Columbia Suspended Pro-Palestine Student Groups. The Faculty Revolted
It was a bright morning two Wednesdays ago, and Manan Ahmed, a professor of South Asian history at Columbia, was rushing across Broadway, trying to find a print shop that could make a giant poster on short notice. As he walked, he texted a few colleagues—classicists, anthropologists, other historians—asking whether anyone knew where to get a megaphone. “We’re nerds, man,” he told me. “Tracking down a medieval scroll in some dusty archive? That we know how to do. We have no goddam idea how to organize a protest.”
Ahmed, who is fifty-two, wears chunky black glasses, several rings, a salt-and-pepper beard, and nail polish on his left hand. That day, he had on a charcoal-gray suit, a white scarf, and a green watch cap. “The colors of the Palestinian flag,” he said. “Well, most of them. I couldn’t find anything red that went with this ’fit.” On Broadway, he found a shop that could handle his request: a huge blue poster (“Faculty Protest for Academic Freedom”) and an even bigger black poster with the marquee headline “we, the faculty, demand.” (The five demands below were too wordy to be read at a distance. “I told you, we’re academics,” he said. “We don’t really do bumper stickers.”) In a couple of hours, he and several dozen other faculty would hold a rally—organized hastily, via semisecret text threads—on the steps of Low Library, at the center of campus. The administration, citing vague and protean rules, had recently ordered the Columbia chapters of two student groups—Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace—to disband for the rest of the fall semester. “They said it was for ‘student safety,’ and of course Jewish students, like all students, deserve to be protected,” Ahmed said. “But the way the university did it was totally shady.”
According to New York magazine, during a rally sponsored by those two groups, “a passerby unaffiliated with any Palestinian organization made a scene, shouting an antisemitic, racist rant,” and one of the organizers “took the bullhorn to condemn him.” Both student organizations were suspended the next day. Ahmed and the other professors, arguing that the university had violated its own principles of free expression, were demanding that the groups be reinstated. “Columbia students have organized plenty of actions like this at Low Library, most famously in 1968,” Ahmed told me, referring to an escalating series of protests led by Students for a Democratic Society and other groups. “Faculty, as far as I know, have never done anything like this before.”
This semester, like most semesters, Ahmed is teaching a course called Colonization/Decolonization. Six weeks in—after the class had read Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism” and before a series of discussions on whether the modern university, including Columbia University, was an extension of the colonialist project—came October 7th: Hamas’s attack on southern Israel and the Israeli military’s retaliatory bombing in Gaza. “I had students asking, in class and outside of class, ‘Should we understand this through the lens of anti-colonial resistance, or does that not apply?’ ” Ahmed said. “Asking questions, trying to interpret what they’re seeing—the kind of thing we’re supposed to be encouraging around here, I was led to believe. But the students were getting the message ‘If you say the wrong thing, you will be punished.’ ”
This fall has been the season of a thousand open letters, and Columbia is no exception. On October 11th, twenty Columbia student groups published a letter under the heading “Oppression Breeds Resistance.” It began by mourning “the tragic losses experienced by both Palestinians and Israelis” but then asserted, in bold, that “the weight of responsibility for the war and casualties undeniably lies with the Israeli extremist government.” Some people on campus agreed that this claim was undeniable. Others found it distasteful or misguided, and responded with counter-arguments. Adam Guillette, a right-wing activist with no affiliation to Columbia, didn’t bother with counter-arguments. (“I identify as a classical liberal,” Guillette told me.) Instead, he parked a “doxxing truck” outside the campus gates, displaying the names and faces of some of the students who had co-authored the letter (or so Guillette thought), beneath the words “Columbia’s Leading Antisemites.” Two of them, law students who had been offered jobs at a white-shoe firm, had those offers rescinded; another student, who denied having any connection to the letter, is reportedly suing Guillette for defamation. (“We’ve never doxed anyone, nor would we,” Guillette told me. “They dox me pretty much every day.”)
On October 11th, according to police, an Israeli Columbia student who was hanging a hostage poster was beaten with a stick. Two weeks later, a swastika was drawn on a bathroom wall. Yinon Cohen, a professor of Israeli and Jewish Studies at Columbia, told me in an e-mail that antisemitic incidents have increased since October 7th but that the letter from the student groups was not one of them: “Only if you conflate harsh criticism of Israel’s actions with antisemitism can you view this statement as antisemitic.” This line of thinking didn’t deter Guillette, who previously worked for the vigilante culture-war outfit Project Veritas and who now runs a smaller organization called Accuracy in Media. Accuracy in Media bought dozens of URLs, under the names of the students it had just doxed, and also the URL columbiahatesjews.com, where visitors were encouraged to send a prewritten form letter to Columbia’s Board of Trustees. (“Tell them to take action against these despicable, hateful students.”) In late October, a hundred and seventy-seven Columbia faculty responded to all this with another open letter, arguing that “one of the core responsibilities of a world-class university is to interrogate the underlying facts of both settled propositions and those that are ardently disputed,” a responsibility that is “profoundly undermined when our students are vilified.” A larger group of faculty denounced this letter in yet another letter (“the University cannot tolerate violence, speech that incites it, or hate speech”).
