Students occupy Columbia University as Shafik testifies at antisemitism congressional hearing

More than 100 pro-Palestinian students Wednesday occupied the main lawn of Columbia University, as college President Minouche Shafik defended before Congress her handling of rising campus antisemitism amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Members of the Republican-led U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce grilled Shafik on the administration’s response to campus protests and controversial chants, demanding greater discipline against students and faculty who defend Hamas or reject the state of Israel.

In a widely anticipated question, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, asked if calling for the genocide of Jews would violate Columbia’s code of conduct.

Shafik and other university officials answered resoundingly: “Yes, it does.”

The same query, from Rep. Elise Stefanik’s, R-New York, created a problem for two out of three college presidents during a December congressional antisemitism hearing, from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. The clip went viral on social media and in the news, and both leaders later resigned.

“Columbia beats Harvard and UPenn,” remarked Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Florida. “Y’all have done something that they weren’t able to do: You’ve been able to condemn antisemitism without using the phrase, ‘it depends on the context.'”

Shafik, who acknowledged Wednesday she spent “many, many hours” preparing for the hearing, did not fall into the same trap. The new college president, who stepped into the role last summer, said she has spent most of her time since becoming president on these issues.

“Trying to reconcile the free speech rights of those who wanted to protest,” Shafik said, “and the rights of Jewish students to be in an environment free of discrimination and harassment has been the central challenge on our campus, and numerous others across the country.”

Shafik testified before the committee alongside board of trustees co-chairs Claire Shipman and David Greenwald, and antisemitism taskforce co-chair David Schizer. All acknowledged there are problems at Columbia, but they said many capable people are forming plans and working hard to address them.

The university president said she found popular slogans at pro-Palestinian protests, including “by any means necessary” and “intifada revolution,” to be “incredibly distressing,” and that whether they violate university policy is under review.

“One of the issues that we are actively debating now,” she said, “is to actually clarify where language crosses the line from protected speech to discriminatory or harassing speech.”

For some members of Congress, the administration’s answers were not sufficient.

Stefanik on Wednesday pushed Columbia administrators to take stronger action against faculty who have come under fire for rhetoric against Israel.

“With the lack of enforcement, you see the concern that speaking to these professors is not enough,” she said, “and it’s sending a message across the university that this is tolerated, these antisemitic statements from a position of authority by professors in the classroom.”

Shafik testified to five cases of faculty removed from classrooms or dismissed by the university. At least 90 disciplinary measures have been taken to date against students, university officials said.

and Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, whose daughter attends Barnard College, called for free speech and protections for pro-Palestinian students.

“What I’m hearing from students and people in my district who go to Columbia,” Bowman said, “is they feel that there’s not the space for divergent opinions or thoughts as it relates to the State of Israel or what’s happening in Gaza right now.”

Back on campus Wednesday, students affiliated with Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition of more than 100 student groups, started pitching a series of green tents at 4 a.m. near the 116th St. campus entrance, according to postings on social media.

Students pledged that the demonstration, called the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, will remain until the university meets their demand to divest Columbia’s finances from companies and institutions that profit from Israel.

But the administration said they need to go. Students posted reports on social media that the NYPD was on campus, and of videos of administrators telling them to disperse and handing out written rules of university conduct.

“The presence of tents on South Lawn is a safety concern and a violation of university policies,” said a university spokesperson. “We are informing the students they are in violation of university policies and for their own safety and for the operation of the university they need to leave.”

The campus is closed to the public all this week, with a Columbia ID necessary to enter the entryway gates, according to university communications.

Signs declared the encampment a “liberated zone,” “revolution,” and “join us,” according to photos posted on Instagram. Elsewhere on campus, students gathered together to view the congressional hearing.

Mental health counseling graduate student Mimi Gupta, 45, who watched with about 50 students in the multicultural center, suggested lawmakers were more interested in making accusations than looking for information.

“If you ask someone a question, you should wait for her to answer and listen to what she said,” said Gupta. “(Shafik) was trying to answer very thoughtfully and was not being heard.”

Tyler Korff, a 2008 graduate who co-founded the Columbia University Jewish Alumni Association, said the administration showed “they understand their responsibility to ensure all students feel safe and supported.”

“And now we wait to see if their actions match their testimony,” he said, calling on the university to prevent protests like the encampment.

On top of the committee investigation, Columbia has also been under a U.S. Department of Education probe since November for allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Jewish students have filed a federal lawsuit against the administration, saying they permitted antisemitism to exclude them from the full Columbia experience.

When she launched the congressional probe in February, committee chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., pointed to a “pattern of deeply troubling incidents and developments at Columbia,” including a Jewish student who was beaten with a stick by a peer during a dispute over Israeli hostage posters, swastikas on campus and antisemitic rhetoric.

Earlier this month, Columbia announced the suspensions of multiple pro-Palestinian students for an unsanctioned campus event with “speakers who are known to support terrorism and promote violence.”

Pro-Palestinian students have repeatedly accused the administration of not doing enough to keep them safe from ‘doxxing’ trucks, physical attacks and arrests. Shafik testified during the hearing that 90 students have reached out to Columbia’s doxxing response team, which provides legal and technical support including privacy measures and online scrubbing.

Like Shafik, the New York City public schools chancellor, David Banks, is scheduled to testify before the same committee on May 8. The nation’s largest district will be joined by Montgomery County, Md., and Berkeley, Calif.


(Barry Williams contributed to this story.)