Columbia University president admits antisemitism is a serious problem on US college campuses

Appearing before Congress, Minouche Shafik defended Columbia’s efforts to combat antisemitism


The president of Columbia University, Dr Minouche Shafik, testifies about antisemitism on college campuses (Photo: Getty)

The president of Columbia University in New York, Dr Minouche Shafik, has admitted to US lawmakers that antisemitism is a serious problem on US college campuses, but floundered when it came to stating a clear position on the emotive chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. 

Shafik appeared before US Congress on Wednesday to defend her institution’s efforts to mitigate campus antisemitism in an investigative hearing lasting nearly four hours. 

During the hearing, the Republican-led Committee on Education and the Workforce grilled Shafik and three other university officials as part of an investigation into Columbia’s handling of a flurry of antisemitic incidents on its New York campus in the wake of the October 7 massacre.

Shafik appeared to be at pains to avoid following in the footsteps of the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, both of whom, following a similar hearing in December, resigned due to major disapproval over their lukewarm, caveat-heavy response to tackling campus antisemitism.

During her testimony, Shafik agreed with lawmakers that antisemitism is a serious problem at US universities and admitted that Columbia University administrators were not prepared for the protests which shook the campus following the outbreak of conflict in Israel and Gaza.

When Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated Columbia’s code of conduct, all four Columbia representatives responded, “Yes, it does.”

Their answer stands apart from those offered by the university presidents questioned during the December hearing, whose equivocal and legalistic responses and were criticised by some for “lacking moral clarity”.

Attempting to draw a line between what kind of speech is and is not allowed on college campuses, Shafik said Columbia’s leaders agreed that some of the terms used by pro-Palestine activists were antisemitic and added that the use of certain contested phrases, such as the provocative chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, might warrant disciplinary action.

When asked whether the slogan – which refers to the entirety of the land between the Jordan River, which borders eastern Israel, and the Mediterranean Sea on the west – is antisemitic, however, Shafik said: "I hear them as such, some people don't... it’s a difficult issue because some people hear it as antisemitic, other people do not.”

She continued: “We must uphold freedom of speech because it’s essential to our academic mission, but we cannot and should not tolerate abuse of this privilege to harass and discriminate.”

Shafik added: “There have been periods in history when antisemitism is in abeyance, and they were characterised by enlightened leadership, inclusive cultures, and clarity about rights and obligations. Those are the values that I cherish and that I am determined to bring to Columbia.”

Discussing student safety, Shafik said the university had suspended 15 students and that six were on probation for violating rules regarding campus protests. She also vowed that there would be “consequences” for employees who “make remarks that cross the line in terms of antisemitism.”

According to Shafik, who previously served as the president and vice chancellor of the London School of Economics, five employees have been removed from the classroom or ousted from Columbia in recent months.

When pressed on how the school will respond if faculty members engage in “antisemitic words or conduct”, Shafik said: “I would be happy to make a statement that anyone, any faculty member, at Columbia who behaves in an antisemitic way or in any way a discriminatory way should find somewhere else to go.”

Shafik was joined by Claire Shipman and David Greenwald, co-chairs of Columbia’s board of trustees, as well as David Schizer, the former dean of Columbia Law School who co-chairs an antisemitism task force for the university.

According to the Jewish civil rights organisation the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish students have experienced a spike in antisemitic incidents on US college campuses since October 7, with a majority of students — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — stating that in their opinion, their campus administration has not done enough to address antisemitic prejudice.

Virginia Foxx, the Republican chair of the committee, said she called the hearing because: “Some of the worst cases of antisemitic assaults, harassment, and vandalism on campus have occurred at Columbia University.”

The hearing in December, during which House Education Committee members investigated the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology over their handling of campus antisemitism following the Hamas attack in October, led to the resignation of the University of Pennsylvania president Elizabeth Magill and Harvard University president Claudine Gay.

Both investigations, which highlight campus attacks targeting Jewish groups and individuals as well as the use of contested rhetoric, concern the potential breach of Title VI, a law prohibiting discrimination based on race, colour or national origin in any institution or programme receiving federal funding from the US Department of Education.

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