'The school's problem is bigger than just this one vote'

Just before Holocaust Day, Columbia Law student senate rejected a club to fight antisemitism

Governing body puts kibosh on proposed group for second time, citing its use of the IHRA antisemitism definition, which opposing students call ‘pernicious and insidious’

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Columbia University, Morningside Heights, New York, November 2016 (King of Hearts via Wikimedia Commons)
Columbia University, Morningside Heights, New York, November 2016 (King of Hearts via Wikimedia Commons)

NEW YORK — On the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Columbia University Law School student senate rejected a request from a coalition of non-Jewish and Jewish students to organize a club whose sole purpose is to combat antisemitism.

The 49-member forum rejected the formation of Law Students Against Antisemitism (LSAA) in part because it planned to incorporate the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The United States government has itself adopted the definition for various uses, including in determining whether a university complies with Title VI.

Students opposing the formation of the group called the IHRA definition “a pernicious and insidious definition of antisemitism.”

The IHRA deems antisemitic: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor; applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, and equating contemporary Israeli policy to Nazi policies.”

The Columbia Law student senate did not respond to a request for comment.

Coming as antisemitic and anti-Israel demonstrations continue to roil the Upper West Side campus, the decision was as predictable as it was upsetting, said several Columbia students.

“I was heartbroken — not because I was surprised, but because I was right,” said third-year law student Marie-Alice Legrand. Following the vote, Legrand wrote on Linkedin that this is the second time the law school’s student senate has voted against the club’s formation since an organization with the same name, Law Students Against Antisemitism, was similarly nixed in 2022.

Legrand, who is non-Jewish and Black, said she has lost friends because of her outspokenness.

I was heartbroken — not because I was surprised, but because I was right

“I was blacklisted by the Black community, so to speak. I have a different set of friends now, but I don’t want to live in a world where Jewish people are afraid, Legrand said. “I am affected by antisemitism, we all are — because hate spreads.”

Martin Pritikin, the dean of Purdue Global Law School and a Harvard Law School graduate, said the club’s rejection may very well be discriminatory. (There is already an approved Jewish Law Students Association, as well as a Columbia Law Israel Organization (Koleinu).)

The Columbia Law senate’s executive board has a host of responsibilities including presiding over meetings and maintaining senate records, as well as accounting for student funding, said Pritikin.

Marie-Alice Legrand, a third-year Columbia University Law School student, speaks at the Columbia Chabad Magen David Adom fundraiser, November 20, 2023. (Courtesy Marie-Alice Legrand)

Because some of that funding comes from mandatory student fees for all students enrolled at Columbia University, regardless of school, one could argue that the university is obligated to ensure the law student senate isn’t violating student rights, Pritikin said.

“If anybody should be sensitive to due process it is law school students,” Pritikin said, adding that it appears the senate “exercised power in a manner that harms Jewish students.”

According to Akiva Shapiro, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and a graduate of Columbia Law School, the law school’s problem is “broader and deeper than one specific vote.”

“With the rise of antisemitism and regular calls for Jewish genocide ringing throughout Columbia’s campus since October 7, including from Columbia students, there is a critical need for Law Students Against Antisemitism at this moment,” he said.

“This vote only highlights that the adults in the room — the administration of Columbia University, and Columbia Law School in particular — need to take back control of the school from student leaders who have apparently been infected by antisemitic tropes, slander, and propaganda,” Shapiro said.

Therefore, Shapiro said, administrators ought to move the student-group approval function from the student senate to the administration, “and immediately approve the formation of Law Students Against Antisemitism.”

Legrand, who said she’s not prepared to stop fighting for the right of the group to establish itself, said the discourse in the law school devolved immediately after the October 7 Hamas-led massacre in southern Israel that saw 1,200 people brutally murdered, the vast majority of them civilians, and a further 253 kidnapped to the Gaza Strip, where many are still being held — though not all are thought to be alive.

Demonstrators rally at an ‘All out for Gaza’ protest at Columbia University in New York on November 15, 2023 (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP)

“There was a lack of compassion and a level of cruelty I never experienced. People actually celebrated October 7,” Legrand said.

Legrand was referring not only to social media posts and campus demonstrations but also to the 20 Columbia University student groups that signed a statement justifying the massacre. Among those groups were several official Law School groups including the Middle Eastern Law Students Association at Columbia Law School; Empowering Women of Color at Columbia Law School; Columbia Law Students for Palestine; The National Lawyers Guild at Columbia Law School; Columbia Law’s Restorative Justice Collective; and the Columbia Law and Political Economy Society.

In the statement, they said that “occupied peoples have the right to resist the occupation of their land” and that the “weight of responsibility” for all casualties “undeniably lies with the Israeli extremist government and other Western governments, including the US government.”

None of the groups signed on the statement responded to requests for comment.

Given that the law school’s web page touts the school as an “inclusive and engaging community” that urges students “to learn from viewpoints and experiences different from their own in a supportive and welcoming environment,” the rejection also smacks of hypocrisy, said Legrand.

“The level of double standard doesn’t even begin to cover it anymore. I’ve never witnessed so much hypocrisy; it breaks my brain,” Legrand said.

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