Gottheimer: Columbia ‘will pay the price’ if protests aren’t controlled

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) joined a group of Jewish Democrats in a visit to Columbia University on Monday as the school grapples with fiery pro-Palestinian protests on campus that have led to mounting criticism of the university’s leadership from all sides.

The Democratic members denounced the protests, which they described as antisemitic, with Gottheimer going a step further and threatening university leadership if action is not taken to reign in the demonstrations.

“We are all standing here today as Jewish members of Congress to make one thing clear, Jewish students are welcome here at Columbia. And while the leadership of Columbia may be failing you, we will not,” he said at a press conference from the university on Monday.

“We will do everything in our power to keep you safe and do everything in Washington we can to make sure that you feel welcome at this university or any university across the United States of America,” he continued. “And Columbia University, if they don’t follow through, will pay the price.”

Reps. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), Kathy Manning (D-N.C.), Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) and Gottheimer toured the campus with administrators and Jewish student leaders on Monday.

Hundreds of students have occupied Columbia’s campus for days, protesting the Biden administration’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, backing a cease-fire in the conflict and urging Congress to stop sending military aid to Israel.

University leadership ordered for protesters to be arrested Friday, leading to more than 100 arrests, though demonstrations have since expanded in response to the opposition. Similar protests have also begun at multiple universities across the country, inspired by the Columbia demonstration.

Safety concerns for Jewish students on campus have also been raised, leading Columbia to move classes online starting Monday, hours before the Jewish holiday of Passover begins.

University President Minouche Shafik is facing calls to resign her post. Every GOP member of the New York House delegation signed a letter asking for her resignation Monday, and Democrats including Sen. John Fetterman (Pa.) have made similar demands.

Manning tied the protests to last week’s education committee hearing, where Shafik faced down tough questions from members on rising antisemitism on college campuses, ending with Shafik committing to new campus rules to protect Jewish students.

“Sadly, since that hearing, the protests have become more extreme, more hostile, more threatening, with various bluntly antisemitic chants,” Manning said. “While free speech and the right to protest are an important part of this university’s history, those rights must be exercised in accordance with the rules the school has established.”

Moskowitz and Manning both committed to pursuing bipartisan action in Congress to work against antisemitism on campuses nationwide.

“I hope that we can figure out the difference between free speech and unacceptable antisemitism,” Moskowitz said. “We in Congress will do everything we can on a bipartisan basis to make sure that we’re not just protecting the Jewish students here and their families, but we’re doing that around the country.”

Antisemitism has been soaring both nationwide and internationally since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, but a significant portion of the protesting students are Jewish, and protest groups have fought back against characterizations of their demonstrations as antisemitic. There have been no reports of violence from the protests.

“We are frustrated by media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us,” protest leaders wrote in a statement Sunday. “Our members have been misidentified by a politically motivated mob.”

“We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand vigilant against non-students attempting to disrupt the solidarity being forged among students,” they continued. “Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, Jewish, Black and pro-Palestinian classmates and colleagues who represent the full diversity of our country.”

Goldman doubled down on the criticism, calling the demonstrations “unacceptable” and urging university leaders to clear the encampment of students.

“There is no question that everyone has a First Amendment right to speak out in this country and that must be preserved, but the university and all universities have an obligation to maintain the safety and security of their students,” Goldman said.

“There is no right to a specific place to make a statement or use free speech,” he continued. “There are reasonable time, place and manner restrictions under the First Amendment that also must be adhered to.”

University leaders have raised concerns about how protesting students could impact planning and preparations for commencement next month.

“We can have discourse, we can have disagreement, but we cannot have harassment or violence. And that is … the university’s responsibility to enforce,” Goldman added.

In response to the criticisms of Columbia’s administration, Shafik said earlier Monday in a statement that she is “deeply saddened” by the campus protests.

“The decibel of our disagreements has only increased in recent days,” she said. “These tensions have been exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas. We need a reset.”

“There is a terrible conflict raging in the Middle East with devastating human consequences,” she continued. “But we cannot have one group dictate terms and attempt to disrupt important milestones like graduation to advance their point of view. Let’s sit down and talk and argue and find ways to compromise on solutions.”

University leaders will hold discussions with student protesters and faculty in the coming days in an attempt to “deescalate” tensions on campus, she said.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.