Jewish life at Columbia

Jewish life at Columbia

Reflecting on my first semester at Columbia University, I’m afraid to say that the most important lesson that this prestigious Ivy League institution taught me is that antisemitism is alive and well on the college campus.

As incoming students at the university’s joint degree program with the Jewish Theological Seminary, my freshman classmates and I had been thrown into a world of terror following the attacks of October 7. I saw my friends frantically try to check in on their loved ones, my professors excuse themselves from classes in order to cry, and some classmates evacuate New York altogether after Hamas’s Khaled Mashel called for a Day of Jihad. The ability to focus in class, go out on the weekend, and simply enjoy college life in itself soon became a luxury that only Columbia’s non-Jewish students could afford.

At such a moment, when our friends and family’s lives were at risk and the very future of our Jewish state in jeopardy, we expected the Columbia community to come to our support. Instead, not only did our friends, professors, and classmates fail to assure our safety, they only further endangered it. Before our own eyes, we saw campus organizations and tenured professors attempt to justify the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust, while student protests abrim with Palestinian flags began to hijack the campus. This overwhelming response from the Columbia community served to be nothing short of a Twilight Zone episode for Jews on campus.

In a “statement of solidarity” issued by Columbia’s Students for Justice in Palestine on October 9, the chapter failed to condemn Hamas once, and instead claimed that Columbia Jews had “obfuscated Palestinian resistance as terrorism” while condemning an email from Barnard Dean Leslie Grinage for extending support to those “affected by the violence and loss of life in Israel.”

A letter signed by hundreds of Columbia faculty members, ironically titled “Grave Concerns About the Well-Being of our Students,” claimed that October 7 was “an occupied people exercising the right to resist.” Worst of all was an article written by Columbia Professor of Arab Studies Joseph Massad shortly after the attack, where he deems the massacre of 1,200 Israeli civilians to be an “innovative Palestinian resistance.”

I cannot describe the horror of watching my newfound community attempt to defend and absolve a terrorist organization whose intentions are the genocide of the Jewish people, but it is principally for this reason that my Jewish friends and I feel terribly unsafe on campus right now. The reason why we tuck in our magen davids when we walk by campus. The reason why we’ve stopped wearing yarmulkes on our way to Hillel. The reason why there are now multiple police cars stationed outside the Seminary. Jewish students at Columbia fear for our lives, because the failure of our peers to uphold Jewish life, no less to sympathize with our fears, leads us to question how much our lives really matter to them.

This is unfortunately becoming an increasingly important question to ask. An Israeli Columbia student was assaulted after hanging up flyers of kidnapped hostages at the main library; a student-run event celebrating October 7 as a “Palestinian counteroffensive” was scheduled at the Columbia School of Social Work; and Jewish students were required to shelter in place at the Columbia Hillel after pro-Palestine protesters marched past the building. Yet in response to a statement from Hillel following the latter incident, Columbia’s SJP attempted to excuse its actions by writing, “The statement further neglects to mention that the 10/12 protest was co-organized by Jewish Voices for Peace.”

Thus, it seems as though Jewish lives and voices are beginning to matter only insofar as they can be used against Israel, even if this constitutes a razor thin minority of Columbia’s large Jewish population. As a matter of fact, from my experiences at the Jewish Theological Seminary and attending either Hillel or Chabad on a weekly basis, most religious Columbia Jews hardly know any students who are a part of Jewish Voices for Peace, no less any JVP students who regularly attend Shabbat services with us. Nonetheless, it is this “tokenism” of a thin minority of Jews with whom instigators such as SJP engage in in order to excuse their actions as not being antisemitic, even though a vast majority of Columbia’s Jewish population would disagree. If anything, we’ve come to find that relying on a tiny faction of likely non-religious Jews’ support as the sole defense against the accusation of antisemitism is, in fact, antisemitic.

While organizers have been quick to distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, Jews on campus have been the ones to suffer from their actual lack of difference. Stickers on library bathroom doors reading “Zionist trustees hands off our universities” and an anonymous post to the Columbia Sidechat forum declaring “Zionism is Nazism” vilify Jewish students for believing in their people’s rights to their homeland. Meanwhile, repeated chants such as “Global intifada” and “From the river to the sea” serve as dog whistles for Jewish genocide, yet have populated the regular protests that flood Columbia’s campus. Whether intentionally or otherwise, these daily encounters have made Jewish lives feel only more endangered on campus.

Regardless of how this massive disregard for Jewish life came about, or how long it had been planted in the minds of university members, I doubt that it will dissipate when I return in the spring. In the meantime, I, alongside other Jewish students across the nation, will have to prepare for the dystopia that has become the college campus, while finding ways to hold accountable the students and professors that have instigated this endangerment of our lives.

Nicholas Baum of Glen Ridge is a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, where he writes for the Columbia Economic Review and the Columbia Independent newspaper.

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