Shafik: Efforts to curb campus antisemitism are ongoing

Congresswoman to Columbia U president: ‘Fire the racists; it’s a pretty low bar’

In four-hour hearing on antisemitism on Ivy League campus, House Committee grills university officials on incendiary staff, lack of disciplinary measure for acts of Jew hatred

Reporter at The Times of Israel

(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)
(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)

NEW YORK — Columbia University President Nemat (Minouche) Shafik, along with members of Columbia’s board of trustees and antisemitism task force, faced questioning at a Congressional hearing on antisemitism Wednesday, over everything from inflammatory demonstrations on campus to disciplinary measures taken against students and faculty.

A December hearing in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce was the notorious setting for a similar interrogation of now-former university presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard and Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, both of whom resigned shortly thereafter as a result of the fallout of their comments.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Shafik and her colleagues appeared to have learned from Gay and Magill’s experience, delivering mostly deliberate, measured and careful responses to their questioning. The university officials all acknowledged at the start that antisemitism has been a pressing issue on the New York City campus since the Hamas onslaught on southern Israel on October 7 and the ensuing war, and professed their readiness to assist the committee in its goals.

“Antisemitism has no place on our campus and I am personally committed to doing everything I can to confront it directly,” Shafik stated in her opening remarks, characterizing efforts to curb hatred against Jews on campus as ongoing and noting that an antisemitism task force report was expected in May, as well as others to come in the fall.

“We condemn the antisemitism that is so pervasive today,” she said.

Enumerating steps that the school has taken to protect Jewish students, Shafik said that the Ivy League school “brought in extra security expertise and had regular contact with NYPD [New York Police Department] and the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation].”

Since becoming president close to a year ago, she said, she has spent the most time devoted to this issue, “holding over 200 meetings with groups of students, faculty, alumni, donors, parents, some of whom are here, and 20 meetings with other university presidents to learn from each other.”

A student wears a yarmulke with the Star of David during a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing about antisemitism on college campuses, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 17, 2024. (Drew ANGERER / AFP)

Two of the university officials — antisemitism task force head David Schizer, who is a former Columbia Law School dean, and Columbia trustee David Greenwald — both testified in their opening remarks that their own Jewish heritage helped motivate them in the redressing of wrongs at Columbia.

“The antisemitism on our campus makes me sick to my stomach, and we are taking steps to address it,” Greenwald said with emotion.

Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, the committee chair, accused the school of “gross negligence.”

“Columbia stands guilty of gross negligence at best and, at worst, has become a platform for those supporting terrorism and violence against Jewish people,” Foxx said.

As the nearly four-hour-long hearing progressed, specific instances were brought to the university officials’ attention, in particular Prof. Joseph Massad, who called the October 7 Hamas-led massacre that killed close to 1,200 people in southern Israel “awesome” and “astounding.”

Several members of Congress, including Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, asked Shafik whether Massad currently holds a leadership role at the university as chair of the academic review committee, and whether he would, in light of his remarks, be asked to leave Columbia.

While Shafik stated initially that Massad is currently “under investigation” and no longer held the chair position, Stefanik pointed out that he is still listed in that capacity on Columbia’s website, and Shafik seemed uncertain as to his current role.

“Will you make the commitment to remove him as chair?” Stefanik asked Shafik, who responded, “Yes, I just want to confirm his current state.”

Stefanik also questioned Shafik on the hiring of Mohamed Abdou as a visiting professor at Columbia’s Middle East Institute, after he had publicly posted his support for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah on October 11, 2023.

“[Abdou] will never work at Columbia again,” Shafik said. “He has been terminated,” she said. The Columbia president acknowledged, because he was hired after October 7, that further work needed to be done on how to vet incoming faculty.

Students participate in a protest outside the Columbia University campus in November. The banner features, at left, a map showing Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in the colors of the Palestinian flag. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

Republican Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer also pushed Shafik on Massad, noting that even tenured professors at Columbia can be terminated for cause, and asked the university president to commit to ensuring more Jewish and Israeli history courses are taught at Columbia.

“Teach these classes and fire the racists,” Chavez-DeRemer said to Shafik. “It’s a pretty low bar.”

Addressing protests held on campus, the officials said that rules about appropriate locations were developed with the antisemitism task force, including barring disruptive rallies from certain campus locations such as classrooms.

Stefanik asked if there had been antisemitic demonstrations on campus, to which Shafik seemed to distinguish between the intent and the result of certain demonstrations. Schizer, Greenwald and trustee Claire Shipman responded that there had been unequivocally antisemitic demonstrations on campus.

“Anti-Jewish things were said at protests, yes,” Shafik answered after further questioning.

Stefanik also pointed to the use of the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” at Columbia demonstrations, and asked if the language was prohibited at the university.

“That language is hurtful and we would prefer not to hear it on our campus,” Shafik responded. She added that there are “some disciplinary cases ongoing around that language.”

Stefanik reacted with skepticism to Shafik’s answer and censured the school’s lack of action, stating: “Despite claims otherwise, Columbia’s leadership refuses to enforce their own policies and condemn Jewish hatred on campus, creating a breeding ground for antisemitism and a hotbed of support for terrorism from radicalized faculty and students.”

The hearing was not without unusual moments, including but not limited to Republican Rep. Rick Allen asking Shafik about her familiarity with the Book of Genesis and the idea that whoever curses the Jewish people shall be cursed.

“Do you want Columbia University to be cursed by God?” Allen asked Shafik. Shafik, with a very slight smile, responded, “Definitely not.”

NYPD officers push anti-Israel protesters off the street during the ‘All out for Palestine’ rally outside Columbia University in New York on February 2, 2024. (Yuki IWAMURA / AFP)

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar also made a brief appearance during the hearing, asking about university resources for students who had been doxxed and harassed, and asking about Israeli Columbia assistant professor Shai Davidai by name, saying that Davidai has harassed students and Shafik online.

“As president, I’m used to being attacked, but attacking our students is unacceptable,” Shafik said, noting that there have been “more than 50” complaints about Davidai and saying “he is under investigation for harassment.”

Foxx closed the hearing with remarks casting doubt on some testimony, specifically how many students had been suspended for misconduct relating to antisemitism.

“While some changes have begun on campus, there is still a significant amount of work to be done,” Foxx said, adding that the committee “will be looking for answers to questions that have been raised today in a very timely fashion, and we are prepared to bring you back if we don’t see more tangible progress.”

Columbia University Prof. Shai Davidai speaks out against ‘pro-terror student organizations’ in a video recorded on campus in New York City, October 19, 2023. (YouTube screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Approached by The Times of Israel, Davidai, an assistant professor at the Columbia University Business School and an outspoken advocate for Jewish and Israeli students at Columbia since October 7, claimed that Shafik made several false statements during her testimony.

“She lied about Prof. Abdou being terminated — he’s still on the Columbia website. Today, there’s an unauthorized protest on campus during the Congressional hearing, so she lied about that… there was an unauthorized protest since 4 a.m., an illegal encampment in main campus. The COO of Columbia’s main campus is on the ground and public safety is on the ground and nothing has been done,” claimed Davidai.

“I have said it for six months: We don’t care about your vacuous words, we care about action… I’m enthusiastic to work with any president or administration to make the school a safer space for the Jewish and Israeli community, and for all Americans who oppose terrorism,” said Davidai.

AP contributed to this report.

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