Protesters hold up posters of Palestinian terror convicts

‘This is 1938,’ says Israeli professor blocked from entering Columbia’s main campus

University's COO tells Shai Davidai that he's barred from area of anti-Israel encampment 'to maintain safety of the community'; Congress members demand Jewish students be protected

Israeli professor Shai Davidai outside of Columbia University, April 22, 2024. (Luke Tress/JTA)

New York Jewish Week via JTA — An outspoken Israeli professor was blocked from entering a portion of the Columbia University campus and Jewish members of Congress demanded action from the administration on Monday as pro-Palestinian protests against Israel continued to roil the Manhattan university.

Shai Davidai, an Israeli assistant professor at Columbia University’s business school, had announced on social media that he planned to enter the university’s main campus on Monday morning to hold a “peaceful sit-in” in the area of pro-Palestinian demonstrators who have occupied the campus lawn since last week.

But the university deactivated Davidai’s Columbia ID card, preventing him from accessing the main campus, which is currently restricted only to those who hold valid Columbia IDs. Davidai teaches at the business school, a separate area from the main campus, and still has access to that location.

The university’s chief operating officer, Cas Holloway, met Davidai at the entrance to tell him he would not be allowed in.

About an hour earlier, Davidai had posted a message he had received from Holloway, saying he would be allowed to hold a counter-protest at an area that is separate from the encampment, with the protection of public safety officers. Decrying the offer as a “continuation of six months of gaslighting and degrading the Jewish community,” Davidai rejected the offer, tweeting, “F— YOU CAS.”

“This is 1938,” he wrote in another post, referring to the dismissal of Jewish staff from universities in Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the Holocaust.

At the university gates, Davidai, who has emerged as a vocal and controversial supporter of Jewish students on campus since shortly after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, addressed a crowd of people who had assembled there.

“I have not just a civil right as a Jewish person to be on campus, I have a right as a professor employed by the university to be on campus,” Davidai said at the entrance, as supporters shouted “shame” and students watched from inside the university fence. “Being Jewish in public has become a political statement,” Davidai said. “It’s not a privilege, it’s a right, and they’re not allowing me that right.”

The pro-Israel supporters appeared to be mostly older adults, not students. Many Jewish students had left campus due to safety concerns, Davidai said. Many had also headed home for the Passover holiday.

In an email sent Monday morning, Holloway told Davidai that “to maintain the safety of the Columbia community,” he would not be allowed to enter the area of the encampment, according to a copy quoted by the conservative news magazine National Review.

“Because of the obvious risk to the safety of students and other members of our community, we strongly urge you to ask any students and colleagues who may have planned to join you to change their plans as well,” Holloway wrote. “Obviously, the safety of our community has to be the top priority right now. As a faculty member, you have a fiduciary duty to do everything in your power to help keep our students and campus safe.”

Davidai’s exclusion from the main campus comes as all outsiders, guests of Columbia students and faculty and even some students have been barred entry over the pro-Palestinian protests that have swept the campus in the last week.

Joseph Howley, a Jewish classics professor who has been supporting students participating in the pro-Palestinian protests, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he understood why the university might prevent Davidai from entering the main campus right now.

“If they have information that specific individuals pose a security threat, it seems reasonable to me that they would want to exclude them, even just temporarily, to defuse that threat. They’ve already applied this logic to students who are suspended, which I don’t approve of, but there is a consistent logic there,” Howley said. “If a faculty member with a track record of harassing students says, ‘I’m going to go start trouble on campus,’ I would expect the administration to have a conversation with them. And as a last resort, I’m not surprised that they would suspend ID access.”

Davidai has said he does not target or harass students, but focuses on student groups who have violated campus policies or expressed support for terrorism. He said he had planned to go onto the campus lawn to read the names of Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

Howley said the protests would include two Passover seders on Monday night, one inside the main campus in the pro-Palestinian encampment and another off campus for students who are currently barred from entering because of their participation in those protests.

Those protests have drawn national attention — including from the White House — after video from weekend demonstrations showed protesters making antisemitic comments and calling for more attacks like the one on October 7 that Hamas mounted against Israel, killing some 1,200 people and launching the current war.

The protesters have demanded the university divest from Israeli companies, cut ties with Israeli academic institutions and issue a statement supporting a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and condemning the Israeli military campaign.

A sign declaring Columbia University to be “the people’s university of Palestine” is displayed in front of tents erected at an anti-Israel protest encampment set up by pro-Palestinian demonstrators, on the Ivy League school’s campus in New York on April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

The students set up a protest encampment in the center of campus last week as Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, addressed a congressional investigative committee on antisemitism. The university called in the NYPD to clear the unauthorized demonstration, charging more than 100 students with trespassing and further inflaming campus tensions. Student protesters expanded their demands to include barring police from campus and amnesty for students arrested or suspended over the protests.

