Students occupy Columbia University as Shafik testifies at antisemitism congressional hearing

NEW YORK — More than 100 pro-Palestinian students Wednesday occupied the main lawn of Columbia University as college President Minouche Shafik defended before Congress her handling of the school’s response to campus antisemitism amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Members of the House Committee on Education & The Workforce grilled Shafik on the administration’s response to campus protests and controversial rhetoric shouted during them, accusing them of a lack of discipline when students and faculty defend Hamas or reject the state of Israel.

In a widely anticipated question, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, asked if calling for the genocide of Jews would violate Columbia’s code of conduct.

Shafik and other university officials answered resoundingly: “Yes, it does.”

Two out of three college presidents who testified during the congressional hearing in December, from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, later resigned. Both faced backlash over their tepid responses to Rep. Elise Stefanik’s, R-New York, question of whether students who call for the genocide of Jewish people should face discipline.

“Trying to reconcile the free speech rights of those who wanted to protest and the rights of Jewish students to be in an environment free of discrimination and harassment has been the central challenge on our campus,” Shafik said in her testimony, “and numerous others across the country.”

Shafik testified before the Republican-led committee alongside board of trustees co-chairs Claire Shipman and David Greenwald, and antisemitism taskforce co-chair David Schizer.

Stefanik on Wednesday pushed Columbia administrators to take stronger action against faculty who have come under fire for rhetoric against Israel.

“With the lack of enforcement, you see the concern that speaking to these professors is not enough,” she said, “and it’s sending a message across the university that this is tolerated, these antisemitic statements from a position of authority by professors in the classroom.”

Shafik testified to five cases of faculty taken out of classrooms or dismissed by the university.

Back on campus, students affiliated with Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition of more than 100 student groups, started pitching a series of green tents at 4 a.m. near the 116th St. campus entrance, according to postings on social media.

Students pledged that the demonstration, called the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, will remain until the university meets their demand to divest Columbia’s finances from companies and institutions that profit from Israel.

But the administration said they need to go. Students posted reports on social media that the NYPD is on campus, and videos of administrators telling them to disperse and handing out written rules of university conduct.

“The presence of tents on South Lawn is a safety concern and a violation of university policies,” said a university spokesperson. “We are informing the students they are in violation of university policies and for their own safety and for the operation of the university they need to leave.”

Signs declared the encampment a “liberated zone,” according to social media. A faculty member was expected to lead a session on the history of anti-apartheid movements at Columbia later in the morning.

“We refuse to accept a world where the death of over 30,000 Palestinians is normal, acceptable, or profitable,” students wrote on Instagram.

The campus is closed to the public all this week, with a Columbia ID necessary to enter the campus gates, the university announced.

On top of the committee investigation, Columbia has also been under a U.S. Department of Education probe since November for allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Jewish students have filed a federal lawsuit against the administration, saying they permitted antisemitism to exclude them from the full Columbia experience.

When she launched the congressional probe in February, committee chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., pointed to a “pattern of deeply troubling incidents and developments at Columbia,” including a Jewish student who was beaten with a stick by a peer during a dispute over Israeli hostage posters, and a swastika drawn in a campus bathroom.

Earlier this month, Columbia announced the suspensions of multiple pro-Palestinian students for an unsanctioned campus event with “speakers who are known to support terrorism and promote violence.” Students for Justice in Palestine accused the university of a “coordinated campaign to boost Columbia’s public image” ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.

Pro-Palestinian students have repeatedly accused the administration of not doing enough to keep them safe from ‘doxxing’ trucks, physical attacks and arrests. Shafik testified during the hearing that 90 students have reached out to Columbia’s doxxing response team, which provides legal and technical support including privacy measures and online scrubbing.

Like Shafik, the New York City public schools chancellor, David Banks, is scheduled to testify before the same committee on May 8.