Apr 16, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Antisemitism has no place on college campuses but debate does, Columbia president says

Students hold a rally to demand greater protection from antisemitism on campus at Columbia University on Feb. 14. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Columbia University took steps to ensure Jewish and Israeli students felt safe on campus while ensuring pro-Palestinian demonstrators had a place to exercise their free speech rights, university president Minouche Shafik will tell the congressional committee that hammered other Ivy League presidents.

The big picture: Harvard president Claudine Gay and University of Pennsylvania's Liz Magill, who testified before the committee in December, both resigned following criticism of their handling of alleged antisemitism on their campuses following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

  • The two presidents, along with MIT president Sally Kornbluth who has since kept her job, were criticized for their responses to questions about whether "calling for the genocide of Jews" violated the schools' codes of conduct.

What she's saying: Shafik, in testimony first published in the Wall Street Journal ahead of her Wednesday appearance before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, called the Hamas attack "horrific" and said antisemitism has no place on campus.

  • After the Hamas attack, there were "aftershocks" and her immediate responsibility was to ensure the physical safety of the community, which for the most part, Shafik said, was successful.
  • "Contrary to the depiction we have seen on social media, the most of people protesting do so from a place of genuine political disagreement, not from personal hatred or bias or support for terrorism," she said.

Zoom in: A more complicated issue, she said, was guaranteeing the free speech rights of pro-Palestinian protesters without accepting threats to Jewish students.

  • There are several important lessons learned six months later, Shafik said. While debate should be welcomed at a university, it "should happen within specific parameters."
  • "Calling for the genocide of a people—whether they are Israelis or Palestinians, Jews, Muslims or anyone else—has no place in a university community," she continued. "Such words are outside the bounds of legitimate debate and unimaginably harmful."

On the limits of free speech under the First Amendment, she said the U.S. Supreme Court has struggled with that for more than two centuries.

  • "Don't expect universities to figure it out overnight," the university president said. "When such fundamental issues are at stake, we need to think hard about where we set the boundaries, and we are doing precisely that."
  • One idea Columbia has adopted is to define a designated space for protests so that "those who don't want to hear what is being said need not listen," Shafik said.

Between the lines: Shafik also noted that "universities and their presidents aren't politicians," and they should be "constructive facilitators, not commentators" in public conversations.

Zoom out: Universities have grappled with how to respond to the Israel-Hamas war, which has coincided with spike in antisemitic and anti-Muslim threats on campuses across the country.

Go deeper: Top elite colleges get failing grades on campus antisemitism

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