White House condemns 'antisemitic' targeting of students

Columbia rabbi urges Jewish students to stay home until campus deemed safe

Anti-Israel protests intensify after NYPD dismantles pro-Palestinian encampment, arrests more than 100 students; breaking with Orthodox rabbi, Hillel urges students not to leave

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters march outside Columbia University in New York City on April 18, 2024. (Kena Betancur / AFP)
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters march outside Columbia University in New York City on April 18, 2024. (Kena Betancur / AFP)

Following days of unrest and anti-Israel action at Columbia University in New York City, the university’s Orthodox rabbi sent a message to Jewish students urging them to stay away from campus until it is deemed safe again, CNN reported on Sunday.

Rabbi Elie Beuchler said the near-daily anti-Israel protests were “terrible and tragic,” and that “the events of the last few days, especially last night, have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy.”

The rabbi added that as much as it “deeply pains” him, he recommends that Jewish students stay home “until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved.”

“It is not our job as Jews to ensure our own safety on campus. No one should have to endure this level of hatred, let alone at school,” he wrote.

Following Beuchler’s letter, Columbia University agreed to allow students to attend classes remotely, according to messages sent in pro-Israel student groups.

The messages also said Jewish students who needed somewhere to stay on Sunday night would be offered accommodation at faculty homes.

Following Beuchler’s message, Columbia’s Hillel issued its own statement breaking with the Orthodox rabbi, saying it did not believe Jewish students should leave the campus and that it would remain open to serve the community.

At the same time, the Hillel made clear that it expects the university and New York City to do more to protect Jewish students.

“We call on the university administration to act immediately in restoring calm to campus. The city must ensure that students can walk up and down Broadway and Amsterdam without fear of harassment,” Columbia Hillel said.

New York Police Department officers in riot gear stand guard as pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrators chant slogans outside the Columbia University campus, April 18, 2024, in New York City. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Universities abroad, especially in the US, have been the scenes of large anti-Israel protests since October 7, 2023, when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253.

At Columbia, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protesters have faced off regularly in the last six months, as Israel wages its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

However, anti-Israel protests have intensified in the past week, after the university asked the NYPD to help dismantle an encampment set up in support of Gaza. During the removal of the protesting students on Wednesday, police arrested more than 100 people, including the daughter of US Representative Ilhan Omar, a strong critic of Israel.

Every night since, protesters have marched through campus banging on pots and pans and chanting slogans calling for an intifada, or uprising against Israel. During two previous intifadas, hundreds of Israelis were murdered in terror attacks.

Protesters at the demonstrations have also expressed identification with Hamas and called for more attacks similar to the one staged by Hamas on October 7.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activists protest outside Columbia University in New York City, on April 20, 2024. (Leonardo Munoz / AFP)

The White House on Sunday condemned the pro-Palestinian protests that have rocked Columbia University.

“While every American has the right to peaceful protect, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous – they have absolutely no place on any college campus, or anywhere in the United States of America,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates told The Times of Israel.

“Echoing the rhetoric of terrorist organizations, especially in the wake of the worst massacre committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, is despicable. We condemn these statements in the strongest terms,” he said.

President Isaac Herzog also weighed in, calling the “atrocious antisemitic actions” at the protests “deeply disturbing.

“We need a ‘Leap of action,’” Herzog wrote on X, formerly Twitter, quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“Firm and strong action must be taken to prevent antisemitism on campus,” continued Herzog. “American academia must wake up to the threat, a clear and present danger to academic freedom and to the very lives of Jews on campus.”

Amid the intense protests, Columbia’s president, Nemat Shafik attended a congressional hearing on the rising antisemitism on campus at Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

(L-R) President of Columbia University Dr. Nemat (Minouche) Shafik, dean emeritus of Columbia Law School David Schizer, Columbia University Board of Trustees Co-Chair Claire Shipman, and Columbia University Board of Trustees Co-Chair David Greenwald testify during a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing about antisemitism on college campuses, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on April 17, 2024. (Drew ANGERER / AFP)

The leaders of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania were forced to step down after a similar panel in December, when they drew heavy criticism for refusing to explicitly say that calling for the genocide of Jews violated their universities’ codes of conduct.

When asked the same question last week, Shafik responded that such discourse did indeed violate Columbia’s guidelines. She also outlined the steps she has taken since October 7 in an attempt to curb antisemitism at her university, including suspending certain pro-Palestinian groups and investigating faculty members who expressed support for Hamas’s October 7 attack.

Still, Shafik and her co-panelists, who also hold positions of leadership at Columbia, admitted that antisemitism was a severe issue on their campus and that they could be doing more to deal with it.

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