groups to fester. It does not take a wild imagination to suppose that the university would never allow such a hostile environment to exist if other minority groups were being targeted.

(3) Furthermore, demonstrating for the Palestinian (or any) cause must be done in a manner consistent with the law and applicable local regulations.

The “rule of law,” broadly speaking — including adherence to university policies, in this case — is another fundamental principle that sets our society apart from tyrannical regimes. Columbia has a Student Group Event Policy and Procedure that governs “the process of event planning and space reservation” on campus. It also has a code of conduct that prohibits disruptive behavior, endangerment, failure to comply, harassment, theft, and vandalism/damage to property, among other behavioral violations.

These policies exist for a reason. Presumably the university has deemed that failure to comply with any one of these policies — let alone multiple — would jeopardize the core functions of the school, including providing for public health, student safety, and a suitable learning environment. If policies can be contravened with impunity, eventually trust in the entire system erodes. Stakeholders come to wonder what else they can get away with, while others question whether they are truly in a safe environment.

There is at least prima facie evidence that anti-Israel protesters have violated each of the above policies in recent weeks. Among other things, the anti-Israel protesters are demanding “amnesty” for engaging in these demonstrations, including ones that violate school policies. But why should they be “above the law” (so to speak)? They appear to claim that any effort to enforce those policies would constitute an impermissible infringement on their speech. This is untrue. The university can create reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions that allow any community member who wishes to protest the opportunity to do so. Columbia has simply failed to enact or enforce any such restrictions. Instead, the university allowed anti-Israel protesters to flout school rules with seemingly few, if any, consequences. The administration’s inaction in the face of mounting evidence of antisemitic and anti-Israel harassment in recent weeks may have emboldened protesters to break into Hamilton Hall.

Whatever legitimate gripes the anti-Israel protesters may have, there is no excuse for creating an atmosphere that is hostile to Jews or Zionists. Sadly, Columbia’s administration let this situation spin wildly out of control. Proper space should be given for political advocacy and protest — even on matters with which one vehemently disagrees — but the university must have zero tolerance for antisemitism or hate speech of any kind. In order to prevent another scenario in the future where the engagement of outside law enforcement becomes necessary, Columbia must enforce its own policies to ensure a suitable learning environment for all students.

About the Author
Noah Liben lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with his wife and three children. A former practicing attorney, Noah is active in local politics and has a passion for building bridges among diverse communities.
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