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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As protests continue at Columbia, some Jewish students feel targeted



Pro-Palestinian demonstrators gather at the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on the Columbia University campus in New York on Sunday, April 21, 2024. After reports of harassment by demonstrators outside the university’s gates, some Jewish students said they felt unsafe — others rejected that view, while condemning antisemitism. (Bing Guan/The New York Times)

By Luis Ferré-Sadurní, Colbi Edmonds and Liset Cruz


Days after Columbia University’s president testified before Congress, the atmosphere on campus remained fraught Sunday, shaken by pro-Palestinian protests that have drawn the attention of police and the concern of some Jewish students.


Over the weekend, the student-led demonstrations on campus also attracted separate, more agitated protests by demonstrators who seemed to be unaffiliated with the university just outside Columbia’s gated campus in upper Manhattan, which was closed to the public because of the protests.


Some of those protests took a dark turn Saturday evening, leading to the harassment of some Jewish students who were targeted with antisemitic vitriol. The verbal attacks left some of the 5,000 Jewish students at Columbia fearful for their safety on the campus and its vicinity, and even drew condemnation from the White House and New York Mayor Eric Adams.


“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,” Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the White House, said in a statement.


But Jewish students who are supporting the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus said they felt solidarity, not a sense of danger, even as they denounced the acts of antisemitism.


“There’s so many young Jewish people who are like a vital part” of the protests, said Grant Miner, a Jewish graduate student at Columbia who is part of a student coalition calling on Columbia to divest from companies connected to Israel.


Reports of antisemitic harassment by protesters surfaced on social media late Saturday. A video posted on the social platform X shows a masked protester outside the Columbia gates carrying a Palestinian flag who appears to chant “Go back to Poland!” One Columbia student wrote on social media that some protesters had stolen an Israeli flag from students and tried to burn it, adding that Jewish students were splashed with water.


Chabad at Columbia University, a chapter of an international Orthodox Jewish movement, said in a statement that some protesters had hurled expletives at Jewish students as they walked home from campus over the weekend, and had said to them, “All you do is colonize” and “Go back to Europe.”


“We are horrified and worried about physical safety” on campus, said the statement, adding that the organization had hired additional armed guards to chaperone students walking home from Chabad.


Eliana Goldin, a junior at Columbia who is co-chair of Aryeh, a pro-Israel student organization, said she did not “feel safe anymore” on campus. Goldin, who is out of town for Passover, said campus had become “super overwhelming,” with loud protests disrupting class and even sleep.


In a statement, Samantha Slater, a Columbia spokesperson, said the university was committed to ensuring the safety of its students.


“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,” said the statement. “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.”


The upheaval on and around the Columbia campus this past week marked the latest fallout from the testimony that the university’s president, Nemat Shafik, gave at a congressional hearing on antisemitism Wednesday.


Shafik vowed to forcefully crack down on antisemitism on campus, in part by disciplining professors and student protesters who used language she said could be antisemitic, such as contested phrases such as “from the river to the sea.” Her testimony, meant as an assertive display of Columbia’s actions to combat antisemitism, angered supporters of academic freedom and emboldened a group of protesting students who had erected an encampment of about 50 tents on a main lawn in the campus last week.


University officials said the tents violated the school’s policies and called in the New York Police Department on Thursday, leading to the arrests of more than 100 Columbia University and Barnard College students who refused to leave. But the police involvement only fueled the uproar. Students pressed on with their “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” sleeping in the cold without tents on a neighboring lawn, and some began to erect tents again Sunday, without Columbia’s permission.


Students who support the protesters say there is a wide range of opinion among Jewish students at Columbia. “To say that it’s unsafe for Jewish people, to me, indicates that you’re only speaking about a certain portion of Jewish people,” Miner, 27, said at the university Sunday.


“We are totally opposed to any sort of antisemitic speech,” he added. “We are here to, you know, stand in solidarity with Palestine. And we refuse — our Jewish members refuse — to equate that with antisemitism.”


Makayla Gubbay, a junior studying human rights at Columbia, said that as a Jewish student, she has mostly been concerned for the safety of her peers protesting for Palestinians.


Gubbay said that throughout the past six months her friends — particularly those who are Palestinian and other students who are Muslim — have been injured by police and censored for their activism. Although she was not involved in the organizing of the encampment, she went there for the Sabbath on Friday, attended a speech given by a participant in Columbia’s intense 1968 protest and brought hot tea for friends.


“There’s been a lot of amazing solidarity in terms of other students coming on campus, hosting Shabbats, hosting screenings, having faculty give speeches,” Gubbay said.


Columbia officials have previously said there have been several antisemitic incidents on campus, including one physical attack in October — the assault of a 24-year-old Columbia student who was hanging flyers a few days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.


Xavier Westergaard, a doctoral student in biology, said the mood for Jewish students was “very dire.”


“There are students on campus who are yelling horrible things, not about Israelis only or about the actions of the state or the government, but about Jews in general,” he said.

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Anna Myagkaya
Apr 23

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