Columbia professor: ‘Must continue’ to take on antisemitism – opinion

One of the most difficult positions these days is being a Jewish or pro-Israel student on a university campus. Jewish students are forced to endure blatant antisemitism disguised as a form of “free speech” and have to watch as deans of their campus find every way to avoid condemning the genocide of Jewish people. 

Arguably, no other minority has to endure their school becoming a battleground.

Equally challenging, however, is being a Jewish faculty or staff member on these campuses. Many are forced to fight quietly behind the scenes and risk their entire careers to address Jew-hatred in their place of work.

While campus antisemitism has long been a problem, a different wave of Jew-hatred has surfaced in higher education that reflects the days when it was acceptable to instill Jewish quotas or when elite institutions accepted a form of Nazism.

A leader in the fight against antisemitism

Leading the fight against pro-Hamas hate on his campus is Shai Davidai, an assistant professor in the Management Division at Columbia Business School in New York City. Davidai was born in Israel and served three years in the Israeli Navy. 

Pro-Israel students take part in a protest in support of Israel amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza, at Columbia University in New York City, U.S., October 12, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/JEENAH MOON)

Then, in 2010, he and his wife moved to the United States to continue their education. After several years, he became a professor, teaching at elite campuses such as Princeton and the New School, eventually taking on his current position at Columbia Business School.

Columbia has seen endless pro-Hamas activity, with the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter being suspended for “repeatedly” violating the university’s event policies. Columbia barred the group from holding campus events through the end of the fall semester. This rule, however, has not stopped SJP from organizing mass protests on campus to continue disrupting the day-to-day life of students – and the Columbia administration is doing nothing about it.

“They know who the organizers are. They know who the faculty advisers are. And they are letting them organize on campus without any consequences.” says Davidai. “They have been officially suspended since mid-November and have organized unauthorized protests, and the university doesn’t do anything about them.”

Now, Jewish organizations and students are suing both Columbia University and its offshoot, Barnard College, for violating Jewish students’ right to be protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – signed into law by president Lyndon B. Johnson

Columbia not only has a history of disregarding pro-Hamas activity but has also given a platform to dictators like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former president of the Iranian regime who was hosted at the university in 2007. In doing so, Columbia University gave a legitimate platform to a man who threatened to annihilate Israel, funds terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, questioned the Holocaust, and ruled his people with an iron fist.

Fast-forward to 2024, not much has changed. Davidai has to endure colleagues like Joseph Massad, a professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University who penned an op-ed in The Electronic Intifada (online publication providing a Palestinian perspective) on October 8, saying, “Perhaps the major achievement of the resistance in the temporary takeover of these settler-colonies is the death blow to any confidence that Israeli colonists had in their military and its ability to protect them.”

After witnessing the celebrations for Hamas at Columbia following the October 7 massacre and atrocities carried out in southern Israel, Davidai could no longer stay silent. Since he is outspoken on campus and social media, he receives antisemitic emails from random people across the United States. “People send me pictures of Auschwitz. People call me a baby murderer or a genocidal maniac.” He adds, “All of the faculty members and my colleagues are cc’d on those emails. They are witnessing what’s going on.”

Some of the hate Davidai received included his publishing his previous home address and his teaching schedule online, with calls to harass and attack him.

While some of Davidai’s colleagues have been supportive, including the Dean of the Business School, who has stood up for him, a significant number of them have shown their true antisemitic colors following Hamas’s vicious attack. A faculty letter with about 150 signatories at Columbia whitewashed Hamas’s murder, kidnapping, beheading, burning and raping of civilians, describing it as a legitimate military response. 

“Some of those faculty work in my building,” Davidai said. “In this building, there are two faculty who teach in marketing who might be great researchers, might be great professors, but horrible human beings, because they see rape and beheading as a military response.”

Shortly in the aftermath of Hamas’s onslaught against Israel, Davidai spoke at Columbia, and his speech went viral: “America, we can’t protect your kids anymore. We cannot protect your kids from pro-terror student organizations.”

Since that video went viral, Davidai said, “I don’t go to the main campus anymore because I don’t feel comfortable.”

He explained that when he made that speech, he wanted to convey two messages.The first was to Jewish parents sending their 18-year-olds to campus, letting them know that the university was not doing anything to protect their children from antisemitism. Instead, it is platforming student organizations that are celebrating October 7. 

The second message was to the average parent in the United States to know that there is blatant support for terrorist organizations on campus. Davidai is referring to Hamas and the Houthis, who are proxies for Iran and who have been firing missiles at Israel and attacking US ships.

When asked what he would want to see differently as an Israeli professor working at an elite institution, Davidai explained that several major things must occur to have legitimate discussions about the conflict. The first would be setting the boundaries on what is considered acceptable. 

“I can’t have an open dialogue with someone who doesn’t recognize my right to exist,” Davidai said. 

If the very foundation of the conversation is questioning Israel’s right to exist, then there is no room for a legitimate discussion. He also suggested that “the university needs to acknowledge the fact that Hamas is a terrorist organization.” He explained that the university can’t set a moral direction for legitimate discussion without making that abundantly clear.

Lastly, Davidai explained that there must be a “removal of the agents of chaos from campus that are calling for the eradication of Jews from Israel.” When administrations know who the organizations and faculty advisers are and let them get away with it, it’s a problem.

While things look grim at Columbia, as an educator, Davidai remains hopeful and says that he will always be willing to have dialogue and discussion about this conflict. As an Israeli liberal and a promoter of a two-state solution, he hopes to see Israelis and Palestinians living in peace in his lifetime.  

The writer is a social media activist with more than 10 years of experience working for Israeli and Jewish causes and cause-based NGOs. She is the co-founder and COO of Social Lite Creative, a digital marketing firm specializing in geopolitics.