Columbia university, an Ivy League institution based in New York, is one of several elite institutions caught up in bitter controversies over anti-Semitism and Israel. Some Jewish students have taken out law suits accusing it of indulging anti-Semitism. Parallel with that anti-Israel activists have claimed that they are the true victims of discrimination.

December’s congressional testimony on anti-Semitism by the presidents of three other elite universities prompted Columbia into action. They all maintained that whether calls for the genocide of Jews violated their policies would depend on the context. Shortly afterwards Columbia announced  that any such calls would contravene its policies. 

Then on 21 February a group of Jewish students filed a lawsuit against Columbia alleging the university was in breach of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act 1964. According to the United States Department of Justice this rule “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance”.

The students accused the university of ignoring the anti-Semitic activities of students and staff by ignoring and not acting on the complaints of Jewish students. Incidents of assault and social media posts such as “f***k the Jews”, “Hitler was right” and “Kill the Jews” have gone unpunished. By way of contrast, incidents of hate speech or worse against those with protected characteristics under Title VI have been dealt with much more vigorously.

In addition, the students charged the university with actively fostering a vitriolically anti-Semitic atmosphere by hiring professors who support the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews. They also alleged that university staff aided anti-Israel students to flout university rules on demonstrations. This was done by providing those students with umbrellas so that they could not be identified when they took over buildings. 

Finally, the lawsuit claimed that this has been going on for many years. It said senior university staff have known about it but have done nothing to tackle the problem.

separate lawsuit was filed on behalf of another Jewish student. She alleged she was forced out of the Columbia School of Social Work’s dialectical behavioural training programme 

The complaint by anti-Israel activists dates back to 9 November. A lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and Palestine Legal on behalf of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) alleges that Columbia did not follow its procedures when it suspended the two organisations. A key point in the suit is that several other groups participated in an unauthorised demonstration without being suspended. Therefore SJP and JVP had been suspended for what it termed “the content of their advocacy” rather than for any breach of university procedure. A deposition by Maryam Alwan, an SJP activist, which forms part of the NYCLU case, suggests that SJP and JVP were singled out. It says Shai Davidai, an assistant professor of business, distributed an email encouraging students and staff to contact the president and provost urging them to suspend both groups.

 University report

As a way to help deal with these fraught questions the university has appointed a task force to produce a series of reports. The first, recommending changes to university procedures and policies, was published in March.

The report noted that alleged breaches of the rules applying to demonstrations and other breaches of conduct codes are dealt with by separate processes. Procedures meant to deal with demonstrations have been much less used. They are therefore likely to be less robust and less understood.

It adopted what it called “a time, manner, place” approach when making recommendations on how to balance the rights and responsibilities attached to protests. Section 443 of the university’s rules should be adapted so as to specify distances between protests and counter-protests. It should also limit sound amplification so that speakers or other university activities cannot be drowned out by excessive noise. 

Protests should not, according to the report, be allowed in libraries, dormitories or classrooms, though people should be allowed to wear a T-shirt with a slogan on it or a badge. The report recommends adopting a “speaker’s corner” approach by specifying locations in which a demonstration can take place.

If a demonstration is held in an unauthorised place, rules administrators should, the report argues, intervene and ask protesters to leave. Those who have not complied within 10 minutes should have their identity recorded and be warned of the consequences of non-compliance. Put another way, the university should start tackling breaches as they occur rather than after the fact when memories of what exactly happened might have become confused. This would of course necessitate an increase in the number of rules administrators and security personnel.

In an attempt to head off future legal disputes, the report suggests the university’s legal team provide examples of the sort of speech that would be classed as anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination under Title VI. The report notes that this approach was adopted some years ago in relation to gender-based discrimination.

However, even if procedures were enhanced in the way the report suggests they could be of little value. They need to be underpinned by a strong corporate culture genuinely committed to tackling anti-Semitism. The report suggests such a culture is not yet in place. When considering whether speech violates policy, sometimes the university examines the question from the perspective of how the individual or group with a protected characteristic feels about it. On other occasions it seems only to consider the viewpoint of the individual or group making potentially discriminatory and harassing remarks. There is a strong suggestion that Jewish students and staff have suffered because of this inconsistency, effectively giving support to the lawsuit brought by Jewish students mentioned above.

