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Columbia University president testifies about antisemitism on college campuses

Here's what Columbia University's president had to say about antisemitism on campus
Here's what Columbia University's president had to say about antisemitism on campus 02:47

NEW YORK -- Columbia University President Dr. Minouche Shafik testified Wednesday before Congress, as part of ongoing hearings about antisemitism on school campuses.

"Columbia strives to be a community free of discrimination and hate in all its forms, and we condemn the antisemitism that is so pervasive today," Shafik told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. 

Allegations of antisemitism at Columbia University

Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University’s Response to Antisemitism by House Committee on Education & the Workforce on YouTube

The committee played a video montage of what it called evidence of unchecked antisemitism on the university's campus.

"At Columbia, and numerous other schools, there has been a pattern of unapproved antisemitic events organized and attended by university students and staff," Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx said. 

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish students at Columbia have experienced a dramatic increase in antisemitism over the past six months. In October, the NYPD confirmed a swastika was found inside a building, and dueling demonstrations over the Israel-Hamas War have intensified in the months since. 

"I've spent most of my time since becoming president trying to tackle this issue," Shafik said.

Foxx told Shafik, "The students don't seem to be afraid of your letters."

"Chairwoman, I assure you, the students are not getting letters, as has previously been said. We have already suspended 15 students," Shafik said.

Shafik was grilled by the committee for five hours over allegations that Columbia doesn't protect Jewish students from antisemitism, which even Columbia professors agree is out of control.

Professor David Schizer heads Columbia's Antisemitism Task Force, created after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, which the NYPD confirms brought a spike in antisemitic incidents on campus.

"One of my students who wears a kippah was approached in the law school lobby by another student who said 'eff the Jews.' Another was spat upon at a protest," Schizer said.

"Antisemitism has no place on our campus and I am personally committed to doing everything I can to confront it directly," Shafik said.

Not so said the committee, who blasted what they called Columbia's lack of accountability, focusing on Columbia Professor Joseph Massad, who praised the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, calling it "awesome," and is still an active faculty member.

"What truly speaks volumes as the moral compass of Columbia that this rabid antisemite is still on your payroll today," Rep. Burgess Owens said.

"I am appalled by what he said," Shafik said.

"Any consequences?" Owens asked.

"He has been spoken to," Shafik said.

"Spoken to? So support of terrorism is acceptable if you're a Columbia professor?" Owens said.

Shafik says Columbia is trying to balance allowing free speech while prohibiting hate speech and agrees more needs to be done to protect students.

She also says the university has dismissed several professors who've made antisemitic remarks.

Columbia students watching closely

Wednesday's hearing lasted several hours, and many Columbia students watched to see how their president committed to keeping them safe.

"There's no refuge for Jewish students and our leadership has not led and has not made a commitment in terms of their actions to really follow through and make sure that Jewish students are safe and welcome on campus," student Eden Yadegar said.

Yadegar added she is not looking for the president to step down, but said, "I want the president of Columbia to take the action that she says she is going to take, and I believe there is still hope for her to do that."

"I've met with President Shafik. I don't believe that this is who she is. I would like to believe that. I think we're coming to the mark where she needs to clarify that herself," said fellow student Noa Fay. "We are getting down to the wire here. Resignation is off the table for now, but that's not to say it can't come back up in the future."

"There's an immense amount of hostility towards Jews and pro-Israel students," student David Lederer said. "I get looks. I'm genuinely scared in the classroom of repercussions from the professor if I give a pro-Israel, you know, answer."

"I feel angry that the ideals of students in terms of like a socially progressive agenda are not being listened to," one student said.

Meanwhile, other students are staging a demonstration, called the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, with dozens of tents set up on the school's main lawn. They are calling on the university to divest from certain Israeli-linked companies, and say the encampment will remain until that happens. 

Protests on campus and the response

In her testimony, Dr. Shafik said the school is committed to allowing free speech on campus, even designating certain areas for protests, so other students can avoid demonstrations and teaching isn't disrupted. She also said the university has taken drastic steps to ensure safety for all students.

"Our actions included support for students, enhanced reporting channels for incidents, hiring additional staff to investigate complaints, developing new policies on demonstrations, holding listening forums to model respectful behaviors, launching educational programs, and forming a task force of our senior leaders to propose solutions to antisemitism," she said. 

Columbia suspended two student groups, the Students for Justice in Palestine and the Jewish Voice for Peace, last year after protests over the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the war in Gaza. School officials said the groups violated university policies.

The U.S. Department of Education then launched an investigation to see if Columbia, and Cooper Union, violated their legal obligations under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act to provide students a school environment free of discrimination based on race, color or national origin.   

"As president of the university, my immediate responsibility was to ensure the physical safety and security of our community. We were for the most part successful in that respect. Most of our students, faculty and staff understood this priority, welcomed it and were crucial partners in helping us keep our campus safe," Dr. Shafik wrote in an op-ed that was published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, titled, "What I Plan to Tell Congress Tomorrow."

"A more complicated issue was the conflict between the free-speech rights of pro-Palestinian protesters and the impact that these protests were having on our Jewish students and their supporters. Some things that were said at those protests and on social media were profoundly unsettling and frightening," her op-ed continued. "Trying to reconcile the speech rights of one part of our community with the rights of another part of our community to live in a supportive environment or at least an environment free of fear, harassment and discrimination, has been the central challenge at our university and on campuses across the country."

Shafik is the latest university president called to testify about antisemitism on campus. Harvard University's Claudine Gay, University of Pennsylvania's Liz Magill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sally Kornbluth appeared before the committee last December, leading to Gay and Magill's resignations. New York City Department of Education Commissioner David Banks said last week he has also been asked to testify next month.  

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