Columbia University in New York is if anything the epicentre of the anti-Israel protest movement and woke anti-Semitism in America. As Chris Rufo, a conservative commentator, has shown (see below) the Ivy League institution is a pioneer of the theoretical approaches which have shaped such views. These include postcolonialism and decolonisation. Columbia scholars have also played a prominent role in promoting the anti-Israel discourse. These include the late Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi and Joseph Massad. Rufo also blames the university administration’s implementation of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies and promotion of student activism in its courses. 

In addition, Columbia is, according to a report by the Institute for the Global Study of Anti-Semitism Policy (ISGAP) (see below), the recipient of millions of dollars in Qatari donations. This funding has, reportedly, played an important role in promoting viewpoints which demonise Israel including the idea it is a settler colonial state. According to ISGAP the university does not report any of the Qatari funding to the Department of Education despite being legally required to do so.

In this environment the scandal over four Columbia deans exchanging dubious text messages  during an alumni panel on anti-Semitism is hardly surprising. Three have them have been reassigned as a result of the affair. The most senior has been allowed to stay in position on condition he makes a fulsome apology and undergoes anti-Semitism training. 

The questionable messages exchanged at the meeting reportedly included the claim that Jewish students complaining about anti-Semitism were “coming from a place of privilege”. This is in line with the common woke contention that American Jews are beneficiaries of privilege because they are “hyper-white” .

There have also been other developments in the controversies surrounding the anti-Semitism allegations. Some are on the legal front. Others, almost certainly more significant, are on the congressional probe into the university and allegations of financial irregularities regarding the funding from Qatar.

On the legal side, the Manhattan District Attorney has dismissed hate felony charges against Malaika Friedman, a former Columbia student. He was accused of beating an Israeli student with a stick after testimony from other witnesses and footage of the event was reviewed. Friedman accepted a plea deal regarding second and third degree assault charges. Charges have also been dropped against 30 people accused of vandalising Hamilton Hall when it was occupied by anti-Israel protesters. Some 14 others still face charges relating to that incident. 

Columbia has settled a lawsuit with a Jewish student which was brought in April. The essence of the suit was that the campus had effectively become a no-go area for Jewish students. Columbia could not reasonably defend the lawsuit as Minouche Shafik, the university president, had released a statement  on 29 April, effectively conceding that Jewish students had found the atmosphere on campus intolerable. She also accepted that special arrangements had been put in place to enable them to complete assignments and exams. Three other lawsuits filed under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act are still ongoing.

Columbia has also faced questioning from congress. Shafik eventually testified before congress  in April as part of an ongoing congressional investigation into Columbia’s “failure to protect Jewish students”. Originally she was meant to testify with the heads of three other elite universities in December but declined owing to a scheduling conflict.

On 13 June Shai Daividai, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, testified along with four others to the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives. The hearing was entitled: “The crisis on campus: Antisemitism, radical faculty, and the failure of university leadership”. He described incidents of Jewish students being chased, spat at and vilified. These included the harassment of a rabbi escorting Jewish students and invitations to outside speakers with known ties to terrorist organisations. In addition, an individual held up a sign in front of pro-Israel counter-protesters saying “Al-Qassam’s next victims,” a reference to Hamas’s military wing. 

At the same hearing, Jonathan Pidluzny, director of higher education reform for the America First Policy Institute, a think tank, partly blamed DEI for the upsurge in anti-Semitism. That is because it propagated the idea that Jews were oppressors as a result of their economic and political success.

Daividai argued anti-Semitism would disappear from Columbia, at least among faculty, if staff even suspected there was a realistic chance of federal funding being withdrawn. Based on figures for the 2023 fiscal year, $1.2bn (£950m) would be at stake. Perhaps the most interesting part of Daividai’s testimony was his reference to what he termed the purging of certain viewpoints in Columbia in the last few years. 

It should be noted that Daividai himself is being investigated by Columbia’s Equal Opportunities office. He has been accused of using his social media accounts to incite harassment and violence against anti-Israel students. However, the ISGAP report does provide separate corroboration for some of his claims, for example, about student societies inviting speakers with known links to terrorist organisations. It paints a damning picture of the culture that has been allowed to take root at Columbia.

 According to Politico, an American digital newspaper, a complete withdrawal of federal funding could take years. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights would have to carry out an investigation. The process would be so mired in politics that even the president’s views would influence any decision made. 

ISGAP’s report might therefore pose a greater threat in the short to medium term. It recommends a formal investigation into Columbia’s finances should be launched, and breaches of transparency law should be prosecuted. Ethics review boards should be strengthened to monitor all foreign funding and to block partnerships which compromise academic activities. The report even singles out Qatar in its recommendations. It suggests that Section 117 of the Higher Education Act 1965 be amended so that grantees should disclose links to it.

The Columbia Anti-Semitism taskforce is expected to come up with more intiatives and proposals shortly. Its first report concentrated on what the rules for protests should be. That was a worthwhile subject even if anti-Israel protesters have shown they do not much care for any rules. However, if Columbia is to be a safe place for Jews without making itself a laughing stock, a complete transformation of its culture is needed.

Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.

PHOTO: "DFID's Permanent Secretary, Nemat 'Minouche' Shafik" by DFID - UK Department for International Development is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Further reading:

·       Guy Whitehouse “Columbia’s battle over anti-Semitism”.   Radicalism of fools. 10 April 2024. Previous article on the anti-Semitism debate at Columbia.

·       Christopher F Rufo. “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Columbia”.  City Journal 23 May 2024. Argues that the recent unrest at Columbia was driven by three factors: ideology, the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies and the promotion of student activism by the university.

·       Institute for the Global Study of Anti-Semitism Policy (ISGAP) report on the normalisation of anti-Semitism at the university 2024  . Includes a section on Qatari funding.

The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.

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