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3 Students On What It’s Like To Be Jewish At Columbia Right Now

Since Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, colleges across the U.S. have been consumed by discourse between students who support Israel and those who advocate for Palestine, with many campuses seeing protests and demonstrations representing both sides of the issue. Unfortunately for many Jewish students, the conflict has also led to an increase in antisemitism that has made them feel unwelcome and unsafe at their own schools.

One school where antisemitism concerns have been particularly visible is Columbia University. On April 17, university president Nemat (Minouche) Shafik testified before Congress in a highly publicized hearing about antisemitism on campus, during which she addressed the instances of antisemitism tied to protests, conversations, and social media posts from Columbia students and faculty in relation to the Israel-Hamas war. Shafik vowed in the hearing to combat antisemitism on the school’s campus, not yet knowing the school’s ongoing antisemitism crisis was about to reach its apex.

On the same day as the hearing, pro-Palestine student protesters set up an encampment on Columbia’s campus, which according to Columbia University Apartheid Divest — a student-run coalition who organized the protest alongside Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia-Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace — was meant as a peaceful protest to call for Columbia’s divestment from Israel

However, as tensions over the encampment rose and crowds unaffiliated with the university gathered on and around the campus, concerning reports of antisemitism quickly surfaced. On April 21, The New York Times shared links to X posts that claimed Jewish students were splashed with water and included videos of masked protesters outside Columbia’s gates who appeared to be shouting phrases such as “Go back to Poland.”

Columbia University Apartheid Divest released a statement condemning acts of antisemitism, writing, “We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand vigilant against non-students attempting to disrupt the solidarity being forged among students — Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, Jewish, Black, and pro-Palestinian classmates and colleagues who represent the full diversity of our country.”

Regardless of where the antisemitism is coming from, the fact remains that much of the Jewish population at Columbia and Barnard (the women’s liberal arts college affiliated with — and right across the street from — Columbia) feels unsafe at school. “We’re now in a situation where Jewish students do not feel emotionally or physically safe just to walk through campus to go to class or to go back to their dorm,” Jacob Schmeltz, a senior at Columbia, tells Her Campus in an exclusive interview.

Safety concerns reached such an alarming level for some students that Elie Buechler, a rabbi associated with Columbia University, urged Jewish students to “return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved.” Despite organizations such as Hillel issuing statements disagreeing with this recommendation, the fact that it was issued in the first place is alarming to many Jewish students.

“I think regardless of how we feel about that particular piece of advice, that shows just how awful the situation at Columbia has gotten and just how unsafe Jewish students feel at the moment,” Schmeltz says.

Many students have indeed chosen to leave school due to safety concerns, which the university has accommodated by allowing classes to be hybrid through the end of the semester. 

“I, along with many other Jewish students, have chosen to leave campus due to the disruptions caused by protesters,” a Barnard College undergrad who wishes to remain anonymous says. “While I believe in the importance of peaceful protesting, the protests have become violent on several occasions, between antisemitic chants and physical altercations. … My college campus no longer feels like a college campus.” 

While fear is one of the most common emotions Jewish students are feeling, it’s not the only one. “To put it casually, I am pissed off,” Noa Fay, a senior at Barnard, says. “So because of that, I refuse to let myself be intimidated anymore.”

Fey says that while she respects her fellow Jewish students’ decisions to leave campus due to fears for their safety amid the protests — a choice she says almost all of her friends have made — she has chosen to stay. While she acknowledges the pro-Palestine protests and incidents of antisemitism on campus have intensified since the encampment began in mid-April, she says she doesn’t feel any more affected by the current state of affairs on campus than what she’s witnessed and experienced since the initial Oct. 7 attack. 

“I felt incredibly unsafe and distressed [last] semester, and that feeling almost ruined me academically and mentally,” she says. “But because I went through that already, I feel like I kind of developed a tough exterior and I’m not willing to let them make me feel unsafe in my own home. … I definitely don’t care to let it impact my life more than it already has, to take away anything more than it already has, which is a lot at this point — I mean, my whole senior year at the least.”

Schmeltz also notes how the entire situation has upended his academic experience. “We are not at the place where anyone can focus on classes,” he says. “Schoolwork feels completely secondary as we are worried about our physical and emotional wellbeing. … It is impossible to function as a university student given everything else that is going on.”

As of April 24, Columbia University is still the site of a large pro-Palestine student protest, and it remains unclear how the school will find its path forward. However, Schmeltz, who graduates this semester, offers some suggestions. “I would argue that antisemitism has exploded at Columbia because people don’t know who Jews are, don’t know what antisemitism is, and don’t know how antisemitism manifests,” he says. “The university needs to ensure that Jewish and antisemitism education is included in all new student and new faculty orientation programming and all DEI training. He also adds, “Most importantly, the university needs to try and promote dialogue. … Everyone is suffering and we need to recognize each other’s humanity.”