Asst. Prof. Shai Davidai: Group is 'all task and no force'

Inaugural Columbia task force report confirms Jewish students’ claims of antisemitism

Report recognizes that Jews on campus were subject to ‘racist epithets and antisemitic tropes’; focuses on enforcing guidelines around demonstrations

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Pro-Israel demonstrators sing a song during a protest at Columbia University after the October 7 Hamas atrocities, October 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
Pro-Israel demonstrators sing a song during a protest at Columbia University after the October 7 Hamas atrocities, October 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

NEW YORK — An inaugural report published Monday by Columbia University’s Task Force on Antisemitism confirmed claims by Jewish students of an antisemitic and hostile environment, and focused on delineating new proposed regulations on demonstrations on campus.

The task force was formed in November 2023 by Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, Barnard College president Laura Rosenbury and Teachers College president Thomas Bailey “as part of a commitment to ensuring that our campuses are safe, welcoming, and inclusive for Jewish students, faculty, and staff, and all of us.”

Members of the task force’s working group include the report’s main author, Law School Prof. David M. Schizer, and Business School Prof. R. Glenn Hubbard, Magda Schaler-Haynes from the Mailman School of Public Health, Law Prof. Matthew C. Waxman and Gil Zussman from the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. More input was provided by 10 staff members from Columbia colleges.

While researching the status of antisemitism on campus, “the task force has heard of the isolation and pain many Jewish and Israeli Columbia affiliates have experienced in recent months,” the report reads. “While mourning Hamas’s unspeakable atrocities on October 7, some Jewish and Israeli Columbia affiliates have been the object of racist epithets and graffiti, antisemitic tropes, and confrontational and unwelcome questions, while others have found their participation in some student groups that have nothing to do with politics to be increasingly uncomfortable.”

The report notes that there have been “repeated violations of the rules on protests,” noting that protesters “have disrupted classes and events, taken over spaces in academic buildings, held unauthorized demonstrations, and used ugly language to berate individuals who were filming these protests or just walking by.” There have also been reports of physical harm to students.

The report’s introduction states that “Jews and Israelis are not the only ones targeted in this difficult time. Heartbreak, fear, and loss are widely shared experiences both on and off campus. Although our report focuses on antisemitism, our recommendations can also bolster efforts to combat Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism, and other types of bigotry.”

Noting that Columbia “must regulate the timing and location of protests,” the report voices support for a “speaker’s corner” approach that permits protests in designated areas outdoors, but not in academic buildings, libraries, dining halls, or dormitories.

“Every Columbia affiliate should have the right to protest in these designated areas, regardless of their cause or viewpoint,” the report states, recommending clearer limits on noise amplification, banners and spacing between competing protests.

Anti-Israel protesters march past the Milstein building at Barnard-Columbia University on February 2, 2024, in New York City. (Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images/AFP)

Additionally, the report notes the need to address violations in demonstrations “in real-time,” and that Columbia “should do more to stop unauthorized protests as they occur, using approaches that are effective but not confrontational.” Protesters should be told they are violating the rules and asked to leave within a specific amount of time. Those who remain should be required to give identification, followed by a warning and disciplinary measures.

The report noted that Columbia needs to be more effective in investigating and adjudicating possible violations of demonstration policies, in addition to exploring, from a legal angle, protected classes of people and what constitutes hateful or incendiary speech. Unlike most other universities, Columbia uses a separate process, coordinated by its University Senate, when individuals are charged with violating rules governing protests. This process, largely untested, was not utilized once during the fall 2023 semester.

“In recent years, it has become increasingly common at Columbia to defer to a protected class’s views,” reads the report. “But when some Israeli and Jewish Columbia affiliates have complained about phrases or comments in recent months, the response has been different, defending the intentions and free speech rights of the speakers. While there are important reasons to value the perspective of both the speaker and the audience, the University must be consistent in its approach.”

While Columbia’s president was not called upon to testify in Congress during the House Education and Workforce Committee’s hearing on December 5 regarding antisemitism on university campuses, the report evokes questioning from the hearing that set the stage for the resignation of two other Ivy League presidents.

When asked whether calls for genocide against Jews were against school policy, then-University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill and Harvard president Claudine Gay did not unequivocally confirm that such hate speech violates university rules.

Anti-Israel protesters on the steps of Low Memorial Library at Columbia University, January 19, 2024. (Courtesy CJAA)

“Calls for genocide against the Jewish community or any other group are abhorrent, inconsistent with our values and against our rules. Incitement to violence against members of our community will not be tolerated,” the report says.

It elaborates: “While we agree with this principle, the application of it should be clarified. Obviously, the chants ‘gas the Jews’ and ‘Hitler was right’ are calls to genocide, but fortunately, no one at Columbia has been shouting these phrases (though there are reports that these chants were used at another university). Rather, many of the chants at recent Columbia protests are viewed differently by different members of the Columbia community: some feel strongly that these are calls to genocide, while others feel strongly that they are not.”

The report neither references the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism nor does it offer any guidance as to whether chants of “globalize the intifada” or “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” are permissible on campus. “From the river to the sea” is viewed by many Jews as a call for the eradication of the Israeli people inside its sovereign borders.

“Many of the chants at recent Columbia protests are viewed differently by different members of the Columbia community: some feel strongly that these are calls to genocide, while others feel strongly that they are not,” says the report.

Shai Davidai, an assistant professor at the Columbia Business School and an outspoken advocate for Jewish students at Columbia whose video decrying antisemitism at the school has gone viral on the internet, told The Times of Israel that while he holds those on the task force in the highest esteem, its first report missed its mark.

Shai Davidai, assistant professor at the Columbia University Business School. (Daniel Davidai)

“This is a very well-done report, and they’ve put a lot of work into it, but it has nothing to do with antisemitism,” Davidai said.

He said that he counted the number of words in the report and that out of just under 9,000 words, “Jew” or “Jewish” only appear 14 times.

Davidai also said that while the report delves into potential changes to policy, he believes Columbia has a problem with enforcing its already-existing policies.

“Since mid-November, two student organizations that were suspended, with complete impunity, have continued creating these unauthorized protests,” said Davidai, referring to Columbia’s chapters of the anti-Israel groups Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. “The protests are where a lot of the antisemitism happens, but [this report is] dealing with the symptom and not the root cause.”

“Since December of last year, the university has noted that calling for genocide of Jews or any other group is against the school’s code of conduct. We don’t need 29 pages with footnotes to tell us that,” he said.

While recognizing that members of the task force are working incredibly hard, Davidai said that the group is “all task and no force.”

“I’m so frustrated, and it depresses me,” he said. “How am I supposed to face the Jewish students who, on a weekly basis, contact me with issues and problems and things that are happening, and tell them that this task force is working so hard on policies about protests?”

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