 Assessment of the report

Columbia does seem to be taking some steps to building the kind of corporate culture needed. The report mentions the university has launched a helpdesk and a helpline for those affected by anti-Semitism and the controversies surrounding the conflict in Gaza. There is also a webpage for those wishing to better understand the nature of anti-Semitism. It contains references to material authored by Deborah Lipstadt and the the Southern Poverty Law Centre as well as Dara Horn’s book People Love Dead Jews. However, the question inevitably arises of whether anyone will engage with such material unless they are compelled. Certainly not SJP, and probably not staff who have allowed themselves to be consumed by hatred of Israel.

The first report cannot be judged as a standalone work since it is part of a series. It is striking that it feels the need to call for “compassionate engagement” and for disputes to be conducted in a spirit of decency and respect. This implies, of course, they are not at present, otherwise such a call would be redundant. A picture of a university in which pro and anti-Israel students and staff seem to feel they are at war with each other emerges.

For example, an article in the Columbia Daily Spectator, the university’s student newspaper, published by a group calling itself Columbia Faculty and Staff supporting Israel, made reference to the Committee on Education and the Workforce’s investigations into events at Columbia. These record an Israeli student being beaten by a stick and a Jewish student leaving a pro-Israel counter-protest being slammed and pinned against a building by a protester wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh headdress. An anti-Israel opinion piece accuses Columbia of cancelling pro-Palestinian events without due cause. It also suggests that no action was taken when protesters were sprayed with skunk water, a foul-smelling liquid even though some protestors were  admitted to hospital [ SEE NOTE ON SKUNK WATER ALLEGATION BELOW].

As well as these internal tensions, Columbia faces external pressure from donors withholding donations owing to allegations of anti-Semitism and an ongoing investigation by Congress.

As with other universities which have had donations withdrawn the reputation Columbia has established over the years will cushion the blow, at least for a while. Also Congress’s investigation will take time. Columbia may well ultimately face serious legal consequences for allowing anti-Semitism to fester on its campus over a long period (if, for example, the two lawsuits brought by Jewish students are successful). However, an immediate change in mindset will only be brought about by the presence of a greater number of security staff and the ending of a sense of impunity for breaches of university rules. Harsher measures might also be needed; an unprovoked act of violence (one which is not an act of self-defence) should result in immediate expulsion, not just suspension.

Finally, there will have to be a greater consistency in how decisions are made as to whether speech crosses the line and becomes harassment and discrimination. The report’s recommendation that examples be produced, as happened in the case of gender-based disputes, is a good one as it worked. The university seems capable of avoding trouble when it concentrates on a particular matter. It is therefore all the more disappointing that it did not do so in the case of anti-Semitism. Instead it allowed its campus to become a battleground for those more interested in political action than in study or in seeking the truth on contentious matters.

Additional note: 18 April 2024. It seems there is some doubt at to whether it was skunk water used against the protestors.

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: "Columbia University" by InSapphoWeTrust is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

Under these circumstances I am keen not only to maintain this site but to extend its impact. That means raising funds.

The Radicalism of fools has three subscription levels: Free, Premium and Patron.

Free subscribers will receive all the articles on the site and links to pieces I have written for other publications. Anyone can sign up for free.

Premium subscribers will receive all the benefits available to free subscribers plus my Quarterly Report on Anti-Semitism (from April 2024). They will also receive a signed copy of my Letter on Liberty on Rethinking Anti-Semitism and access to an invitee-only Radicalism
of fools Facebook group. These are available for a 17% discounted annual subscription of £100 or a monthly fee of £10 (or the equivalents in other currencies).

Patron subscribers will receive the benefits of Premium subscribers plus a one-to-one meeting with Daniel. This can either be face-to-face if in London or online. This is available for a 17% discounted annual subscription of £250 or a monthly fee of £25 (or the equivalents in other currencies).

You can sign up to either of the paid levels with any credit or debit card. Just click on the “subscribe now” button below to see the available options for subscribing.

You can of course unsubscribe at any time from any of these subscriptions by clicking “unsubscribe” at the foot of each email.

If you have any comments or questions please contact me at