July 19, 2024
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July 19, 2024
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Columbia Task Force Acknowledges Isolation and Fear of Jewish Students

A Columbia University task force investigating antisemitism acknowledged the isolation and fear felt by Jewish students on campus in its inaugural report and condemned “all toxic forms of hate.”

The Ivy League Manhattan university has had a history of antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents, which has only intensified since the Oct. 7 terrorist attack in Israel and the resulting war with Hamas. Columbia is also facing several lawsuits from Jewish and Israeli students and is under investigation by Congress for allowing an antisemitic environment and the federal Department of Education for violating Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act for failing to protect both Jewish and Muslim students.

In response to the “hostile” environment on campus the Task Force on Antisemitism plans to issue a series of reports based on its investigations.

“The task force has heard of the isolation and pain many Jewish and Israeli Columbia affiliates have experienced in recent months,” said the report. “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 task force was formed in November 2023 by Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, Barnard College President Laura Rosenbury and Teachers College President Thomas Bailey. The report’s main author is David M. Schizer, a law professor and former dean of the Columbia University School of Law and a co-chair of the task force.

The report said while protests and demonstrations “are an indispensable element of civic life in a free society” there have been “repeated” violations in recent months of university rules on protests designed to keep them from interfering with the school’s academic mission.

“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,” reads the report. “There also have been reports of physical harm to students, including Columbia affiliates who were protesting against Hamas and Columbia affiliates who were protesting against Israel. Needless to say, the University must guarantee the physical safety of all Columbia affiliates, and a welcoming environment for everyone is essential. “

The report noted that there has been widespread heartbreak, fear and loss on both sides and, although its focus is on combating antisemitism, it was the task force’s hope that its recommendations will “foster community” and also help combat Islamophobia and other forms of hate.

The university suspended Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for peace earlier this school year for their threatening rhetoric and intimidation and unauthorized events.

The report recommended the university’s rules on demonstrations must include three critical goals: safeguarding everyone’s right to protest; ensuring those protests don’t interfere with the rights of others to teach, research and learn; and combating discrimination and harassment, including antisemitic harassment.

To accomplish these the task force suggested regulating the timing and location of protests and endorsed creating a “speakers corner” that permits protests in designated areas. Libraries, academic buildings, dining halls or dormitories would be designated as off-limits.

“This is the approach of the new Interim Demonstrations Policies, and we consider them a major step forward,” stated the report.

Although the task force generally agreed with the language of the university’s rules it had “serious concerns” about their enforcement. It noted the university has rarely tried to halt violations as they are occurring, but instead has focused on disciplinary measures after the fact.

“The priority during protests has been to avoid violence and escalation,” said the report. “In our view, avoiding violence is necessary, but not sufficient.”

It recommended Columbia move to stop unauthorized protests in progress, using approaches that are effective but not confrontational.

It also recommended simplifying the process for filing complaints, more flexible deadlines for adjudicating them and called for the university’s legal team to clarify what speech contributes to a hostile learning or working environment by offering scenarios illustrating what does and does not constitute breaking the rules. It emphasized such scenarios must be consistently applied to all protected groups.

“It is worth emphasizing that even when offensive words are permissible under the University’s rules, they may still be disappointing or even reprehensible,” read the report. “In discussing difficult issues, we should always strive to state our position with civility and collegially.”

In addition to Schizer, others on the rules working group of the task force who were involved with the initial report are 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. Additional input was provided by 10 staff members from Columbia colleges.

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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