Columbia University backs repression in Gaza, curbs academic freedom on campus
Day 4 of Camping on South Lawn, Columbia University, April 20th, 2014. PW photo by Majorca Bateman-Coe

Since October 7th, Columbia University and its president, Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, have proven that they care little for academic integrity and open dialogue. The question remains: Where and why did the crackdown on academic freedom and integrity occur at Columbia University, a prestigious Ivy League institution with a number of accomplished alumni and esteemed faculty?

The answer is actually quite straightforward: Columbia and its funders have elected to continue to support the genocidal, apartheid regime in Israel and have elected to punish any members of the student body who stand up against this injustice.

Furthermore, the institution has begun to establish an alarming precedent that flies in the face of academic freedom and the value and protection of labor rights, both of which are deeply intertwined in the broader protests for solidarity on the campus.

On April 17, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik announced that she would be hosting an event entitled “Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University’s Response to Antisemitism,” testifying on her crackdown on student freedom of speech and elaborating on the work of the “task force on anti-semitism” on December 13th, claiming that the work was “incredibly difficult and important,” garnering support from Barnard College President Laura Ann Rosenbury and Teachers College President Thomas R. Bailey.

Shafik has previously made broad and unsubstantiated claims regarding the barring of “featured speakers who are known to support terrorism and promote violence” in a public statement made on April 5th. Still, students persist in their activism, with dozens of students setting up tents on South Lawn around 4 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, April 17th, pledging to occupy the space until the university divests from companies with ties to Israel.

Moving forward, Shafik traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. While Shafik claims in her April 5th statement that she “didn’t become a university president to punish students,” it is clear that her legacy may be just that and more.

During the testimony before the House Committee, formerly the Labor Committee, a name Republicans in control of the House did not like, Shafik made several absurd and inflammatory remarks directed at the Columbia student body. Quite infamously, Republican Sen. Rick Allen of Georgia, referring to a Biblical passage from Genesis, asked Shafik, “Do you want Columbia University to be cursed by God?”

“Definitely not,” Shafik assured him. Additionally, Shafik was questioned by Republican Indiana State Rep. Jim Banks about the use of the gender-inclusive term ‘folx’ in a Columbia School of Social Work handbook. In response, Shafik claimed students “don’t know how to spell” and that she was “not familiar with that spelling.”

Meanwhile, protesting students at Columbia’s South Lawn continued their peaceful protest, staking tents and camping overnight. However, they were met with full encroachment by the NYPD. In an email on April 18th, Shafik wrote that “Protests have a storied history at Columbia and are an essential component of free speech in America and on our campus,” but clarified that “the current encampment violates all of the new policies, severely disrupts campus life, and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students.”

Isn’t this the purpose of peaceful protesting—to disrupt campus life and empower students and faculty with knowledge so that they might choose to end their silence and “neutrality” regarding genocide in Israel?

Much of the current antagonizing of students to such a heightened degree can be traced back to mid to late January. On the 19th of that month, Columbia University pro-Palestinian students attended a peaceful “divestment row” protest on the steps of Low Library to call for a tuition strike. Additionally, organizers called students to protest Barnard’s ‘Day of Dialogue,’ which also took place that Friday. On Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine’s Instagram account, organizers wrote, “Let them know loud and clear: the more they try to silence us, the louder we will be! From New York to Gaza, globalize the intifada!”

Columbia University can perhaps be considered one of the leading forces in the ongoing suppression and harassment of pro-Palestinian youth in the country, with other universities, such as Vanderbilt, currently under fire for suspending pro-Palestinian student activists in early April. Similarly, the University of Southern California is currently under popular fire, as the administration has barred its valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, from doing her well-deserved valedictorian speech.

As a hijabi Muslim woman with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in “resistance to genocide,” it is very clear why they are censoring her. In a hasty decision by USC, they finally elected to cancel all commencement speakers, including Jon M. Chu and tennis star Billie Jean King, still insisting that her speech would pose “security concerns.”

Andrew T. Guzman, the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at USC, claimed in a public statement that “the intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement. We cannot ignore the fact that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses.” The administration at USC may have been taking notes from the discriminatory suppression of free speech at Columbia.

Violation of official policy

Per Columbia University’s Non-Discrimination Statement and Policy, “Discriminatory Harassment, in violation of the Non-Discrimination Statement and Policy, is defined as “subjecting an individual to unwelcome conduct, whether verbal or physical, that creates an intimidating, hostile or abusive working, learning or campus living environment; that alters the conditions of employment or education; or unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work or academic performance on the basis of the individual’s membership in a protected class.”

Now, since October 7th, it has been more than fair to conclude that this statement has been proven utterly hypocritical, as Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students have since been bearing the brunt of repeated, targeted harassment on behalf of well-funded right-wing entities who dominate academic spaces across the country.

