Columbia University president defends efforts to combat antisemitism

Video caption, Watch: Columbia University president answers on antisemitism

Columbia University’s head has defended her institution’s efforts to tackle antisemitism to members of Congress.

Dr Nemat Shafik was questioned amid a debate about free speech on US campuses that has intensified during the Israel-Gaza war that erupted in October.

Two other Ivy League university heads stepped down last year after facing a backlash for their own responses.

Dr Shafik condemned antisemitism, but was less clear when quizzed about a specific pro-Palestinian slogan.

Appearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Dr Shafik was asked whether phrases used by some activists, such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, were antisemitic.

“I hear them as such, some people don’t… it’s a difficult issue because some people hear it as antisemitic, other people do not,” she said.

Jewish groups say the slogan – which refers to the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea – is a call for the destruction of the state of Israel. Those who defend the phrase say it is a pro-Palestinian independence rallying cry.

Since the 7 October attacks by Hamas on southern Israel that sparked the war in Gaza, Republicans in Congress have accused elite US universities of becoming havens for anti-Jewish hate.

Dr Shafik had earlier said: “Columbia strives to be a community free of discrimination and hate in all its forms, and we condemn the antisemitism that is so pervasive today.”

Asked if calls for genocide of Jews were against college policy, Dr Shafik unequivocally said they were.

Three other officials from the New York City college testified during Wednesday’s hearing and gave the same response to that question.

“My thoughts are that you are right that we have a moral crisis on our campus,” co-chairwoman of the board of trustees, Claire Shipman, told the committee.

“You’re probably tired of hearing that I find the behaviour of some of our students, some of our faculty, unacceptable.”

While Dr Shafik said there had been a rise in such hatred on campus since October, she said the college was working to protect students.

She told the hearing that 15 students had been suspended and six were on probation for violating rules regarding campus protests.

Last year, the leaders of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were condemned by politicians and alumni for their appearance at a hearing before the same House committee.

The presidents of Harvard and UPenn resigned after facing a backlash for declining to provide a clear answer to whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” was against their university policies.

Earlier this week, there was another controversy after the University of Southern California (USC) cancelled a student’s graduation speech amid a backlash over her social media activity on Israel.

Asna Tabassum – who had been picked to given an address thanks to her high academic scores – said she had been silenced, but the university cited campus security risks.

Ahead of Wednesday’s congressional hearing, pro-Palestinian Columbia student activists set up tents on a campus lawn and pledged to occupy the space until the university divested from companies with ties to Israel, according to the student newspaper, Columbia Spectator, and Fox News.

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