Ben Clerkin

Columbia’s David fears Goliath’s wrath

Jewish academic Shai Davidai has taken on the anti-Israel brigade on campus but worries about the possible cost to his own career

January 11, 2024 14:23

After regally refusing to attend a congressional hearing on antisemitism, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Columbia University’s president’s job might be at risk.

But the only person on campus worried about losing their employment in the wake of the controversy is an untenured Jewish professor committed to exposing antisemitism.

Shai Davidai, an assistant professor at Columbia’s Business School, is already mentally preparing to lose his job. But for him this is a battle of good and evil, right and wrong. A cause he can’t ignore.

Shafik represents the empty congressional chair that Davidai says reflects a largely unaccountable U.S. academic culture that diminishes antisemitism.

By ghosting Congress - unlike the presidents of Harvard, UPenn and MIT - and instead attending a climate summit he says she let the world know how little she thinks of the country’s elected representatives.

And he believes her steadfast refusal to condemn Hamas by name for its Oct. 7 terror attack also sends a message.

“It’s unclear whether the president originally had a schedule clash or whether it was a convenient schedule clash,” Davidai told me this week. “And more importantly, even if you have a schedule clash, when Congress calls, you show up.

“Columbia believes that if she keeps her head down, this will go away. But the Jewish students, faculty and staff are not going away. Racism doesn’t go away. Hatred doesn’t go away.”

Davidai is a reluctant champion of Jewish students and staff. Yet he felt compelled to use his position to hold the Ivy League college to account after October 7. He says others in academia would like to join him but are too scared.

“There’s a fear of backlash. In the United States everything becomes politicised so quickly. If you look at any moral issue, it just becomes a political issue. And the moment it becomes a political issue, people are afraid to touch it.

“People have a label, an ideology, and then they buy whatever comes with the label. So if you label yourself a Democrat, a liberal, a progressive, then you must do A, B, C and D. And we’re finding out that E means not stand up against Hamas.

“Even though most of my colleagues personally think what Hamas did was wrong.”

But he says there is another more insidious reason they have not rallied to his side.

“I’ve been told by several people that the optics are wrong. The president of Columbia is a woman of colour, a very impressive woman of colour.

“They see me as a white straight man speaking up against the president who’s a woman and a person of colour. Never mind the fact that I’m untenured and she’s the president.

“They completely deny my identity as Jewish.”

Now he fears that his public battle against his employer might see him lose his job.

“I had a conversation with my wife and we decided that the message is more important than any individual gain or loss from me. So we figured out our finances. It is important.

“When you are in a university and you go for tenure the final layer is the president’s stamp of approval. And I realise I’m speaking up against the president.”

Davidai led opposition to two groups on campus — Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Palestine (JVP) — and helped to get them temporarily banned.

Both organisations were suspended for holding unauthorised protests but they may be allowed back in two weeks.

“I am pro-Palestine. I support a two-state solution. What they [SJP and JVP] were doing was celebrating what Hamas did.

“When they held the last protest the Jewish students resorted to the buddy system. They walked together to classes through these protests. They didn’t want to be the only visible Jewish person by themselves.

“Students keep complaining about antisemitic chants at these violent protests and Columbia does nothing about them.

“There are videos of administrators at Columbia either standing by or actually helping the students at these pro-Hamas protests.

“Jewish and Israeli students have to walk through the protests, they see antisemitic graffiti, they sit in class with professors who have started wearing Keffiyers and expressing their support on issues that are unrelated to the class.”

Columbia says it does take antisemitism seriously and has established a taskforce to look at the issue which has seen the Department of Education launch an investigation into the college.

Davidai says “we haven't seen any action yet” from the taskforce and says he suspects it’s merely window dressing.

But Nicholas Lemann, a co-chair of the taskforce and professor of journalism, said he’s wrong.

“We’re a study and recommendation body and he [Davidai] is focused on enforcement,” he said. “But that’s not what this taskforce is doing.”

Lemann said the taskforce is well-funded and shows the college is taking the issue seriously. He hopes it will be able to issue guidance on rules by February and will have further results of its work to welcome incoming freshmen in the next university year.

In December, a month after the task force was established, Columbia was rated one of the joint worst colleges for antisemitism in a New Brandeis survey of 51 colleges, with 85 per cent of Jewish students questioned reporting hostility.

Samantha Slater, Columbia’s director of media relations, said: “As President Shafik and the administration have consistently made clear, antisemitism or any other form of hate are antithetical to Columbia’s values and can lead to acts of harassment or violence.

“We are using every available tool to keep our community safe and that includes protecting our Jewish students from antisemitic discrimination or harassment.”

Columbia’s Latin motto “In Lumine Tuo Videbimis Lumen” translates “In your [God’s] light we see the light.” It is taken from Psalm 36:9 and is believed to have been written by King David, who once prevailed over Goliath. Shai Davidai is also battling a giant. Perhaps the message from the pages of Columbia’s own history should give him hope of winning a real and not just a moral victory.

January 11, 2024 14:23

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