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The week that shook Columbia

Protests over Gaza at the New York university have led to divisions and arrests. History professor Mark Mazower gives a first-hand account

Wednesday April 17, 5.10am: On waking up, I turn to the student-run Columbia Daily Spectator, my go-to source for campus coverage. It has just posted a story about a new encampment on the South Lawn. University president Minouche Shafik is due to testify later this morning in Washington before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce: campus has been ID-entry only since the start of the week. When it gets light, I walk over and see that about 30 small tents have sprouted in front of the library. A sign declares the east section of the South Lawn a Liberated Zone. I head off for breakfast wondering what the day holds. 

Great American universities such as Columbia are world leaders and repositories of extraordinary learning. But trouble has been brewing at home for some time. Despite the diversity of views that exists at Columbia and elsewhere, they are seen in many quarters as strongholds of liberal views. With the culture wars heating up, it was only a matter of time before they too became embroiled. 

Wednesday April 17, mid-morning: I watch online as President Shafik, along with a former Law School dean and two university trustees, enter the Washington bear pit. I soon see they have learnt from the previous debacle in December when three major university leaders, overly coached by lawyers, stumbled to say whether calls for genocide contravened their codes of conduct. The messaging of the Columbia team is: we recognise we have a big problem of antisemitism on our hands and we will fix it.

It seems to work: the initial headlines suggest heads will not roll this time. But I see a couple of difficulties with their strategy. First, they concede too much to their questioners: antisemitism is not a fantasy but they have exaggerated its scale on campus probably to ensure easy acceptance. Second, they should not be passing judgment on individual faculty members. It is one thing to admit there are issues on campus; another to invite politicians to help you solve them. 

The worst crisis to roil American universities since the Vietnam era began back in October. In the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent invasion of Gaza by the IDF, protests and counter-protests on college campuses gathered in intensity. At the time of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s first hearing into antisemitism, the occasion that led to the resignation of two Ivy League presidents, Columbia president Shafik was abroad. Now it is her turn.

Wednesday April 17, 8.25pm: As night falls, sirens wail outside. Dozens of police and their vans have appeared on 116th Street. The main campus gates are now closed and we have to use the 117th Street entrance. Outside, a large group of presumably non-Columbia protesters are shouting slogans to support the protesters inside. I bump into a colleague who tells me the police are about to clear activists off the South Lawn. 

On campus it is much quieter. But compared with this morning, there is a large crowd in the encampment and more students are standing around it. There is anticipation in the air and the excitement of being part of a movement. But there is apprehension too: people have heard the rumour that the police are moving in. A student with a megaphone is telling the others what to do in the event of arrest and everyone is learning their lines: Don’t resist. Hand over your ID. Don’t say anything without a lawyer. 

Crises in the Middle East tend to play out here with unusual intensity. For years, the university was home to probably the best-known and most influential Palestinian intellectual in the world, Edward Said, and its leadership defended him against numerous attacks in the press. It has a great tradition as a world leader in Jewish studies and a highly diverse and international student body. There have been tensions and strains on campus in the past among faculty, students and administrators over the issues roiling the Middle East. But since I have been here Columbia has invariably followed the basic institutional principle of academic life that the university should govern itself, and the crises that arose from time to time were dealt with accordingly.  

Food is distributed to students on April 18 during the protests at Columbia University

Thursday April 18, 2.30pm: 114th Street is blocked off east of Broadway. From the steps of Low Library I see police arresting the students on South Lawn. Others watch, unable to help. There is no violence, but one feels the mood shifting. People who yesterday felt sympathy for President Shafik are now appalled; I am among them. Her action is precipitate: something similar happened here in 1968, after protests and sit-ins, but the university leadership agonised before taking such a dramatic and unpredictable step. I ask myself: how is this supposed to end the stand-off? The people ordering it don’t seem to understand students and think they can bully them into submission. Have they ever taught them?  I predict those remaining will simply move to the west side of South Lawn. And then they will move elsewhere. 

It has not helped that the university is being led by newcomers. President Shafik made her inaugural speech to Columbia only on October 4. A chief operating officer, the first in our history, started in February and appears to have little or no experience of academic governance. The new provost arrived only this month. In short, key leaders have no institutional memory nor much knowledge of the university. Worse, they give every impression of seeing themselves as the problem-solvers, and the institution they lead as a set of problems. In reality Columbia is more than a set of problems; it is home to thoughtful faculty and students. 

Friday April 19, afternoon: One student tells me it was crazy to call in the police. Another finds it scary to know they could come in again. I hear the same from others, of diverse backgrounds, nationalities and faiths. 

Saturday April 20, just before noon: My morning ritual with the FT Weekend is interrupted by the din outside. A small rowdy group of demonstrators just beyond the farmers’ market, non-Columbia folk, are penned outside the locked gate on 115th Street, yelling pro-Palestinian slogans and banging away on homemade percussion. I feel sorry for the police who have to stand there and get deafened and insulted. In front of them a large man draped in an Israeli flag is striding provocatively up and down yelling slogans in their face. Much of the external pontification about what is happening at Columbia is based on the craziness going on here, outside the gates. Those you see on television are mostly not Columbia students. 

The campus protests are directed against Israeli policy. But the argument that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to antisemitism is simply false

After the racket outside, it is refreshingly quiet on campus. Sure enough, the protesting students have moved to the west side of South Lawn and there are now several hundred of them there, with piles of blankets as they have been forbidden tents. Dozens of little hand-painted slogans are lying on the grass; I take a close look and none that I can see strikes me as offensive. I bump into a colleague, a social scientist who was until recently a senior administrator. No rabble-rouser, he feels President Shafik erred badly in her discussion of individual faculty members. There is going to be a large gathering on the steps of Low Library on Monday to call for a return to basic principles of academic governance.

