Columbia U. rabbi urges Jewish students to leave as pro-Palestinian protests roil

Columbia U. rabbi urges Jewish students to leave as pro-Palestinian protests roil

An Orthodox rabbi at Columbia University has encouraged students to leave the campus until further notice, saying that he does not believe the university and city police can be counted on to keep Jewish students safe.

“What we are witnessing in and around campus is terrible and tragic,” Rabbi Elie Buechler wrote in a message to students in Yavneh, the Orthodox student community. “The events of the last few days, especially last night, have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy.

“It deeply pains me to say that I would strongly recommend you return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved,” he continued, adding, “It is not our job as Jews to ensure our own safety on campus. No one should have to endure this level of hatred, let alone at school.”

Rabbi Buechler declined to respond to questions but said that he had posted his message only to a private student group. It has since spread widely on social media and messaging platforms.

The campus Hillel said it disagreed with Buechler’s 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.

“We do not believe that Jewish students should leave Columbia,” Columbia/Barnard Hillel tweeted. “We do believe that the University and the City need to do more to ensure the safety of our students.”

The communications came after days of heightened tensions at Manhattan’s Ivy League university, which included testimony by the school’s president to a congressional panel examining antisemitism on college campuses; the creation of an encampment by pro-Palestinian students and their supporters; and the decision by the president, Nemat Shafik, to ask the NYPD to remove the protesters on Thursday. More than 100 people were arrested.

Demonstrators remained in place Saturday as another night of clashes unfolded. Some of the incidents happened just outside the campus gates, but others took place inside the campus, which officials said they had closed to anyone not holding a Columbia ID — a measure the administration has taken periodically since Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel on October 7.

A video posted by Chabad, for example, showed pro-Palestinian protesters calling for the destruction of Tel Aviv from atop the iconic sundial at the center of campus. Another video showed pro-Israel students waving Israeli flags and singing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, on the sundial as a protester wrapped in a keffiyeh, a Palestinian scarf, held a sign reading, “Al Qassam’s next targets,” with an arrow pointing to the students singing. It was a reference to a Hamas brigade.

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 — they have absolutely no place on any college campus, or anywhere in the United States of America,” Andrew Bates, the White House deputy press secretary, said in a statement on Sunday. “And echoing the rhetoric of terrorist organizations, especially in the wake of the worst massacre committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, is despicable. We condemn these statements in the strongest terms.”

Chabad said Rabbi Yuda Drizin had escorted Jewish students from the campus to their dorms past crowds of protesters early Sunday morning, posting a video in which a protester shouted at the group, “Why do you keep killing children?”

“We try to avoid sharing the worst of what is going on at Columbia’s campus right now,” Chabad said in Instagram stories on Sunday, posted by Naomi Drizin, the rabbi’s wife, who runs the campus center with him. “We can no longer stay quiet. … It’s been a rough two semesters but this week has been off the charts.”

Drizin said that Chabad had hired additional armed guards for its Passover seders and services starting on Monday night.

The university said in a statement on Sunday afternoon that it was “acting on concerns” of Jewish students but did not specify how or respond to additional questions.

“As President Shafik has said repeatedly, the safety of our community is our number one priority,” the statement said. “Columbia students have the right to protest, but they are not allowed to disrupt campus life or harass and intimidate fellow students and members of our community. We are acting on concerns we are hearing from our Jewish students and are providing additional support and resources to ensure that our community remains safe.”

Columbia Hillel said that the school’s efforts have to extend beyond the campus gates. “Columbia University and the City of New York must do more to protect students,” it said in a statement. “We call on the University Administration to act immediately in restoring calm to campus.” Referring to two avenues that border the campus, it added, “The City must ensure that students can walk up and down Broadway and Amsterdam without fear of harassment.”

One video posted to social media showed Nerdeen Kiswani, a leader of the pro-Palestinian activist group Within Our Lifetime, speaking on campus; Kiswani is not a Columbia student or faculty member but said earlier this month, when her group sponsored an event that praised Hamas, that she was “sitting in” on the campus.

Some Jewish students had said earlier that they distinguished the rhetoric from on-campus student protesters from outside protesters, with one saying on Friday, “The students have more boundaries.” But some said those distinctions were receding as it became clear that the university could not effectively prevent outsiders from coming onto campus and as student protest leaders failed to denounce the aggressive tactics apparently deployed by outsiders.

“It is possible violence from non-students may normalize violence from students,” wrote Yoni Kurtz, a Columbia student who has been commenting on campus affairs on X, formerly Twitter. “That is why it is important for all protesters, inside or outside the gates (from [Students for Justice in Palestine]’s leaders to those who have joined in the last few days) to condemn violence and/or separate from those who won’t.”

Tensions appeared poised to remain high as the weekend neared a close and Passover approached. On Telegram, a group called “Columbia Encampment,” which has swelled to nearly 3,500 members, called for additional disruptions on Sunday, according to screenshots that were circulating widely.

Meanwhile, a prominent pro-Israel professor, Shai Davidai, announced that he had requested police protection so that he could enter the encampment on Monday.

Davidai, an Israeli business professor, has become a hero to many Israel advocates for his early and aggressive laceration of Columbia’s administration, while others have criticized him for stoking tensions on campus.

On Sunday, Davidai posted on social media that he had asked for a police escort when he arrived on campus on Monday, saying he needs “at least 10 cops” to accompany him and his entourage when they seek to enter the protest zone. He also told his followers that the Kraft Center for Jewish Life had barricaded its entrance and closed early.

The center’s director, Brian Cohen, tweeted a rebuttal. “The Kraft Center closed Saturday at our scheduled time. We will open today on schedule. And tomorrow. And the day after that…” he wrote.

Cohen told Jewish students in a letter on Sunday that Hillel would remain available to them through the crisis.

“This is a time of genuine discomfort and even fear for many of us on campus. Let us be clear: The Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life is and will remain open,” he said in a statement, adding, “Students looking to be in community with one another, or in need of a quiet place to study or be with friends, are welcome to come by any time.”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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