I am a Jewish student at Columbia. Don’t believe what you’re being told about ‘campus antisemitism’
05/12/2024 // News Editors // Views

“Reprehensible and dangerous.” “Terrorist sympathizers.” “It’s not 1938 Berlin. It’s 2024, Columbia University, NYC.”

(Article by Jonathan Ben-Menachem republished from Zeteo.com)

The White HouseCongressional Republicans, and cable news talking heads would have you believe that the Columbia University campus has devolved into a hotbed of antisemitic violence – but the reality on the ground is very different. As a Jewish student at Columbia, it depresses me that I have to correct the record and explain what the real risk to our safety looks like. I still can't quite believe how the events on campus over the past few days have been so cynically and hysterically misrepresented by the media and by our elected representatives.

Last week, the Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) coalition, representing more than 100 student organizations, including Jewish groups, organized the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, a peaceful campus protest in solidarity with Palestine. CUAD was reactivated after the university suspended Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace in the fall. On Wednesday morning, hundreds of students camped out on Columbia’s South Lawn. They vowed to stay put until the university divests from companies that profit from their ties to Israel. Protesters prayed, chanted, ate pizza, and condemned the university’s complicity in Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Though counter-protesters waved Israeli flags near the encampment, the campus remained largely calm from my vantage point.

Columbia responded by imposing a miniature police state. Just over a day after the encampment was formed, university President Minouche Shafik asked and authorized the New York Police Department to clear the lawn and load 108 students – including a number of Jewish students – onto Department of Corrections buses to be held at NYPD headquarters at 1 Police Plaza. One Jewish student told me that she and her fellow protesters were restrained in zip-tie handcuffs for eight hours and held in cells where they shared a toilet without privacy. The NYPD chief of patrol John Chell later told the Columbia Spectator that “the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.”

Since then, dozens of undergraduates have been locked out of their dorms without notice. Barnard College, an affiliate of Columbia, notably gave students just 15 minutes to retrieve their belongings after returning from lockup and finding themselves evicted. Suspended students cannot return to campus and are struggling to access food or medical care. Students who keep Shabbat, and do not use electronics on the Sabbath, were forced to rely on technology in order to secure food and emergency housing. This crackdown was the most violence inflicted on our student body in decades. I implore you, as our Jewish Voice for Peace chapter does, to consider whether arresting Jewish students keeps us and Columbia safe.

Smears from the press and pro-Israel influencers, who have levied charges of antisemitism and violence against Jewish students, are a dangerous distraction from real threats to our safety. I saw politicians compare student organizers to neo-Nazis and call for a National Guard deployment, apparently ignorant of the lives lost at Kent State and in Charlottesville, and with very little pushback from national media. This is a repulsive form of self-aggrandizement that I can only assume is intended to preserve relationships with influential donors. Calls to more heavily police our campus actively endanger Jewish students, and threaten the regular operations of the university far more gravely than peaceful protests.

It’s true, the fact that CUAD organizers fundamentally reject bigotry and hate has not stopped unrelated actors from exploiting opportunities to shamefully harass Jewish students with grotesque or antisemitic statements. I condemn antisemitism – which should seem obvious since I have experienced it many times myself. (This likely won’t keep controversial Columbia Business School professor Shai Davidai from calling me a kapo.) But the often off-campus actions of a few unaffiliated individuals simply do not characterize this disciplined student campaign. The efforts to connect these offensive but relatively isolated incidents to the broader pro-Palestinian protest movement mirror a wider strategy to delegitimize all criticism of Israel.

As this national discourse over “campus antisemitism” reached a boiling point over the weekend, the Gaza Solidarity Encampment saw CUAD organizers lead joint Muslim and Jewish prayer sessions and honor each other’s dead. This is wholesome, human stuff – it doesn’t make for sensationalist headlines about Jew-hating Ivy Leaguers.

On Monday, I joined hundreds of my fellow student workers for a walk-out in solidarity with the encampment; we listened respectfully as a similarly sizable group of Columbia faculty held a rally on the library steps. Frankly, it didn’t feel much different from the environment during my union’s most recent strike on campus – I felt inspired again by my colleagues’ commitment to making Columbia a safer and better place to work and study.

Later that night, a Passover Seder service was held at the encampment. Would an antisemitic student movement welcome Jews in this way? I think not.

Here’s what you’re not being told: The most pressing threats to our safety as Jewish students do not come from tents on campus. Instead, they come from the Columbia administration inviting police onto campus, certain faculty members, and third-party organizations that dox undergraduates. Frankly, I regret the fact that writing to confirm the safety of Jewish Ivy League students feels justified in the first place. I have not seen many pundits hand-wringing over the safety of my Palestinian colleagues mourning the deaths of family members, or the destruction of Gaza’s cherished universities.

I am wary of a hysterical campus discourse – gleefully amplified by many of the same charlatans who have turned “DEI” into a slur – that draws attention away from the ongoing slaughter in the Gaza Strip and settler violence in the occupied West Bank. We should be focusing on the material reality of war: the munitions our government is sending to Israel, which kill Palestinians by the thousands, and the Americans participating in the violence. Forget the fringe folks and outside agitators: the CUAD organizers behind the campus protests have rightfully insisted on divestment as their most important demand of the Columbia administration, and on sustained attention to the situation in Palestine.

And we are not alone. College campuses across the United States have followed Columbia’s lead.

And so, it is my hope that we can all learn from their examples to remain clear-eyed about the stakes of this crisis and focus on the actual violence being perpetrated in all of our names.

Read more: Zeteo.com

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