Republicans Grill Columbia Leaders on Antisemitism at Fiery Hearing

Ken Cedeno/Reuters
Ken Cedeno/Reuters

Several hours after students at Columbia University set up a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” in the middle of campus on Wednesday—demanding “divestment and an end to Columbia’s complicity in genocide”—the Ivy League school’s president was questioned by a congressional panel in a fiery back-and-forth about antisemitism among the student body.

Members of the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce grilled Minouche Shafik, Columbia Board of Trustees co-chairs Claire Shipman and David Greenwald, and Columbia Law School Dean Emeritus David Schizer, a leader of the school’s newly formed Task Force on Antisemitism, during the highly animated session. Jewish students have recently been assaulted and spat on by others at Columbia, and pro-Palestinian students have publicly chanted slogans such as ​​“Death to the Zionist state.” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) called for the hearing after accusing Columbia’s leadership of not doing enough to tamp down anti-Jewish sentiment.

The assembled administrators turned in a markedly more decisive performance than then-Harvard President Claudine Gay and then-University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, who both were slammed for appearing to equivocate in their answers about what or would not constitute violations of their campus codes of conduct. On Wednesday, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) told the four that she wanted “to clarify something with a simple yes or no question for all of the witnesses: does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Columbia's Code of Conduct?”

All of them agreed that it did.

Later, Rep. Aaron Bean (R-FL) congratulated the group for it while needling Gay and Magill for their past responses.

“Good afternoon, Columbia,” Bean said brightly. “You beat Harvard and UPenn! Y’all have done something that they weren't able to do: you have been able to condemn antisemitism without using the phrase, ‘It depends on the context.’ But the problem is, action on campus.”

Bean said he remained concerned that words would not be followed up with action. But, he said, the Columbia officials were “saying the right things.”

In prepared opening remarks by Shafik, she conceded that the august institution’s “central challenge on our campus” in recent months has been protecting the free speech rights of pro-Palestinian protesters while maintaining “the rights of Jewish students to be in an environment free of harassment or discrimination.”

“We do not, and will not, tolerate antisemitic threats, images, and other violations,” Shafik said. “We have enforced, and we will continue to enforce, our policies against such actions.”

However, after Shafik told the committee that it took the university several months to send warning letters to violators, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) asked her how they could trust the administration to enforce its policies to guarantee the safety of Jewish students on campus if “it took months to send letters,” and that “the students don’t seem to be afraid of your letters.”

“We have already suspended 15 students from Columbia, we have six on disciplinary probation. These are more disciplinary actions than have been taken probably in the last decade at Columbia. And I promise you from the messages I’m hearing from students, they are they’re getting the message.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) took a different line, saying that pro-Palestinian students have an equal right to make their voices heard, as long as it didn’t cross the line into hate speech.

And Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who is Muslim, told Shafik that she was “appalled” about reports about several Columbia students who organized a pro-Palestinian event and were subsequently suspended and removed from university housing. The unauthorized event featured a speaker on U.S. sanctions lists for his alleged association with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which Washington deems a terrorist organization. Shafik said the event was a breach of the campus code, and that the students involved refused to cooperate with investigators.

Schizer, who described himself to the panel as a conservative, said the balance between free speech and a safe campus environment is tricky, but that the task is manageable and can be done.

“It is unacceptable for any students of any university to feel fear or to feel uncomfortable because of who they are,” Schizer said. “We can’t have that in the United States of America. And so if you ask me, are we doing enough? I say we haven’t yet done enough, and we are on our way but we have a way to go... [But] we need consistency. What we do for Jewish students, what we do for Muslim students, we need to do for all students. Consistency is, at its core, what our country is about. And I think sometimes we’ve fallen short there.”

To that end, Rep. Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican, mentioned Prof. Joseph Massad, a pro-Palestinian instructor who in an article posted to the Electronic Intifada website, described the October 7 attacks by Hamas as “awesome.” Walberg asked Shafik if Massad had been reprimanded, and if so, what had been done. Shafik responded that Massad has been “spoken to.”

“Spoken to?!” Walberg shot back angrily. “He’s been spoken to?!?”

Walberg then asked Shafik and the others if they would recommend Massad for tenure. Each said no.