Soon after the protest began, members of the crowd began to feel unwell, reporting a strangely foul odor, and, in the days that followed, several students from SJP and Columbia JVP (Jewish Voice for Peace) were hospitalized. However, by mid-April, the ex-IDF student had allegedly sued Columbia University and claimed he had used a crude prank solution on students that he had purchased from Amazon.

When sprayed on skin and clothing, skunk water possesses a putrid, sewer-like rotting stench that is incredibly difficult to wash off and can cause nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, and dizziness, among other reported symptoms. Furthermore, on January 25th, six days after the attack at Columbia University, Quds News Network and other news outlets reported that Israeli forces were intentionally spraying Palestinians with skunk water at the Shu’fat refugee camp in Jerusalem.

Skunk water has its own history in the Israeli militant oppression of Palestinian resistance, having been first implemented in the West Bank as early as 2008 as a means of crowd control. Skunk is often sprayed on Palestinian merchants and shopkeepers, as it can also be used to damage personal property and merchandise. The Israeli military has also been accused throughout the years of repeatedly misusing and over-implementing the crowd-controlling chemical in parts of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and other occupied territories.

After the destruction of all universities in Gaza since the beginning of Israel’s militant onslaught against the territory, Columbia, as well as many other elite universities across both the United States and Europe, has continued to remain unapologetically pro-Israel and, in a statement on January 21st, wrote to students, faculty, and administration that “The Department of Public Safety has been actively working with local and federal authorities in this investigation, with the NYPD taking a lead role.”

By refusing to detail the events days prior and encouraging students to engage with the NYPD, which has its own record of violence and suppression, Columbia has repeatedly and callously dismissed student concerns and disregarded the health and well-being of its marginalized student body.

In solidarity with Palestine, student organizers and protestors who were allegedly attacked with skunk spray on campus on Friday, Feb. 2, collaborated for an ‘All Out for Palestine at Columbia University’ protest event and were immediately met with an unusually large swarm of NYPD officers. Joined by Within Our Lifetime, the peaceful protestors were targeted and violently assaulted, resulting in allegations of police brutality, such as the dislocation of a protestor’s arm, body slamming, and punching protestors in the stomach and face. According to SJP, around twenty arrests took place.

Many members of SJP and JVP believe that Columbia University administration and faculty are complicit in this series of events, as they were in greenlighting a militarized police presence on campus in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests after the suffocation and murder of George Floyd, the shooting of Breonna Taylor, and countless other incidents.

It has become clear that Columbia University wishes to make an example of its pro-Palestinian students, opting to enforce historically discriminatory and violent local police against their own student body and other local New York City and tristate area-based activists. Even though protestors were able to provide proof of their hospitalizations and diagnoses as having been affected by a chemical substance, their allegations have faced significant and potentially dangerous contestation on public social media forums.

Additionally, on March 7, a letter was published on behalf of the Transport Workers Union of America that Community Security Director Rosemarie Ronde claimed on November 15th, 2023, “If a student could remove her hijab to take her ID photo, why couldn’t she do the same when showing her ID at the main gates?”

Columbia University has a unique history of Palestinian and activist suppression: Edward Said, most known for his seminal 1978 book, Orientalism, had his office firebombed while teaching at the institution in 1985 after he was called a “Nazi” by the Meir Kahane Jewish Defense League, founded by ultra-nationalist orthodox Rabbi, Meir David HaKohen Kahane. Additionally, Said faced tremendous censorship both from within Columbia and at other institutions, including the cancellation of an invitation to provide a lecture at the Freud Society in 2001 to avoid a ‘clash’ over the issue of the rise of anti-semitism in Austria at that time.

Harassing people at prayer

Now, faculty such as Shai Davidai, who works as an Assistant Professor in the Management Division of Columbia Business School, have been identified as harassing a mourning Palestinian student who was sharing their experience of sexual assault at the hands of the IDF. Davidai, in particular, has called students who support the Palestinian cause and who contest his blatant racism and Islamophobia the “modern-day Hitler Youth” in a Tweet made on April 7th. Davidai has an extensive record of racist and Islamophobic harassment of students, claiming that he is “a well-meaning nice guy who is concerned about secularism, civilization, and freedom against barbarism” despite supporting an objectively barbaric theocratic state. This is ironic and perhaps illustrates a lack of basic critical thinking skills on Davidai’s part. Perhaps people like this do not deserve to be professors nor have the degree of economic and social influence they are granted by the university without consequences for their cognitive dissidence, historical revisionism, and intellectual immaturity.