On Broadway an undergraduate I know, from the Midwest, tells me what they think about it all. They reflect for a moment. “It feels like a powerful moment,” they say. “It probably won’t lead to change but it might.” They like the solidarity of the students on the lawn, the mix of faiths and views. It is students such as this who give me hope. 

Antisemitism as a concept is both highly charged and deeply opaque, and there is no agreement among scholars on how the term should be used. So let us start with a simple definition: prejudice against Jews. This has been around for centuries, and no doubt it is to be found on university campuses. The real questions are: in what degree and with what implications? The campus protests are directed against Israeli policy. But the argument that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to antisemitism is simply false. 

I actually do not know from first-hand any instances of what I would count as antisemitic rather than anti-Israel abuse on the part of protesters. But the line between the two is exactly what there is argument about right now and it is not impossible it has been crossed. Although the universities have been vigilant in protecting student sensitivities in the past few years, some students supportive of Israel believe their feelings are being ignored. I do know for a fact that Israeli students — some of them sympathetic to the demonstrators — have been on the receiving end of vitriolic language in the past months. I find this singling out of people for political opprobrium on the basis of their nationality pernicious and absurd.

It must have been similarly discomforting to be an American on English campuses during the Vietnam war, or for that matter a Russian student at Columbia in the spring and summer of 2022. I cannot say what the answer is, but I am sure that it will come through education and argument and not through prohibitions, political interference and police actions. It is, after all, part of a much larger problem of civil discourse in a society that is fragmenting into tribes and retreating into easy solidarities and the cost-free name-calling of social media. 

One little-appreciated aspect of what has been happening on campus is that Jewish opinion among our students is more diverse than people realise. I had a conversation with an undergraduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary who is passionate about history. They tell me they have some sympathy with the protesters on the lawn and think there was no reason to call in the police: unlike their parents, they say, with whom they argue about these things, they want to acknowledge the scale of Palestinian suffering. This is someone looking forward to being in Israel this summer.

Are not these students, from varied backgrounds, who are supporting the Palestinians, only doing what we have taught them to do?

I see in them a younger generation of American Jews who retain an attachment to Israel but are more openly critical of it than their parents. The older ones instinctively see a keffiyeh as one step away from terrorism; many of the younger ones see their classmates. Polls indicate that a generational cleavage exists within American Jewry over the issue of Israel, one that is surely being exacerbated by the actions of the current Israeli government. 

One of the things I love about Columbia students is that they care. Are not these students, from varied backgrounds, who are supporting the Palestinians, only doing what we have taught them to do? Have we not taught them about the Holocaust and “Never Again”? And can we be surprised if the lesson many of them draw is that you need to be on the lookout for genocide, and to stand up and be counted and not a bystander when you believe you see it happening? Rightly or wrongly, their generation sees issues of justice at home and abroad as interconnected. Some may find the protesters infuriating, intolerant and self-righteous. But the one thing they have not been in these days is violent. 

Sunday April 21: A police captain reportedly tells one of the doormen on Riverside Drive: “We’re not going to do this any more.” I am reminded of what NYPD chief of patrol John Chell said at the press conference following the students’ arrests: “To put this in perspective, the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.” 

Unlike the media or the politicians, the police have consistently underscored the non-violent nature of what has been happening inside the campus. At an impromptu press conference at the top of 116th Street held by the NYPD a reporter asked about students preparing to attend Passover seders: “What is happening in general, and have there been any threats against the campus in relation to the upcoming holiday?” To which NYPD deputy commissioner for public information Tarik Sheppard responded: “There have been no credible threats to any particular group or individual coming from this protest or any other.”

Monday April 22, 1.14am: An email message from President Shafik, the first since the crisis erupted, informs us that classes are to be held virtually today. My seminar is only a few hours away and I decide to ignore it. My students and I had already agreed we would hold class in my apartment, and anyway I do not like people telling me when and how to teach without good reason. During the Covid restrictions I continued to hold in-person seminars because foreign students needed them for their visas. Since then, I have had a strongly protective feeling about the campus and my students. The care my colleagues and I can show our students is part of our mission as teachers. Closing things down goes against my instincts. For learning, it is always better to be face to face. 

A friend sends me a black-and-white photo from 1968: taken at the University of Sussex in the UK, it shows the occupation of a campus building. A poster of Mao hangs down from the floor above and a sign says: “Stop all connections with US military”. Students crowd the stairs. In their midst, in suit and tie, stands the vice-chancellor, Asa Briggs, arguing with them, and discussing the world’s issues. No starry-eyed romantic, he battled hard to win over public opinion, a task made more complex in his view by the press’s appetite for stories of conflict on campus and by the fact that — as he put it — some of the views expressed in any university must inevitably “affront people whose horizons are narrow”. 

Monday April 22, 1.30pm: I join colleagues heading on to campus. There are so many of us that we need to queue for admission at the 117th Street gate. While we wait, a man walks by sticking his camera in our faces, assuming we support Hamas. Once inside I join the crowd of professors standing on the steps; several hundred students are below us. Together we listen to the speakers. One of them asks a question that resonates with me. Why has our university president failed to express the pride we feel in our university and our students? 

Mark Mazower has taught history at Columbia University since 2004

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