Since then, protests have continued, with some outside groups, including the pro-Palestinian organization Within Our Lifetime, whose leader has expressed support for Hamas, entering campus and addressing students.

The encampment protests have spread to other universities in recent days, including Manhattan’s New School and New York University, Yale and the University of Michigan.

Alarmed by the rhetoric on campus, Jewish Congress members Daniel Goldman, Kathy Manning, Jared Moskowitz and Josh Gottheimer held a press conference outside the university’s Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life, which is located a block away from campus and announced on Sunday that it would be providing escorts for Jewish students visiting during Passover.

The representatives demanded that the university take action to rein in antisemitism and protect Jewish students.

“The rhetoric has escalated to a point where Jewish students feel unsafe,” said Goldman, a Democrat who represents New York’s 10th Congressional District in Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.

“The university and all universities have an obligation to maintain the safety and security of their students of all backgrounds,” Goldman said after touring the campus protest area with Jewish students.

Manning, a Democrat from North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District and a co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, characterized some of the protest activity as “targeted harassment and intimidation,” adding, “The college must do more to keep Jewish students safe.”

Moskowitz, a Democrat from Florida’s 23rd Congressional District, vowed action of his own.

“On a bipartisan basis we in Congress are going to do something about it,” he said.

US Representative Dan Goldman speaks outside of Columbia University, April 22, 2024, in New York City. He’s joined by Representatives Josh Gottheimer, Kathy Manning and Jared Moskowitz. (Luke Tress/JTA)

The White House expressed concern on Sunday as footage from the protests went viral.

“While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous,” the White House said in a statement.

Chants of “intifada revolution” from protesters outside the campus gates were audible as the Congress members delivered their statements. The group of several dozen protesters carried signs with the images of Palestinian terrorists on them, including Zakaria Zubeidi, who is incarcerated in an Israeli prison for attacks on Israeli civilians, and Mahmoud al-Arida, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad member serving a life sentence. The two were among six inmates who were part of a notorious jailbreak in September 2021, before being captured within two weeks of their escape.

A small group of pro-Israel counterprotesters gathered next to the rally carrying images of Israeli hostages in Gaza

A demonstrator holds a photo of convicted terrorist Zakaria Zubeidi outside of Columbia University, April 22, 2024. (Luke Tress/JTA)

Police officials said at a briefing outside the campus that the university was private property, and officers could not enter without an invitation from the university if there were no immediate threats of danger. Police said the university had requested officers remain stationed outside campus and that the NYPD was coordinating safe passage off campus for students with the university. Dozens of police officers in riot gear were lined up on the sidewalk across from the campus.

Lawmakers, the university and police say they are seeking to preserve the right to free speech and free assembly, while protecting the safety and ability to learn of Jewish and Israeli students and faculty, who have said some protest activities veer into antisemitism and outright threats.

Video shared online of recent protests included a demonstrator holding a sign saying “Al Qasam’s next targets,” referring to the armed wing of Hamas, next to Jewish students.

Demonstrators outside campus also chanted in support of Hamas, video showed. A video posted by Chabad showed pro-Palestinian protesters calling for the destruction of Tel Aviv from atop the iconic sundial at the center of campus.

Jewish students say they have at times been unable to access parts of campus because of protesters. Video showed protesters linking arms and walking forward in unison to block Jewish students’ entry to the lawn. Jessica Schwalb said she and a group of friends had walked onto the lawn on Sunday night and were encircled by protesters within minutes. One of the students was wearing a Star of David but the group was not protesting, Schwalb said.

“We couldn’t go anywhere without being stopped or followed,” said Schwalb, a junior studying human rights. “They feel the need to keep an eye on us and they constantly call us Zionists and it’s just really discriminatory what’s happening.”

She added, “It’s terrifying rhetoric and staying on the inside of Columbia’s gates, it no longer provides the safety that it once did.”

An Orthodox rabbi at Columbia urged students to leave for their safety on Sunday. The campus Hillel said it disagreed with the message but shared his concerns, while the campus Chabad expressed grave concerns about conditions on campus but said its Passover seders would go forward without interruption.

Shafik said in a Monday email to the university community that all classes on Monday would be held virtually “to deescalate the rancor and give us all a chance to consider next steps.”

“I am deeply saddened by what is happening on our campus. Our bonds as a community have been severely tested in ways that will take a great deal of time and effort to reaffirm,” Shafik said.

Shafik called for discussions about the war in Gaza, adding, “But we cannot have one group dictate terms and attempt to disrupt important milestones like graduation to advance their point of view.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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