Student pro-Palestinian protesters chant near an entrance to Columbia University on April 30, 2024, in New York City (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images via AFP)
Student pro-Palestinian protesters chant near an entrance to Columbia University on April 30, 2024, in New York City (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images via AFP)
'Is it our job to go there and fight or to stay in Tel Aviv?'

Students in Tel Aviv and New York feel heat as Columbia protests target TAU program

Ivy League school and Israeli administrator say dual-degree partnership won’t be shut, but some participants are shaken, fearing going to class with ‘people calling for my death’

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

As pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests roil university campuses across the US, activists at Columbia University have targeted a relatively new dual-degree BA program with Tel Aviv University, demanding the school shutter the program amid a comprehensive divestment from Israel or anyone doing business with the Jewish state.

While figures on both sides of the Atlantic say there is little danger of the program actually being shut down, the threats and wider protests have deeply unnerved Israeli students and staff in both New York and Tel Aviv.

“I won’t pretend this doesn’t have ramifications for us… It’s a very fragile and nervous application market this year for international schools,” said Prof. Milette Shamir, VP International of Tel Aviv University, who in her position both oversees the dual-degree program and helped design it.

The dual-degree program with TAU is only four years old, and the first graduating class is set to finish at the end of the current academic year. Enrolled students spend two years in Tel Aviv and two in New York, and receive BA degrees from both institutions.

The competitive program accepts about 30-40 new students each year, Shamir said, mostly Jewish or Israeli-Americans. She noted that a new batch of prospective students, already notified of their acceptance for next year against the background of the campus protests, will have to decide soon whether they will enter the program at all.

“Our students who are there now, some of them are fearful, or not at ease. Many of them are shaken,” she said of the environment on the Columbia campus, a focal point of the anti-Israel university protest movement. On Monday, due to the ongoing unrest on campus, Columbia announced that the main May 15 graduation ceremony would be canceled.

A sign sits erected at the pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel demonstration encampment at Columbia University in New York, April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah, File)

The Columbia administration has maintained that the program with TAU won’t be halted, and Shamir also said there was little chance that the campus protests will actually close down the partnership.

She described the New York school as a diverse, vibrant campus with “pockets of radical pro-Palestinian activities… Imagine if you had to judge all universities based on a few very radical outspoken people.”

Israelis at General Studies

The protests at Columbia University, which have included attempts to create pro-Palestinian encampments and the takeover of a building, leading to hundreds of arrests, have left many Jewish and Zionist students on campus deeply unsettled due to what they say is antisemitic rhetoric and an atmosphere of hate. The school’s Israeli students, including those in the dual-degree program and those attending the school independently or as part of other programs, have reported feeling particularly threatened.

The TAU students at Columbia feel “the same pressure as all the other Israeli students,” no more and no less, said Inbar Brand, a dual-degree student who has “taken more of an active role” in pro-Israel activities on the New York campus.

“The protest groups on campus are specifically targeting Israeli students and the dual-degree students at the same level. Jewish students feel lots of pressure, but it varies depending on their levels of association with Israel and sensitivity to the anti-Zionist rhetoric on campus,” she explained.

Portraits of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since October 7 are seen in front of the anti-Israel encampment at the Columbia University on April 28, 2024 in New York City.(Charly Triballeau/AFP)

Many of the protests have targeted Columbia University’s School of General Studies, a separate college at Columbia designed for “returning and nontraditional students seeking a rigorous, traditional, Ivy League undergraduate degree,” according to its website. The school, which makes up some 30 percent of Columbia’s total undergrad population, houses the TAU dual-degree program, but is also where many other Israelis who attend Columbia end up.

General Studies “has always attracted Israelis because after the army they are a little older” and fit in better there, Shamir said.

Prof. Milette Shamir, Tel Aviv University VP International. (courtesy)

“That’s why it’s become such a focus of the demonstrators — they see it as being welcoming to Israelis,” she added.

Among the Israelis in the School of General Studies is Maya Platek, an Israeli who did her army service in the IDF Spokesperson’s Office who was recently elected as the school’s student body president. Platek is an undergraduate student but not enrolled in the dual-degree program with TAU.

Brand called the election “an encouraging sign,” attributing it to Israeli and Jewish students coming out to vote in greater numbers in reaction to the situation. But she said she was “frustrated” by the Columbia administration, accusing it of not doing enough to “give a voice” to Israeli and Jewish perspectives, especially in regard to Middle Eastern studies, a field that attracts a large number of the dual-degree students.

In a statement to The Times of Israel, Columbia said that the university “welcomes and embraces the Israeli students, faculty, and staff on our campus and is proud of their accomplishments on behalf of the greater Columbia community.”

Pro-Israel demonstrators gather for the ‘Bring Them Home Now’ rally outside Columbia University, April 26, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

“We also benefit greatly from our dual-degree program with Tel Aviv University, a program that the University will continue to wholeheartedly support,” the university said.

TAU official Shamir stressed that the dean of the School of General Studies, Dr. Lisa Rosen-Metsch, is “a super-committed, wonderful partner” who is involved with the campus antisemitism task force, and that Columbia University president Minouche Shafik recently made a point of visiting the dual studies program, to “express her support and her commitment to continuing this degree and the relations with Tel Aviv University.”

Illustrative: Students walk through the Tel Aviv University campus. on Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Student Brand said the Tel Aviv students were “a well-knit group that interacts well with the broader Columbia community.”

“Many of us are putting in a lot of work right now… Israeli and Jewish students, we have become full-time documenters and recorders of what is happening,” she said. “I have been increasingly prouder of my program and its students.”

Students, determined

In Tel Aviv, 21-year-old Ezra Horton, a first-year student in the program, has been watching the protests at Columbia with intense interest, even though he is not scheduled to leave for New York for over a year.

“Even as a student in Tel Aviv we are feeling the impact,” he said. “The protests there are concerning and contribute to a general sense of not feeling safe as a Jew, particularly as a person on this program.”

Watching the Columbia protests, he said, “One of the things that really stuck out were the calls for intifada. I feel that is a call for war… it’s a direct call for violence on all my friends in Israel. How am I going to go and sit in a class with people who are calling for [my] death… it’s scary.”

As a self-defined “queer Jew,” Horton said that the prominent LGBTQ representation among the protesters is “particularly offensive,” since by essentially supporting Hamas, such protesters are “calling for the destruction of queer rights in Israel.”

Anti-Israel student protesters wave a Palestinian flag as they gather on the front steps of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York City on April 30, 2024 (Emily Byrski / AFP)

But though he feels trepidation about his upcoming two years at Columbia, he also feels that “I need to go anyway… I need to be stronger than what is going on there.”

Issy Lyons, 21, also a first-year student, noted that TAU has given students the option of finishing their degree in Tel Aviv instead of going on to New York.

“It’s one of the main conversations we are having as students right now: Is it our job to go there and to fight and be a part, or to stay in Tel Aviv? Everyone is very concerned,” she said.

“There is one student who came back to Tel Aviv, saying Columbia was too much for him, too much antisemitism around campus,” Lyons added. “A lot of the students there, they have to defend themselves every day. It really affects them.”

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