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Columbia president rebuts claims she let school become hotbed of hate

Nemat Shafik appeared before the same committee whose hearings led to the resignations of two Ivy League presidents.
Columbia president rebuts claims she let school become hotbed of hate
Posted at 5:26 AM, Apr 17, 2024

The president of Columbia University took a firm stand against antisemitism Wednesday as she parried accusations from Republicans who see the New York campus as a hotbed of bias, but she hedged on whether certain phrases invoked by some supporters of Palestinians rise to harassment.

Nemat Shafik had the benefit of hindsight and months of preparation as she faced a congressional hearing on the Ivy League school's response to antisemitism and conflicts on campus following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. She arrived on Capitol Hill four months after a similar hearing that led to the resignations of two Ivy League presidents.

From the start, she took a more decisive stance than the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, who gave lawyerly answers when asked if calls for the genocide of Jews would violate school policies.

When asked the same question, Shafik and three other Columbia leaders responded unequivocally, yes. But Shafik waffled on specific phrases.

Rep. Lisa McClain, a Republican from Michigan, asked her if phrases such as "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free " or "long live intifada" are antisemitic.

"I hear them as such, some people don't," Shafik said.

McClain posed the same question to David Schizer, who leads an antisemitism task force at Columbia. He responded that such phrases are antisemitic.

It was a shaky moment for an Ivy League president who otherwise dodged the gotcha moments that turned the previous hearing into a frenzy for Republicans, who cast elite schools as antisemitic havens.

SEE MORE: Harvard president resigns following controversies

Shafik acknowledged a rise in antisemitism since October but said campus leaders have been working tirelessly to protect students. Rebutting accusations that she has been soft on violators, Shafik said 15 students were suspended and six are on probation for violating new rules restricting campus demonstrations.

"These are more disciplinary actions than taken probably in the last decade at Columbia," she said. "And I promise you, from the messages I'm hearing from students, they are getting the message that violations will have consequences."

In another heated exchange, Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and a driving force behind the hearings, grilled Shafik on faculty and staff who have expressed support for Hamas or opposition to Israel. She asked about Mohamed Abdou, an Arab studies professor who expressed support for Hamas on social media after Oct. 7.

Shafik said she shared "repugnance" over Abdou's comments, adding that he will be terminated.

"He is grading his students' papers and will never teach at Columbia again," she said.

Stefanik said she heard that Abdou attended a pro-Palestinian demonstration at the Columbia campus Wednesday morning, in apparent violation of the school's new rules.

"Mr. Abdou is not grading papers right now," Stefanik said. "He's on campus at the unsanctioned and anti-Israel, antisemitic event that is being supported by pro-Hamas activists on campus."

Some Columbia students who support Palestinians were frustrated they were not allowed into the hearing.

Speaking to reporters, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota who is Muslim, criticized the decision to keep the students out.

"This is not an honest conversation that we are having today in this committee," Omar said. "The fact that these young people came from Columbia to be at this hearing to have their voices heard and are not being allowed is, I think, a disservice to our democracy."

Shafik was originally asked to testify at the House Education and Workforce Committee's hearing in December, but she declined due to scheduling conflicts.

Although she acknowledged antisemitism on campus, she argued that the "vast majority" of demonstrations have been peaceful and said she has held more than 200 meetings on the matter since becoming president.

Her vision clashes with one presented by Republicans in Congress and some Jewish students who say antisemitism has gone unchecked at Columbia, citing a Jewish student who was beaten on campus while putting up posters of Israeli hostages, and protesters who yelled chants that some consider a call for the genocide of Jews.

"We've seen far too little, far too late done to counter that and protect students and staff," said Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina and committee chair.

SEE MORE: USC cuts pro-Palestinian valedictorian's speech over safety concerns

"Columbia stands guilty of gross negligence at best and, at worst, has become a platform for those supporting terrorism and violence against Jewish people."

Foxx and Stefanik appeared with Jewish students from Columbia who said they have been threatened and physically confronted. They described a student who had Star of David necklaces torn off while walking to class and taunts from students who said "the Holocaust wasn't that special."

Stefanik said Republicans will hold Columbia accountable for failing to protect students.

"Despite claims otherwise, Columbia's leadership refuses to enforce their own policies and condemn Jewish hatred on campus, creating a breeding ground for antisemitism and a hotbed of support for terrorism from radicalized faculty and students," she said.

The December hearing featured the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose lawyerly responses drew fierce backlash and fueled weeks of controversy.

During a heated line of questioning in December, Stefanik asked the presidents to answer whether "calling for the genocide of Jews" would violate each university's code of conduct.

Liz Magill, then-president of Penn, and Claudine Gay, then-president of Harvard, both said it would depend on the specifics of the situation. MIT president Sally Kornbluth said she had not heard any calling for the genocide of Jews on MIT's campus, and that speech "targeted at individuals, not making public statements," would be considered harassment.

Almost immediately, the careful responses from the university presidents drew criticism from donors, alumni and politicians. Magill resigned soon after the hearing and Gay stepped down in January following accusations of plagiarism.

In an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal Tuesday, Shafik emphasized the delicate balance between protecting free speech and fostering a safe environment for students on campus.

"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," Shafik wrote. "Such words are outside the bounds of legitimate debate and unimaginably harmful."


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