NEW YORK — Columbia University student Noah Lederman said he still can’t put into words what it felt like when an anti-Israel demonstrator pinned him against a brick wall and then told him to “keep f–ing running.”
“The whole afternoon felt dystopian. There have been many protests on campus since October 7. I’m used to it now; I know all the chants. But this one seemed different,” said Lederman, a Jewish freshman from Orange County, California. “There were police everywhere and loudspeakers telling the protesters not to block the street. There were helicopters above and the skies were gray. I cannot convey how scared I felt.”
The incident occurred late afternoon on February 2 after more than 500 pro-Palestinian demonstrators turned out for the “All Out for Palestine” protest.
The protest was organized by Within Our Lifetime, a virulently anti-Israel group that has voiced support for the October 7 Hamas-led massacre that saw 1,200 people in southern Israel brutally murdered, the vast majority of them civilians, and another 253 abducted to the Gaza Strip. Columbia University Apartheid Divest co-organized the demonstration, which was endorsed by over 80 campus organizations.
Lederman decided to attend a small counter-protest in support of Israel after a friend asked him to accompany her.
“I feel like it’s my obligation to stand up for my brothers and sisters [in Israel] and I would hate to be alone at a protest,” he told The Times of Israel, sitting in the Columbia Hillel.
Lederman said he decided to leave when the chanting and banner-waving pro-Palestinian demonstrators started marching south down Broadway. He ducked into Book Culture bookstore on 115th Street, where he met up with his roommate. The two then started walking north, thinking it would be the safest route to their dorm.
“I felt I’d be fine. I was heading to my dorm and the protesters were going in another direction. It was broad daylight. The protests always seem violent, but they’ve never been physical,” Lederman said.
When they got to 120th Street, it looked like a group of protesters were marching toward them. Lederman, wearing his Israeli flag T-shirt and a kippah, said he kept his head down as he tried to walk briskly past the group.
It was then that a man in a keffiyeh, a traditional men’s headscarf that has become a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, spotted Lederman’s shirt and allegedly ordered the other protesters to fan out. Before Lederman understood what was happening, he said, he felt himself being shoved against the wall, unable to move.
“It felt like forever, but when I saw the security footage it was only seconds. The whole thing feels a little blurry and I’m still trying to process what happened. It felt hateful and scary,” he said.
He finally broke free and ran. And as he ran, Lederman said, the man yelled, “Keep f–ing running.”
Lederman reported the incident to the NYPD and the University Department of Public Safety. According to Columbia, it’s the responsibility of the NYPD to handle the investigation since the alleged incident happened outside the campus gates.
Lederman said he’s less concerned with the man’s motives than he is with the overall climate that allowed the incident to unfold, saying it’s indicative of a general toxic atmosphere that has engulfed the Columbia campus since October 7.
“Columbia allowed things to progress… tolerance for violence begets violence,” he said. “The climate on campus has made it possible for demonstrators on campus to feel they are untouchable. I want accountability from the university.”
Columbia is one of several schools being investigated by the US Department of Education’s (DOE) Office of Civil Rights for allowing alleged antisemitic harassment to take place on school grounds and by registered student groups. An investigation means the DOE has identified a credible allegation that civil rights law has been violated.
Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, colleges and universities receiving federal money must protect students from discrimination based on race, color or national origin. This includes Jews, Muslims and other ethnic or religious groups with “shared ancestry.” The university stands to lose federal funding if a civil rights violation is found.
In trying to look past the incident, Lederman said he would like to see the campus organize a meaningful teach-in.
“We have tremendous researchers here, fine minds… Put together a panel of your best human rights and law and history professors that is open to and appeals to students of all backgrounds,” he said. “The primary cause of hatred is ignorance.”