“Then why is he still in the classroom?” Walberg thundered back.

The subject was squarely teed up for Rep. Elise Stafanik, a potential “Ultra MAGA” pick as Donald Trump’s running mate, who took a typically strident tone, posing her questions to Shafik as a prosecutor might.

“Let me bring your attention to Mohammed Abdullah, who was hired after the October 7 terrorist attack against Israel,” she said. “He, on October 11, posted, ‘Yes, I’m with Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.’ He also decried ‘false reports’ accusing Arabs and Muslims of decapitating the heads of children and being rapists. We know that there were decapitations of babies, of innocent Israeli citizens, of seniors, of women. There were rapes. And yet, Columbia hired this individual as a professor. How did that hiring process work? Were you aware of those statements before the hiring?”

Shafik said that Abdullah had been removed from the classroom, is grading his students’ papers, and “will never work at Columbia again.”

Stefanik went on: “Let me ask about Professor Catherine Franke from the Columbia Law School, who said that all Israeli students who have served in the IDF are dangerous and shouldn’t be at this [university]. What disciplinary action has been taken against that professor?”

Shafik replied that Franke had “been spoken to by very senior persons in the administration, and she has said that that was not what she intended to say.”

“I think she will be finding a way to clarify her position,” Shafik said.

Shafik also revealed that Massad and Franke are presently under investigation for “discriminatory remarks.”

Stefanik argued that the “lack of enforcement” has sent a message to faculty and students both, that “antisemitic statements… [by] professors in the classroom is tolerated.”

She came back to Shafik after checking Columbia’s official online site in real time, telling her, “Massad is still in fact listed on the Columbia website as Chair of the Academic review committee. Are you aware of that?”

“I would need to check that the website—”

Stefanik asked Shafik to give her “commitment” that Massad would be removed as chair “today.”

“You have my commitment that I will come back to you—”

Stefanik then accused Shafik of lying under oath about Massad’s employment status. ​​Shafik said that five professors in total have been removed from their classrooms, but that Columbia needs to “toughen up” on how they deal with disciplining professors.

While the hearing was going on, a group called #EndJewHatred held a rally at Columbia with Israel-born Columbia professor Shai Davidai, former Real Housewives of New York cast member Lizzy Savetsky, and others.

“Our movement continues to hold on campus demonstrations across the United States to address Jew-hatred that has risen to unacceptable levels,” #EndJewHatred mobilization director Adar Rubin said in a statement. “Columbia and Rutgers must do more to enforce their policies, protect their Jewish students and stand up against antisemitism.” (The organization plans to hold a similar rally at Rutgers University on Thursday.)

A particularly surreal moment occurred during questioning by Rep. Rick Allen (R-GA), who said antisemitic students will be “cursed by god” for their behavior but might not know it because they are not familiar enough with the Bible. He referenced the Book of Genesis in calling for the protection of Jewish students on campus, because God will otherwise forever “curse” the university. “Do you want Columbia University to be cursed by God of the Bible?”

“Definitely not,” Shafik replied.

Shafik was also caught somewhat flat-footed by Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), who asked about a student-produced orientation handbook handed out to incoming pupils at Columbia’s School of Social Work. Banks noted that the handbook’s glossary of terms includes the word “Ashkenormativity,” referring to Ashenazi Jews, defining it a “system of oppression which favors white Jewish folx.” Schizer described the word as a “shockingly offensive” one. Shipman said the board had engaged in discussions about the word, calling the booklet’s distribution “outrageous.”

Conversely, Shafik claimed she was not familiar with the slur and when Banks asked why “folks” is spelled in the handbook as “folx,” Shafik joked, “Because they can’t spell? I don’t know.” (Merriam-Webster describes “folx” as a version of the word “used especially to explicitly signal the inclusion of groups commonly marginalized.”)

In her closing statement, Foxx fact-checked Shafik, calling her out for claiming 15 students had been suspended when, according to Foxx—who cited documentation submitted by Columbia to the committee—just three students were suspended over antisemitic conduct. And while those three suspensions have since been lifted, Foxx said, two Israeli students at Columbia remain on suspension over accusations they doused pro-Palestinian protesters in January with a “foul-smelling substance.”

The hearing adjourned shortly before 2 p.m.

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