Beginning at 1:27 PM on April 18th, over 100 people were forcibly arrested, including three legal observers at the encampment on South Lawn, after suspending students to facilitate these arrests and allow for NYPD involvement through this legal loophole. Within the following few hours, Columbia began to order housing services to storm private dormitories and seize students’ personal belongings, loading them in trucks or simply discarding them in outdoor corridors. The detained students offered no physical resistance to the NYPD officers.

In a public Tweet made that evening at 7:51 PM, Maryam (@bluepashminas), a Columbia student organizer for SJP and movement leader on campus who was suspended by the university and arrested, wrote, “Just got out of jail after Columbia called NYPD to mass arrest 100+ students. I have been suspended and evicted from housing by Barnard. This has only strengthened my commitment to the movement for Palestinian liberation and I promise to continue fighting for divestment.”

Furthermore, Maryam shared that she was only given 15 minutes to gather her personal belongings in an email from Leslie Grinage, the Vice President for Campus Life and Student Experience and Dean of Barnard College. Additionally, Barnard College made flyers of Maryam’s face to be circulated at the front desks of Barnard dorms in order to prevent her and other students in a similar position from accessing food, bathrooms, and safe places to sleep.

Additionally, Columbia faculty at various schools have expressed their shock at the handling of student protests, with the Public Interest Honorees of Columbia Law School composing a public letter to “unequivocally condemn Columbia University and Columbia Law School’s repression of pro-Palestine voices and callous disregard for the rights and well-being of its students,” highlighting the hypocrisy of using the images of diverse students on university promotional materials, writing, “in view of the actions of Columbia Law School and Columbia University since the events of October 7, we are forced to contend with the reality that our institutional affiliation with the University today is at odds with the values we espouse as human rights advocates and activists.”

Furthermore, Professors such as Rebecca Jordan-Young, a Professor and Chair of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, spoke of her previous experiences as a student protestor and activist in her undergraduate years and claimed that “The faculty who are supporting the students do not all agree on the issue of Israel and Palestine… [but] we are astonished and disgusted with the way the university has cracked down on the students.”

Later that day, activists Mohammed El-Kurd and Cornel West and actor and activist Susan Sarandon attended the rally to support students and gave speeches to the crowds. On the 19th, political scientist and activist Norman Finkelstein came to campus along with Chris Smalls, a leader in the unionization battle by Amazon workers on Staten Island.

Smalls claimed in his speech to students, “We don’t want bandwagon support. We don’t want bandwagon solidarity when it’s safe to say the word ‘ceasefire’ when it’s safe to say the word ‘genocide.’ Labor and labor leaders and politicians need to be here, need to speak up, and need to be held accountable. Let me tell you all right now, you all know exactly who they are, you all know exactly who they are that wait for it to be ‘safe’ for them to show their support. Call that sh*t out right now, and if you don’t call it out, hold them accountable right now because we are at a point of no return.”

Columbia students shield Muslims from harassment during Jummah prayer on Friday, April 19th”; Image Source: Katie Smith (@probablyreadit on Twitter/X)

By the evening of the 19th, students at Yale University began to occupy Beinecke Plaza on campus in solidarity with the students at Columbia, with some even calling for a hunger strike to call for Yale to divest and denounce the ongoing genocide. Other students at UNC similarly began following suit, subverting rules and regulations regarding the construction of “structures” on campus property by lifting the tents above the ground with folding chairs.

Despite the obstacles imposed by Shafik, the administration, and the NYPD, students remain in good spirits. Various student groups conduct musical performances, dance, and sing on the South Lawn as a collective resistance, gathering food supplies and collecting other essentials, such as pre-prepared meals, warm blankets, and other toiletries for unhoused and suspended students.

While Muslim students prayed their Jummah prayer on Friday afternoon, the non-Muslim students recognized that several right wingers (including Shai Davidai, who posted a video of the prayer on both his Twitter/X and Instagram accounts) had begun to encroach upon the prayer, taking videos of praying students and shouting obscene and offensive remarks. In response, the non-praying students gathered up towels, blankets, and tarps and surrounded the Muslim students, shielding them from the view of any right-wing onlookers.

In light of the legacy of Edward Said, who taught at Columbia for 40 years and who founded the Center for Palestinian Studies and donated his private collection to the Edward Said Reading Room (Room 606) at Butler Library, “We cannot fight for our rights and our history as well as future until we are armed with weapons of criticism and dedicated consciousness.”

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


Majorca Bateman-Coe
Majorca Bateman-Coe

Majorca Bateman-Coe is an activist in a six-year PhD position at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities campus) in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature with a Moving Image Studies Fellowship and an alternate nomination for a fellowship at The Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change. Her intended research will focus primarily on Slavic and Chinese cinemas, emergent media, and technologies of production and industrialization within urban contexts.