Editorial / May 6, 2024

The Real Takeover of Columbia Was By Those on the Right

Columbia offers a case-study in how right-wing politicians are using exaggerated claims of anti-semitism to advance a conservative agenda.

Alisa Solomon for The Nation
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) speaks during a press conference at Columbia University on April 24, 2024.(Alex Kent / Getty Images)

In late April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the chutzpah to post a video warning that “antisemitic mobs have taken over leading universities” in the United States. It was a crudely inaccurate characterization—and from a man whose military campaign in Gaza has destroyed all the enclave’s universities. Nevertheless, as protests against the war spread on campuses across the country, news coverage presented the demonstrators as “pro-Hamas” hooligans—a line trumpeted by grandstanding politicians who have paraded through Columbia University, the epicenter of the student organizing, purporting to defend Jews. 

It is precisely this false framing, pushed by bad-faith political actors, that has propelled university administrations to crack down mercilessly against students protesting Israel’s war on Gaza. At Columbia, the crackdown began as far back as November, with the suspension of campus chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine—and it culminated last Tuesday night with a violent police raid on the campus, during which cops cleared Hamilton Hall of students who had occupied it and arrested more than 100. Each escalating step the university has taken to repress pro-Palestine speech has been based on mendacious portrayals of student activists, and each has predictably provoked the intensification of their tactics.

I am a professor at Columbia, a Jewish one at that, and I have watched with alarm as politicians have ginned up exaggerated charges of antisemitism to advance an ultraconservative agenda. The reality is that, while there have been some isolated cases of heinous and unacceptable antisemitism on campus (as well as more coming from non-community members outside the gates), these politicians are not helping to make the campus safe for Jews or anyone else; they are seeking to undermine faculty governance, academic freedom, and intellectually honest research and teaching. If anyone is trying to take over the university, it is these rightwing opponents of the critical thinking and learning that universities foster.

A list of some of the most vocal politicians is revealing. House Speaker Mike Johnson made a demagogic whistle-stop to Columbia on April 24 to denounce “lawless agitators and radicals” who had been allowed to spread “the virus of antisemitism.” (He was joined by Republican representatives Virginia Foxx, Nicole Malliotakis, Anthony D’Esposito, and Mike Lawler.) Around the same time, Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton demanded that the National Guard be sent in to quell what Cotton hysterically called “nascent pogroms at Columbia.” Meanwhile, Representative Elise Stefanik—the star browbeater of the hearings on campus antisemitism called by the House Education and Workforce Committee—has been gunning forthe resignation of Columbia President Nemat (Minouche) Shafik (a matter that is not the purview of politicians, but of faculty, administrators, and trustees). 

These politicians are the same ones who have spent much of the last few years trying to quash critical academic engagement with topics like the history of slavery or the variable nature of gender. Now, they have declared criticism of Israeli behavior and of the ideology of Zionism off-limits. They have done so with increasing support from their Democratic colleagues, and with the aid of pro-Israel advocates, who have worked long and hard to silence Palestinian expression. Never mind that some of these same politicians have trafficked in white supremacist rhetoric and are hardly reliable friends of the Jews. (Ditto the headliners of a prayer rally near Columbia on April 25, led by Christian nationalist Sean Feucht, meant to protect Jews by bringing the love of Jesus.) They are exploiting exaggerated charges of antisemitism. And they are doing this with the full, if perhaps unwitting, complicity of university leadership itself.

When President Shafik testified before Congress about campus antisemitism on April 17, she took a highly conciliatory tack. (Apparently, she was angling to avoid the same gotcha traps that felled the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania in similar hearings last December.) She acceded to the committee’s false premise that students were spewing anti-Jewish hatred—not demonstrating out of concern for Palestinian lives and liberation—and she effectively handed over to these meddling government officials the powers of faculty governance without uttering so much as a peep about principles of academic freedom.

Yet Committee Republicans were not impressed. As the session came to a close, the committee’s chair Virginia Foxx warned Shafik that they would “bring [her] back” if they didn’t see “more tangible progress.” The message was clear: If Shafik didn’t crack down on student protests against Israel’s war on Gaza and change faculty and university curricula in the ways they demanded, Columbia would face fearsome consequences.

A day later, Shafik cracked down: She called in the police to break up the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” that students had set up on a campus lawn—a collection of tents, protest signs (“Disclose, Divest”; “Dykes 4 the Death of Empire”), a posted set of “community guidelines,” Palestinian flags, and a vibe that mixed political commitment with the simple joy of kids hanging out on the grass in springtime. Though Shafik claimed in her request to the police that the protesters represented a “clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University,” police chief, John Chell disputed that characterization. He told the Columbia Spectator, that the students “were peaceful” and “were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.” Nonetheless, his police, in riot gear, arrested at least 108 students and swept the camp. (Students soon rebuilt it.) 

If Shafik had thought that she would appease her Congressional critics by throwing students and faculty under the bus, she failed—and for reasons that any six-year-old with stolen lunch money could have explained: If you don’t stand up to bullies, they will demand even more. And the Republican bullies are doing just that.

As Rep. Foxx put it in a letter to Shafik and the two Columbia trustees who flanked her at the hearing, the “ongoing chaos” on campus “constitutes a major breach of the University’s Title VI obligations, upon which federal financial assistance is contingent, and which must immediately be rectified.” Not long after, Stefanik doubled down on the same grounds, calling on Biden to pull federal funding from Columbia. Last year, the university received upwards of $1 billion in federal money. 

Not satisfied with usurping the university’s self-governance, these politicians were also claiming the powers of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The OCR is responsible for investigating and judging Title VI complaints of “discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin” in programs that receive federal funds. In recent years, the government has adjusted the policy to include discrimination against those with “shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics”—which includes Jews, among others. While this is a valuable intervention, those who speciously equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism have been abusing this important law to try to repress free speech about Israel. 

So far the OCR has not found that anti-Israel expression in itself has violated Title VI, but last week, the House pressed to require them to do so when they adjudicate the flood of complaints related to campus protests of the last six months. By a bipartisan vote of 320 to 91, the House passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would codify into federal civil rights law the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which encompasses criticism of Israel. (It’s not yet clear what chance the bill has of passing in the Senate. Kansas Senator Roger Marshall has already declared he will oppose it—following House colleagues like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz—because the IHRA definition lists the claim that Jews killed Jesus as an example of classic antisemitism. Apparently, this is a central tenet for these Gospel-believing Christians.)

Shockingly, before the OCR has even examined complaints against Columbia, Shafik publicly agreed with these Congressmembers that the university has been the site of violations of Title VI. In a message she sent to the Columbia community on April 29, a day before she called in the cops to sweep Hamilton Hall, she claimed that “The encampment has created an unwelcoming environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty. External actors have contributed to creating a hostile environment in violation of Title VI, especially around our gates, that is unsafe for everyone—including our neighbors.” By acquiescing to the inaccurate accusation that the university has become a hotbed of discrimination and by inviting riot cops to Morningside Heights to repress political speech, Shafik has not only made our campus unsafe for everyone, she has also imperiled us academically and materially. She has handed over Columbia’s function and future to enemies of our mission.

This reactionary conquest should put universities all across the country on alert. Congressional Republicans are pushing to sabotage higher education.

And Jews—some willingly—are, dangerously, the excuse.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Alisa Solomon

Alisa Solomon, director of the Arts & Culture concentration at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The Nation

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