'Antisemitism and anarchy': Rabbi urges Jewish students to leave Columbia for their safety

A well-known rabbi at Columbia University and its affiliated Barnard College urged Jewish students Sunday to “return home as soon as possible’’ following pro-Palestinian protests on campus he says have endangered their safety as tensions at the Ivy League school in New York City continue to rise.

Rabbi Elie Buechler, director of the Orthodox Union-Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program at Columbia and the all-women’s Barnard, recommended students stay away from the university until safety conditions have improved substantially.

“What we are witnessing in and around campus is terrible and tragic,’’ Buechler said in an online posting. “The events of the last few days, especially last night, have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the (New York Police Department) cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy.’’

Buechler declined to answer questions in an e-mail to USA TODAY, citing his duties tending to students and preparing for the upcoming Passover, but he confirmed sending the message.

Columbia is the latest U.S. school to experience growing unrest on campus over the Israel-Hamas war, triggered by Hamas' brutal border attacks on Israeli communities Oct. 7. Israel's subsequent bombardment of Gaza has led to a dire humanitarian crisis there and fueled protests nationwide demanding a cease-fire.

On Thursday, New York City police arrested more than 100 protesters at Columbia who had set up a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” a day earlier. Columbia University Apartheid Divest, along with Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, said it organized the encampment to “protest Columbia University’s continued financial investment in corporations that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and occupation in Palestine.”

Students occupy the campus ground of Columbia University in support of Palestinians in New York City on April 19, 2024.
Students occupy the campus ground of Columbia University in support of Palestinians in New York City on April 19, 2024.

Columbia student sees a 'tsunami of hate'

David Lederer is paying heed to the rabbi's words as tensions boil. A sophomore studying financial engineering at Columbia, Lederer told USA TODAY via e-mail he had intended to stay at the school “despite a tsunami of hate that has consumed our campus,’’ but he changed his mind after his experience Saturday night convinced him it was no longer safe.

Lederer said he, his brother Jonathan and a group of fellow Jewish students went to a spot near the pro-Palestinian demonstrations to sing songs of peace and show their support for Israel.

A masked person snatched one of their Israeli flags, said Lederer, who provided video capturing that incident and others. When Jonathan tried to retrieve the flag, he was “surrounded by a mob,’’ said Lederer, adding that the agitators threw objects at his brother, one of which hit him hard in the face.

Later, his group saw other Jewish students getting harassed, their own Israel flag being taken away and nearly set on fire until they intervened. The other students were then “chased off campus by the mob and yelled at with antisemitic statements such as, ‘Go back to Poland,’’’ Lederer said, noting the absence of security officers on the premises.

“Columbia has lost its campus. Jewish students are no longer safe on campus,’’ said Lederer, who is galled by the sight of pro-Hamas signs at the protest. “It is Columbia’s failure to enforce its own policies that has led to an incredibly dangerous situation on campus for its Jewish students.’’

An even more threatening sign was held by a woman with her face covered who alluded to the Hamas military branch with the words, “Al-Qasam’s next targets,’’ as an arrow pointed to Lederer and company.

The Al-Qassam brigades, considered a terrorist group by several nations, were heavily involved in the Oct. 7 attacks.

Student activists set up a protest encampment in support of Palestinians inside the New School on April 21, 2024, in New York City.
Student activists set up a protest encampment in support of Palestinians inside the New School on April 21, 2024, in New York City.

White House: Targeting Jewish students is 'unconscionable'

On Sunday, the White House condemned any attacks on Jewish students on college campuses.

“Calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable and dangerous – they have absolutely no place on any college campus, or anywhere in the United States of America,’’ White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said. “And echoing the rhetoric of terrorist organizations, especially in the wake of the worst massacre committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, is despicable.’’

In a letter Friday to university President Nemat (Minouche) Shafik, the Columbia Jewish Alumni Association claimed suspended students and some faculty members are engaged in the protests, expressed concern about “imminent’’ violence against Jewish students, called for more effective safety measures and said “Columbia is now under mob rule.’’

That followed the arrest Thursday of the antiwar demonstrators at Columbia, which included the daughter of U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

The previous day, Shafik was among four Columbia officials who testified during a congressional hearing, at times facing contentious questioning about antisemitism on campus as part of a Department of Education investigation into allegations of discrimination.

All four said calls for the genocide of Jews were against Columbia rules. But while Shafik defended the university's measures to fight antisemitism, saying, "It is not tolerated and it is not acceptable,'' Columbia trustee Claire Shipman said, "We have a moral crisis on our campus."

On Sunday, the Jewish organization Hillel posted a message of support for Columbia and Barnard students.

"We do not believe that Jewish students should leave,'' it said. "We do believe that the University and the City need to do more to ensure the safety of our students.''

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rabbi urges Columbia students to leave campus for their safety