At Columbia

Bruce Robbins

Photo © Nancy Kricorian

When Minouche Shafik, the president of Columbia University, testified before the House of Representatives on 17 April, she didn’t fall into the traps set a few months earlier for the presidents of Penn, MIT and Harvard, two of whom are now gone. They had been asked whether they would permit genocidal talk against the Jews on their campuses – a dark discourse that lurked, according to the questioners, in such terms as ‘from the river to the sea’ and ‘intifada’. All three university presidents last December came up with legalistic answers, invoking context. But Shafik last week did not. She presented herself as a relentless scourge of antisemitism. Her head will not fall – at least not as a result of congressional displeasure.

There is some question, however, about her future at Columbia. First, because of her craven and embarrassing submission to the House Republicans. And second, because on the following day she brought the police in to demolish a student tent encampment protesting against the Israeli slaughter in Gaza. The encampment is on a campus lawn allocated by the university for demonstrations. More than a hundred student demonstrators were arrested. Shafik may have avoided viral memes of awkward moments in Congress, but videos of the NYPD in action against peaceful demonstrators on 18 April, now circulating widely, amply illustrate the violence that Shafik was willing to inflict on Columbia and Barnard students in the name of assuring student safety. It’s the first time the police have been invited onto Columbia’s campus since 1968. Like 1968, 2024 may go down as an inauspicious year for university administrations trying to defend the indefensible.

The House Republicans who pressed the point about chants allegedly ‘calling for the genocide of Jews’ on university campuses had not previously displayed much concern for the wellbeing of American Jews. In 2017, Donald Trump, who will soon again be their presidential nominee, described some of the torch carriers who chanted ‘Jews will not replace us’ in Charlottesville as ‘very fine people’. You would not have to dig very deep to uncover friendly associations with white supremacists among the present committee members. (I would love to be challenged to document this.) Still, you could hardly call them dull. One invoked the Book of Genesis to back up his conviction that Columbia had to support Israel whatever Israel did. Did Shafik want to bring down God’s curse on Columbia? Please answer yes or no. Another raised the genocidal threat contained in the word ‘infantada’, a malapropism she used twice.

The many Columbia faculty members who were less than happy with Shafik’s pragmatic testimony, myself included, were not surprised that she declared herself a zealous and proactive foe of antisemitism on campus. We were not surprised that she failed to distinguish between the real threat of antisemitism and criticism of the industrial-scale killing of Palestinians in Gaza, a criticism that does not target Jews as Jews. And we were not surprised that she didn’t distinguish between real acts of antisemitism, which have been very few, and the anxiety or discomfort of Jewish students forced, perhaps for the first time, to confront the fact that much of the world disapproves of what Israel is up to.

In response to the attacks of 7 October, Shafik founded a Taskforce on Antisemitism. The Taskforce had no definition of antisemitism, conflated it with criticism of the state of Israel, and sometimes seemed interested solely in Jewish feelings of discomfort, even if those feelings seemed to have been brought on only by reactions to the bombing of Gaza. One faculty member suggested it be renamed the Taskforce on Campus Vibes.

Meanwhile she was suspending and evicting from student accommodation Muslim and Jewish students who were protesting against the bombing of Gaza. She also suspended the campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and, the icing on the cake, Jewish Voice for Peace. I can’t be the only Jew on campus whose head was spinning all winter at the idea that, like the government of Germany, Shafik felt qualified to instruct me on what was and was not antisemitic. When people objected that the taskforce heads knew very little about antisemitism, the administration explained that it was providing hundreds of thousands of dollars so they could hire the appropriate researchers. No surprises, then, at Shafik’s performance before the House committee.

All the same, faculty members were taken aback, to put it as politely as possible, that she failed to stand up for the basic principles of the university she leads, such as academic freedom, shared governance, transparency and due process. She had already told the university senate on 23 February that she was ‘dismayed’ by the ‘low level of trust at Columbia’ – something of an understatement – but lack of trust in the administration is not hard to understand. Last October, two weeks after the Hamas attack, it changed the university’s policy on demonstrations without consulting the senate, although consultation is a mandatory procedure for any such changes. Henceforth the administration would have ‘sole discretion’ to determine ‘final and not appealable’ sanctions on student groups. There was general outrage on campus. The student governing board, representing more than a hundred student organisations, voted by an overwhelming majority to declare its non-co-operation with the administration on this change. The board was set up in response to the 1968 protests at Columbia. This is the first time that non-co-operation had been invoked in fifty years.

As for academic freedom, Shafik said in her written opening statement that ‘we believe we can confront antisemitism and provide a safe campus environment for our community while simultaneously supporting rigorous academic exploration and freedom.’ But questioned about Professor Mohamed Abdou, the author of Islam and Anarchism, who is untenured, she responded, on camera, that he ‘will never teach at Columbia again.’ The Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik said that he had posted: ‘Yes, I’m with Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.’ (What he actually wrote, as part of a much longer piece, was: ‘I’m with the muqawamah [the resistance] be it Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad but up to a point – given ultimate differences over our ethical political commitments.’)

Stefanik accused Professor Joseph Massad – who has been targeted by petitions calling for his dismissal – of ‘stating that the massacre of Israeli civilians was “awesome”’. Shafik did not respond, as she might have done, by referring to what Professor Massad had actually written (‘No less awesome were the scenes witnessed by millions of jubilant Arabs who spent the day watching the news, of Palestinian fighters from Gaza breaking through Israel’s prison fence or gliding over it by air’; he also wrote of a ‘horrifying human toll on all sides’.) Instead, Shafik said she was ‘appalled by what he’s said’ and that ‘he has been spoken to.’ But even if he had said what they said he said, didn’t he have the right to say it? We don’t fire teachers who approve of dropping the atomic bomb.

A vocal pro-Israel faculty member has been accused of harassing students on social media, and there is a move among students to get him banished. But forget about student anxieties for a moment. The Israeli army has been committing atrocities on a massive scale, while the International Court of Justice deliberates the possibility of real genocide in Gaza, as distinct from speculative calls to genocide that House Republicans deduce, falsely, from pro-Palestinian chants by demonstrators. That’s what Israel’s defenders are defending. When a small group of Jewish faculty members was preparing last week to meet with the provost to make our dissatisfactions known, we asked ourselves how we felt about the pro-Israel professor and we said, unanimously, that we defended his right to his opinions, loathsome as we find them. I don’t worry about his being driven out of Columbia. But I worry that our president shamelessly sacrificed the principle of academic freedom that all of us depend on, the Zionists included, to keep the project of free thinking alive.

This is certainly how she is perceived by a large and rapidly growing portion of Columbia faculty. An emergency meeting of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors on 19 April reached its Zoom limit of three hundred people within minutes, leaving many faculty members clamouring to get in. The indignant talk was not about Palestine, but about the administration’s blatant lack of respect for the safety of its students and the principles of higher education.

Student protest on behalf of the Palestinians is very much alive, at least for the moment. When the police cleared out the encampment and dragged students off to jail, others hopped the fence and established a second encampment across the way, this time without tents. It is these students who have the most convincing grounds for anxiety. They too risk arrest and jail. Some have already been suspended from classes and evicted from student accommodation, leaving them homeless on the streets of New York. Those who have merely been suspended risk losing their tuition for the semester. The university administration seems to have decided that an encampment without tents can be left alone. Perhaps Shafik realises she has made a series of grave errors, and that if she makes another one, her administration may not survive the public shame.