Columbia classes go virtual as tensions mount over Israel-Gaza conflict

Columbia University will hold classes virtually on Monday as leaders on campus work to deescalate the taut atmosphere over the Gaza war that has led to pro-Palestinian protest encampments and some Jewish students feeling unsafe.

Over the weekend, student-led protest encampments attracted national attention, leading to more pro-Palestinian protests taking place outside of the closed campus and a police presence. Students on college and university campuses nationwide have initiated solidarity protests.

But as tensions mount, some Jewish students have reported antisemitic harassment toward them.

One video, posted on X, showed a masked protestor telling a student to, “Go back to Poland”. A rabbi affiliated with the school told a group of nearly 300 Jewish students to go home until tensions improved.

In response, Minouche Shafik, the president of Columbia University, announced that classes would be held virtually on Monday and asked students, faculty and staff to avoid campus if possible.

“There is a terrible conflict raging in the Middle East with devastating human consequences. I understand that many are experiencing deep moral distress and want Columbia to help alleviate this by taking action. We should be having serious conversations about how Columbia can contribute,” Ms Shafik wrote.

She added: “... But we cannot have one group dictate terms and attempt to disrupt important milestones like graduation to advance their point of view. Let’s sit down and talk and argue and find ways to compromise on solutions.”

A man waves a Palestinian flag as pro-Palestinian activists protest outside Columbia University in New York City on 20 April 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)
A man waves a Palestinian flag as pro-Palestinian activists protest outside Columbia University in New York City on 20 April 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)

Students at Columbia began protest encampments last week before Ms Shafik testified to Congress about antisemitism on campus. The protest, a pro-Palestinian movement, is calling for the school to divest “all economic and academic stakes in Israel”.

Tensions on campus began heating up after Ms Shafik sent in an NYPD request, leading to hundreds of student arrests – including the daughter of Representative Ilhan Omar.

Soon, demonstrations at other schools like Yale, Emerson University, MIT, Tulane University and more have popped up in the wake of the situation at Columbia.

However, in recent days, Jewish students have raised alarm bells about antisemitism on campus.

Chabad at Columbia University said in a statement that things had “taken a turn for the worse” over the last few days. The organisation said that a group of Jewish students were told to “go back to Europe” and that they “have no culture”.

Eli Buechler, an Orthodox rabbi who works at Columbia, told a group of 290 Jewish students via WhatsApp to go home for the time being because the school could not guarantee the safety of Jewish students.

In response, the White House condemned any antisemitism on campuses.

But some Jewish students have expressed solidarity with the pro-Palestinian protests while recognising that other students have faced antisemitic harassment.

“Columbia students organising in solidarity with Palestine – including Jewish students – have faced harassment, doxxing, and now arrest by the NYPD. These are the main threats to the safety of Jewish Columbia students,” one student told CNN.

“On the other hand, student protesters have led interfaith joint prayers for several days now, and Passover Seder will be held at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment tomorrow. Saying that student protesters are a threat to Jewish students is a dangerous smear.”

Another student told The New York Times, that “many young Jewish people” are a “vital part” of protests.