Columbia professors questioned Jewish students about IDF and told them media ‘owned by Jews’

The elite university has been roiled by months of demonstrations during the IDF’s campaign in Gaza, and a new antisemitism taskforce has revealed shocking incidents


Columbia University students have been 'asked to promise that they're not Zionist' as antisemitism rises on campus (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Academics at Columbia held classes at an anti-Israel protest camp and encouraged their students to join demonstrations for extra credit, an antisemitism task force set up by the university has discovered.

Jewish students have been quizzed on their views on the IDF’s campaign by their professors, and were told that mainstream media "is owned by Jews."

Anti-Israel activists set up tents at the college on Manhattan’s Upper West Side earlier this year to demand that Columbia University divest from “ongoing genocide” in Gaza.

They have since clashed with police and been accused by US politicians of spreading the “virus of antisemitism,” before the camp was cleared by police last month.

Members of a taskforce set up by Columbia University last year following the October 7 attack have now detailed the growing discrimination faced by Jewish students in a series of interviews with Ha’aretz.

"Jewish and Israeli students are feeling very targeted and ostracised," Prof. Nicholas Lemann, from Columbia Journalism School, said.

"The concept of Zionism has become unacceptable in some circles at Columbia. People are asked to promise that they're not Zionist. In the classroom, some feel uncomfortable because of intense criticism of Zionism."

The taskforce took dozens of written submissions and spoke to more than 500 students over 20 sessions.

The testimonies collected are set to be published in a report in the next few weeks.

Prof. David M. Schizer, from Columbia Law School, told Ha’aretz: "Only when we talked to the students did we realise how serious the problem is.

"Unfortunately, there are still many faculty members who do not believe that there is antisemitism on campus, and some claim that antisemitism is being weaponized to protect pro-Israel views.

"We can put it this way: have there been antisemitic incidents? Yes, absolutely. Are there antisemitic faculty and students? Yes, there are some. Are all of them antisemitic? Absolutely not."

Gil Zussman, an Israeli electrical engineering professor, claimed faculty members have created a “discriminatory environment” by moving their classes and office hours into the protest encampment.

"Based on conversations with students, we now know that some faculty members are unfortunately also creating a hostile environment toward Israelis in classrooms and are encouraging rule-breaking by student protesters," he told Ha’aretz.

"For example, over 10 faculty and staff were standing outside Hamilton Hall when students broke in [as part of the pro-Palestinian protest].

"If I were a parent of one of these students, I would have major concerns about these faculty."

Schizer said: "There used to be healthy discussion, including debates about Israeli government policy and the occupation," he says.

"However, since October 7 the conversation has changed, with many asserting that Israel itself is illegitimate, and with students who disagree refusing to speak and study with one another."

Prof. Ester R. Fuchs said: "The burden of dealing with these situations of harassment, intimidation, discrimination and exclusion has primarily been on the students. We can't allow it."

The taskforce is set to publish an educational definition of antisemitism intended to explain, but not ban, remarks that Jewish students will likely find offensive.

Schizer said: "In theory, we could specify what terms like 'discriminatory harassment' and 'hostile learning environment' mean when applied to Jews. But doing so would violate the law,"

Providing a specific definition of antisemitism under Columbia’s rules would violate the 1964 Civil Rights act, which requires that policy definitions of discriminatory harassment apply to all groups equally, Ha’aretz reported.

Under the educational definition due to be suggested by the task force, calls for the destruction of Israel will be treated as racist, while chants criticising the Israeli government will not be.

The team is also preparing a new antisemitism training programme, which all new students and faculty will have to undertake.

"Columbia is a highly international community, and we recognized a significant gap in people's understanding of what can constitute an offensive statement for Jewish and Israeli students," Fuchs told Ha’aretz.

"The training and orientation are designed to provide everyone beginning their time at the university with initial knowledge of what is acceptable and unacceptable in our community – similar to programs on sexual harassment and other issues.

"We aim for consistency: a consistent set of rules that are consistently enforced, ensuring everyone feels they are being treated fairly within the system."

Activism at Columbia has proved a lightning rod for concerns over anti-Jewish bigotry within the broader pro-Palestine movement. Tensions boiled over earlier this year, when violent protestors broke into the university’s Hamilton Hall and had to be removed by the NYPD.

In April, the White House condemned "blatantly antisemitic" statements after videos shared online showed some students appearing to defend the October 7 attack.

New York Mayor Eric Adams meanwhile said he was "horrified and disgusted with the antisemitism being spewed at and around the Columbia University Campus".

Writing to 300 Jewish students, one rabbi advised that they leave campus during the unrest.

Some progressive students identifying as Jewish have participated in the protests across the US, with some demonstrators organising a seder at an encampment in LA, which was later ridiculed for having misspelled Hebrew on a seder plate.

"Passover has always taught me to think about who is oppressed and what we can do to fight for their freedom," said one participant in a statement released by Columbia University Apartheid Divest.

"Palestinians in Gaza have been bombed and starved by Israel for months, and we have a responsibility to speak out against these atrocities, especially as our university is funding this violence through investments.”

Demonstrators have demanded that Columbia financially divest from Israel, sever academic ties with Israeli universities, and release a statement calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

A Columbia University spokesperson said: "We are committed to combating antisemitism and taking sustained, concrete action to ensure Columbia is a campus where Jewish students and everyone in our community feels safe, valued and able to thrive."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive