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Violent Unrest at Columbia Forces Remote Classes and Jewish Students to Retreat Home for Safety

The president of Columbia University moved all classes remote for Monday, citing ongoing pro-Palestinian protests at the Ivy League school’s Morningside Heights campus and increasing reports of student fear in calling for a “reset.”

Protests spilled into a sixth day Monday at the school, and have been marred by blanket antisemitism, threats and outsiders descending on the embattled campus to promote their own agendas, President Minouche Shafik wrote in a letter to the collegiate community. Demonstrators initially set up an encampment on the South Lawn ahead of Shafik’s testimony before Congress about campus antisemitism in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

The students had been opposing Israeli military action in Gaza and demanding the school divest from companies they claim “profit from Israeli apartheid.”

By Thursday, Shafik reported to police that their presence was problematic and asked for NYPD help clearing the crowd. More than 100 protesters were arrested that afternoon.

In her letter to the campus community Monday, Shafik said she was “deeply saddened” by the goings-on on campus.

“Our bonds as a community have been severely tested in ways that will take a great deal of time and effort to reaffirm. Students across an array of communities have conveyed fears for their safety and we have announced additional actions we are taking to address security concerns,” Shafik wrote. “The decibel of our disagreements has only increased in recent days. These tensions have been exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas. We need a reset.”

Acknowledging the heartache over the devastation in the Mideast, Shafik said “we should be having serious conversations” and will have those conversations about how Columbia can contribute. But, she noted, “we cannot have one group dictate terms and attempt to disrupt important milestones like graduation to advance their point of view.”

Shafik urged for a sitdown — and compromise.

In the meantime, Shafik wrote, “to deescalate the rancor and give us all a chance to consider next steps, I am announcing that all classes will be held virtually on Monday. Faculty and staff who can work remotely should do so; essential personnel should report to work according to university policy. Our preference is that students who do not live on campus will not come to campus.”

Those next steps are expected to include convening a working group of deans, university administrators and faculty members to try to bring the protest crisis to a solution. Shafik called for continued peaceful discussion and engagement. She also said that while she understands the hesitancy to use NYPD to manage campus protests, she also said she knows that listening to the rules will go a long way in getting voices heard.

“We should be able to do this ourselves,” Shafik acknowledged. It’s not clear how long classes might stay remote.

“Over the past days, there have been too many examples of intimidating and harassing behavior on our campus,” she added. “Antisemitic language, like any other language that is used to hurt and frighten people, is unacceptable and appropriate action will be taken. We urge those affected to report these incidents through university channels. We also want to remind everyone of the support available for anyone adversely affected by current events.”

No significant injuries have been reported amid the demonstrations, though the temperature is heightening.

Mayor Eric Adams said Sunday evening, as a rabbi urged Jewish students to flee the Columbia campus, that he was “horrified and disgusted with the antisemitism being spewed at and around the Columbia University campus.”

In a post on X, the Democrat said he had instructed the NYPD to look into any illegal activity and arrest anyone found to be breaking the law. Adams also insisted “hate has no place in our city.”

Last week, Shafik took a firm stand against antisemitism as she parried accusations from Republicans who see Columbia campus as a hotbed of bias — but she hedged on whether certain phrases invoked by some supporters of Palestinians rise to harassment.

She arrived on Capitol Hill four months after a similar hearing that led to the resignations of two Ivy League presidents.

From the start, Shafik took a more decisive stance than the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, who gave lawyerly answers when asked if calls for the genocide of Jews would violate school policies.

When asked the same question, Shafik and three other Columbia leaders responded unequivocally, yes. But Shafik waffled on specific phrases.

Rep. Lisa McClain, a Republican from Michigan, asked her if phrases such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free ” or “long live intifada” are antisemitic.

“I hear them as such, some people don’t,” Shafik said.

McClain posed the same question to David Schizer, who leads an antisemitism task force at Columbia. He responded that such phrases are antisemitic.

It was a shaky moment for an Ivy League president who otherwise dodged the gotcha moments that turned the previous hearing into a frenzy for Republicans, who cast elite schools as antisemitic havens. Shafik appeared to be ready for and handled questions very differently than other heads of schools.

Shafik acknowledged a rise in antisemitism since October but said campus leaders have been working tirelessly to protect students. Rebutting accusations that she has been soft on violators, Shafik said 15 students were suspended and six are on probation for violating new rules restricting campus demonstrations.

“These are more disciplinary actions than taken probably in the last decade at Columbia,” she said. “And I promise you, from the messages I’m hearing from students, they are getting the message that violations will have consequences.”

https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/columbia-protest-palestine-classes-remote-shafik-nypd/5342540/