Columbia seeks to avoid the Harvard trap at antisemitism hearing

Columbia University is in the hot seat as House Republicans are ready to question four of its top officials on Wednesday for a hearing regarding antisemitism on campus.

Columbia President Nemat Shafik, along with two members of the Board of Trustees and a professor, will be questioned by the House Education and the Workforce Committee after missing the December hearing that became the downfall of other university heads.

“Some of the worst cases of antisemitic assaults, harassment, and vandalism on campus have occurred at Columbia University,” Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said in a statement.

“Due to the severe and pervasive nature of these cases, and the Columbia administration’s failure to enforce its own policies to protect Jewish students, the Committee must hear from Columbia’s leadership in person to learn how the school is addressing antisemitism on its campus,” she added.

Shafik was invited to the December hearing that also focused on antisemitism at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but was unable to make it due to previous travel plans.

Columbia’s leadership lucked out as they watched from the sidelines how the three other universities were questioned — and the fallout that followed.

All three presidents at the December hearing took bipartisan backlash after Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asked them if calling for the genocide of Jewish people would be considered harassment on campus.

All three responded saying it would depend on the context of the speech and would need further investigation. While First Amendment experts said the responses were legally correct, it did not go over well in the public eye.

UPenn President Liz Magill resigned days after the hearing, and Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned the following month after backlash from the hearing and allegations of plagiarism.

MIT President Sally Kornbluth was the only one able to weather the storm as her school released a statement of support for her and then she stayed out of the public eye.

Antisemitism on campuses became a hot-button issue after Oct. 7, when Hamas launched its attacking killing more than 1,000 Israeli civilians.

In the following weeks, some campus groups blamed Israel for the attack or said it was justified, antisemitic instances rose on colleges campuses and the public felt outraged over the responses, or lack thereof, from administrators.

The Anti-Defamation League recorded 8,800 antisemitic instances in the U.S. in 2023, with a surge after the Oct. 7 attack. It was a record-setting year and a 140 percent jump from 2022.

Sixty-four percent of Jewish parents of college applicants said their child eliminated at least one school from their application process due to concerns about antisemitism, according to a survey from Hillel International released earlier this month.

So far, Columbia has sought to project a confident public image leading up to the hearing.

“Columbia is committed to combating antisemitism and we welcome the opportunity to discuss our work to protect and support Jewish students and keep our community safe,” the university said in a statement.

But those who have been on campus are hopeful this hearing can mark a significant change for the school.

“I hope that this hearing will create an opportunity to publicize that there has been a problem at this university. Over the last six months, it’s often felt like Jewish students are screaming into a void, so I hope that this hearing will force the university to actually take note of what is going on and to respond to it effectively,” Jacob Schmeltz, a senior at Columbia and vice president of the Jewish on Campus Student Union, told The Hill.

“Jewish students have been marginalized and isolated and has encountered hostility at nearly every single avenue. We’ve been excluded from student groups on campus. There have been many demonstrations on campus where antisemitic slogans and calls for violence” have occurred, he added.

Columbia’s responses at the hearing will determine how the House’s investigation will be conducted afterward.

Currently, House Republicans and Harvard are in a battle over documents relating to antisemitism on the Ivy League school’s campus. Harvard has given over thousands of documents, but lawmakers say the information is not relevant and has subpoenaed the school.

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