Columbia University faces full-blown crisis as rabbi calls on Jewish students to ‘return home’

(CNN) – Columbia University is facing a full-blown crisis heading into Passover, as a rabbi affiliated with the Ivy League school urged Jewish students to stay home and tense campus confrontations drew condemnation from the White House and officials in New York.

The atmosphere is so charged that Columbia officials have announced that students will be able to take classes and possibly even take exams virtually starting Monday — the first day of Passover, a major Jewish holiday that begins in the evening.

Tensions have been high at Columbia and many universities since the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas. However, the situation at Columbia escalated in recent days after university officials testified before Congress last week about anti-Semitism on campus and pro-Palestinian protests on and near campus surged.

The latest crisis has exposed Columbia President Minouche Shafik to new attacks from her critics, with U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik demanding she resign immediately because the school’s leadership has “clearly lost control of the campus.”

Underscoring concerns about student safety, Rabbi Elie Buechler, a rabbi with Columbia University’s Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, confirmed to CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that he sent a WhatsApp message to a group of about 300 mostly Orthodox -Jewish students “strongly”. recommend that they return home and stay there.

In his post, Buechler wrote that recent events at the university “have made it clear that Columbia University Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee the safety of Jewish students.”

“It pains me to say that I would strongly advise you to return home as soon as possible and to stay at home until the reality on and around campus has improved dramatically,” the message read.

The White House condemns calls for violence against Jews

The situation in Columbia has even caught the attention of the White House, joining local leaders in urging calm.

“While every American has the right to peacefully protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation against Jewish students and the Jewish community are grossly anti-Semitic, unconscionable and dangerous,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement shared with CNN on Sunday . The statement did not include examples of those incidents.

President Joe Biden similarly said on Sunday: “Even in recent days we have seen intimidation and calls for violence against Jews. This blatant anti-Semitism is reprehensible and dangerous – and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere else in our country.”

New York Governor Kathy Hochul said on X that threatening Jewish students with violence is anti-Semitism. “The First Amendment protects the right to protest, but students also have the right to learn in an environment free from intimidation or violence,” the governor said.

In a statement, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the city’s police department has an “increased officer presence” in the area around Columbia’s campus “to protect students and all New Yorkers on nearby public streets.”

Adams said he was “shocked and disgusted by the anti-Semitism spewed on and around the campus of Columbia University.”

‘Discomfort and anxiety’

In a statement to CNN on Sunday, a university spokesperson said the safety of the Columbia community is “our number one priority.”

The statement added: “We are acting on the concerns we hear from our Jewish students and are providing additional support and resources to ensure our community remains safe.”

While Buechler called on Jewish students to stay home, campus Hillel said in a Sunday post on X that they “do not believe Jewish students should leave campus.”

“This is a time of genuine discomfort and even fear for many of us on campus,” the Hillel said in a statement. “Columbia University and New York City must do more to protect students. We call on the university management to take immediate action to restore peace on campus. The municipality must ensure that students can walk up and down Broadway and Amsterdam without fear of intimidation.”

Chabad, a Jewish organization at the university, said on Facebook that it has hired additional security to protect students during Passover. They said they were “shocked by what we saw on and near the Columbia campus last night,” but still planned to host Passover celebrations on campus.

The rabbi sent the message after videos circulated showing a man outside the university saying, “Never forget the seventh of October,” and “that won’t happen one more time, not five more times, not ten more times, not another hundred times. not another 1,000 times, but 10,000 times!”

In addition to the student protests on campus, groups of demonstrators have also gathered outside the campus gates. The video does not indicate whether the screamer is affiliated with the university.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest discussed the “unassociated incidents” in an Instagram story, writing that their “priority is the safety of everyone,” which “means not antagonizing counter-protesters or unnecessarily escalating situations.”

The camp began the same day Columbia President Minouche Shafik testified before Congress about anti-Semitism on campus.

