In the past week the tense stand-off on Columbia University campus between student protestors, the university administration, and law enforcement has made Columbia in a circus surrounded by protestors, and the media. 

Protestors from all over the country – spanning from White Christian nationalists to the Neturei Karta- have come to Columbia’s gates to express their opinions.


The campus is now limited to only Columbia affiliates.  Many have weighed in on what is taking place at Columbia, which they cast a showdown between advocates of free in support of Palestinians and pro-Israel advocates who use antisemitism to curtail free speech.  

As an American Jewish historian, I find many of the constructed binaries too simplistic to understand these past few months and in particular this past week. For the purpose of practicing the kind of critical thinking we expect our students to engage in, I seek to offer a more nuanced view on developments here on campus in the last week and the last six months. 

 I think it is useful to link this current eruption to Columbia’s longer and very complicated history concerning its Jewish students and their political beliefs. Through it all Jews kept showing up and advocating for what they believed in.

STUDENTS HOLD a protest encampment in support of Palestinians on the Columbia University campus, in New York City, this week. (credit: CAITLIN OCHS/REUTERS)

Tensions on campus have been mounting since October 7, when the reverberations for all that has taken place in the Middle East ignited an explosion of antisemitism throughout the world.  

Given my last 18 years at Columbia, I expected the horrific news from the Middle East to drive impassioned activism on our campus.  But nothing prepared me for the deluge of calls, office visits and emails that overtook my life after October 7 concerning students’ experiences on campus. 

I was shocked to hear about the clear-cut cases of antisemitism: for example, one Jewish student was asked to leave a club because ‘all Jews are Zionists,’ and Zionist oppressors were no longer welcome. Another student who had affixed to her door a mezuzah found a fellow student seeing this ritual object as an invitation to bang on her door hourly and question her constantly about the actions of the Israeli government.  She was forced her to move out of her dorm room.  

Such individual tales were among many that led to the summoning of Columbia’s President Nemat Shafik to testify in front of Congress.  On the same day, the first Gaza Solidarity encampment was established on the lawn in front of the library.  Since them much has transpired with the NYPD arresting 100 students on campus on April 18; the establishment of the second encampment on the other side of the lawn followed soon afterwards. 

The characterizations of the encampment as either “peaceful” or “violent” obscure the experience of living, learning, and working on our campus right now. During the day, those on the encampment on the lawn outside of the entrance to Columbia’s library are not involved the application of physical force.

Walking around Columbia as a Jew today is like day and night

I have felt sufficiently comfortable walking by these student protestors and even entering the encampment myself. I did not cancel any classes or refuse to meet with students or colleagues on campus because of ongoing protests. 

At night, however, walking around the campus is a fundamentally different experience.  Anyone who has ever heard a helicopter hovering overhead should be able to understand that the persistent disruptive unpleasant noises have contributed to tension on campus. The shouts and calls for violence also do not encourage an atmosphere of peace.  Finally, peace does not exactly characterize the aesthetics of the protesters.

 Many students have opted to wear all black and masks to maintain anonymity. The constant beating of the drum, and chanting of groups both inside and outside the campus in both Arabic and English make it volatile.   Videos compiled by students convey the mood.  

What is crucial is that while much of the rhetoric concerns Israel, it is often shouted against Jewish students who wear kippot. They are often just walking across the campus to get back to their dorms. Those carrying Israeli flags are surrounded, intimidated or jokingly referred to ‘as future victims of Hamas.’  The ways in which visibly Jewish students are taunted and threatened on campus was so frightening that even Columbia’s unflappable Chabad Rabbi was shaken; another rabbinic professional penned a now famous letter advising students to stay home.

But stay home is not what Jewish students have done for generations despite being targeted for their political beliefs.  While Zionism, in all its complexity and nuance, is the political belief Jews feel attacked for today, in the past it was other ideologies, spanning from pacifism, to socialism to civil rights.  

In short, this moment must be seen as part of Columbia’s longer historical struggle to address.  Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Columbia has struggled to deal with the growing number of Jews who sought education in its hallowed halls. As New York City grew into the largest urban concentration of Jews anywhere in the world, Jews flooded its public schools, and applied in large numbers to Columbia College.

In November 1913, William Barclay Parsons, head of Columbia University’s Board of Trustees, wrote “in character they [Jews] are terribly persistent…They form the worst type of our emigrants, supplying leaders to anarchists, socialists and other movements of unrest.”  Even after Leon Samson was expelled in 1917 for his passionate objections to the Great War, did other Jewish students continue to stand up for him, his ideals and speak out at Columbia despite facing much opposition.

It is this legacy that one can hear through the words of Israeli rising senior Maya Platnek, the recently elected president of Columbia University Student Government. “It is critical that our voices are heard and our safety in protected… Even though they try so desperately to silence us, we will not be silenced.” Columbia students, take heed to your new president: do not be silenced despite what you hear from the encampment.  Show up and speak out like Jews have done for generations before you at Columbia. 

The author is the Russell and Bettina Knapp Professor of American Jewish History at Columbia University.


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