Speaking to CNN, a student from Jewish Colombia highlighted the dangers the protesting students risk, as well as interfaith prayers and a Seder service at the encampment.

“Columbia students who organized in solidarity with Palestine – including Jewish students – have faced harassment, doxxing and now arrest by the NYPD. These are the top threats to the safety of Jewish Columbia students,” Jonathan Ben-Menachem, a doctoral student, told CNN.

“On the other hand, student protesters have been leading interfaith congregational prayers for several days now, and tomorrow Passover Seder will be held at the Gaza Solidarity Camp,” he continued. “Saying that student protesters are a threat to Jewish students is a dangerous slander.”

Another student, Noah Lederman, told CNN he was “terrified, angry, upset and shocked that the university did not take action.” Lederman said he was contacted in early February and asked the university for remote learning options. “What is happening on campus is downright anti-Semitic,” he added.

Students are allowed to take classes virtually due to the ongoing demonstrations, a university spokesperson told CNN on Sunday.

‘Gaza Solidarity Encampment’ enters its fifth day

Sunday was the fifth day of demonstrations at the prestigious school, with students camping overnight on the school’s lawns.

Columbia’s Campus Rabbi Yonah Hain shared a statement with CNN saying the university’s Center for Jewish Student Life is and will remain open and welcoming students.

On Thursday, the university’s president asked the NYPD to remove student protesters, leading to the arrest of more than 100 people. “The arrested students were peaceful, did not resist and said what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner,” said NYPD Chief of Police John Chell.

CNN has reached out to Columbia University and the university’s Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Committee for more information about their investments and for comment on the protest organizers’ allegations.

The encampment was jointly organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest – a student-led coalition of more than a hundred organizations – Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, to protest what they describe as the university’s “continued financial investments in companies that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and military occupation of Palestine,” said a press release from Columbia University Apartheid Divest.

The protests come as the death toll from Israel’s war in Gaza continues to rise. At least 34,097 Palestinians have been killed and 76,980 injured since October, according to the enclave’s health ministry. Israel launched continued attacks after a Hamas attack on October 7 killed more than 1,200 people.

The demonstrations – and the suspension and arrests of the students involved – have led to solidarity rallies at other universities, including Yale, Harvard, the University of North Carolina and Boston University.

Allegations of violence have also emerged at some of these other demonstrations.

A Yale sophomore, Sahar Tartak, says another student attacked her with a Palestinian flag on Saturday while she was documenting a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus. Video of the incident from Tartak shows a student passing by while holding a Palestinian flag, before the person filming shouts, “Ow, ow!”

Yale’s Office of Public Affairs said in a statement: “The Yale Police Department is investigating a report of an assault that occurred during a protest at Beinecke Plaza. The university will not tolerate violence, threats, intimidation or intimidation against members of our community and is offering support to any student who has made the report.”

In January, the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel was “plausibly” violating genocide laws in its war against Gaza and ordered Israel to take “all measures” to prevent genocide.

In response, Israel rejected what it called the “strongly distorted” accusation of genocide leveled against it by South Africa over its military action in Gaza, telling the United Nations Supreme Court that the case was an attempt to ” to distort the meaning of the term’. .

Elijah Emery, a law student at Columbia who is Jewish, told CNN on Sunday that “the right to peaceful protest is of paramount importance.”

“Personally, I am very disturbed by the efforts of the police to disrupt the encampment,” he said. “It was a mistake by the university. It made me more supportive of the encampment and what it represents in terms of freedom of expression.”

He contrasted the “fairly peaceful” environment on campus with the more energetic demonstrations off campus, citing “very disheartening” incidents that occurred off campus Saturday evening by people who Emery said were not affiliated with the university. He added that some of his more observant Jewish friends had faced harassment, but that Jewish students should feel safe on campus.

“Especially during the day, I’m never really worried that something is going to get out of hand,” he said.

The CNN Wire

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.