What could have been a contest of ideas was instead devolving into a call-the-manager competition, with each side attempting to out-complain the other. The manager, in this case, was Minouche Shafik, an Egyptian British baroness who has served as a vice-president of the World Bank, a member of the House of Lords, and, beginning in July, the twentieth president of Columbia University. She released statement after statement, satisfying no one. Barnard, the women’s college within Columbia, has its own president, Laura Rosenbury, who was also a few months into the job. (Prior to that, she was the dean of the law school at the University of Florida, where she was accused of “kowtowing” to the McCarthyite whims of that state’s governor, Ron DeSantis.) “I am appalled and saddened to see antisemitism and anti-Zionism spreading throughout Barnard and Columbia,” Rosenbury wrote in one of her “community messages.” She seemed to be aiming for a soothing, ecumenical tone, but her apparent conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism—with the latter implicitly categorized as appalling hate speech, rather than a legitimate form of critique—only led to more outrage.
“Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian racism are directed against persons for who they are,” Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropology professor at Barnard and Columbia, wrote in a public letter to Rosenbury. “To render anti-Zionism equivalent to the first three is to commit a fundamental category mistake that is not sustainable on any serious intellectual grounds.” Rosenbury and Barnard’s provost met with Abu El-Haj, she told me, but “it was totally disingenuous. They wanted to have it both ways. In private, it was, ‘We hear you, we know that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not necessarily the same, we didn’t mean it.’ But then they wouldn’t publicly retract the statement conflating the two, I guess because they think that’s what donors want to hear.” (“Our president and provost both strongly dispute that characterization,” a spokesperson for Barnard College said.)
Accusations of donor manipulation can be fraught, especially when it comes to this particular issue. Yet some donors, at least, have had no problem admitting that they are trying to exert ideological influence over university policy. Leon Cooperman—a conservative Zionist, a hedge-fund billionaire, and a Columbia alumnus—was interviewed on Fox Business in late October. The anchor asked him about Joseph Massad, a Columbia professor who had characterized the Hamas militants on paragliders as “an innovative Palestinian resistance,” and also about a walkout that was under way at Columbia, where student activists were demanding a ceasefire. “Where are we in the world,” the anchor began, “when thirteen hundred Israeli civilians—”
“I think these kids at the colleges have shit for brains,” Cooperman said, interrupting. “I’ve given to Columbia probably about fifty million dollars, over many years, and I’m gonna suspend my giving.”
“Wow,” the anchor said. “So, right here, right now, you’re saying no more money to Columbia?”
“Unless I see a change,” Cooperman said. “I’ve told them that they should fire this professor.” A few days later, Henry Swieca, another hedge-fund billionaire, resigned from the board of overseers at Columbia Business School, writing, “With blatantly anti-Jewish student groups and professors allowed to operate with complete impunity, it sends a clear and distressing message that Jews are not just unwelcome, but also unsafe on campus.”
This was all a bit exhausting—some Columbia students joked that they hardly had time for classwork, what with all the statements and counterstatements they were expected to read. (I, too, signed an open letter in support of a ceasefire last month.) Still, apart from the doxing, these forms of discourse might have made John Stuart Mill proud: objectionable speech answered with more speech. Then came the bans. The Barnard Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies posted a statement on its official site expressing solidarity with “the Palestinian people who have resisted settler colonial war, occupation, and apartheid for over 75 years.” On October 22nd, without warning, Barnard administrators took the statement down, claiming that it was “in violation of existing College policies.” Three weeks later, Columbia suspended the campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, citing “University policies” regulating “the time, place and manner of certain forms of public expression.” (The Columbia student paper, the Spectator, reported that some of the relevant “university policies” had been subtly altered two weeks prior.) Some students and professors rushed to the defense of the student groups, arguing that the allegations against them were trumped up or that the university was, at best, enforcing its rules selectively. “There’s no precedent for simply banning a student group—certainly not like this, unilaterally, without transparency,” Joseph Howley, a Columbia classics professor, told me. “There are clear procedures for how such claims and counter-claims are supposed to be adjudicated, going back to 1968, and the administration seems to have ignored those procedures on the way to getting the outcome it wanted.” (“We are committed to preserving an environment in which debate and protest are encouraged and protected,” a Columbia spokesperson wrote in a statement to The New Yorker. “The two groups in question” were given “numerous warnings that clearly laid out that failure to respect the required processes would have consequences.”)
Howley is well known on campus; he is the chair of Literature Humanities, the core canonical-literature course that all first-year undergraduates are required to take. “The other day, in class, we were discussing the Oresteia,” he said, and students had drawn connections “between what the play has to say about retributive justice and what was in the news.” He began our conversation with a phlegmatic bearing—imagine a classics professor during office hours—but, when he was talking about students’ speech being chilled, his voice tightened with indignation. “Isn’t this why we ask students to read these ancient texts, because it’s supposed to help them understand the world?” he went on. “If we can’t allow our students to notice patterns and raise them in the classroom, then, as educators, what are we doing?”
Famous lines from Supreme Court opinions, like canonical movie quips, are often punched up in the collective retelling. Gordon Gekko’s best-known maxim actually included a few filler words, but the way it’s remembered—“greed is good”—is better. Similarly, if you ask a law student to recite the counter-speech doctrine, you might get something pithy, like “the best answer to speech you don’t like is more speech.” The original sentence, in a concurring opinion from 1927, was more orotund: “If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
The author of these words was Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice. In 1948, Brandeis University was established in his honor. Earlier this month, Students for Justice in Palestine held a rally on the Brandeis campus, in Waltham, Massachusetts, and police were called to the scene. “The lead speakers chanted loudly into the bullhorns using an animated and passionate tone that was mirrored by the crowd,” a police report read. “Some chants, such as ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ and ‘intifada,’ were determined by the University to be anti-Semitic hate speech.” These chants, the report continued, “created an environment which created a hazardous or physically offensive condition by an act that served no legitimate purpose of the defendant; their actions had affected the public in an alarming way.” Police officers broke up the rally and arrested seven of the protesters. Enforced silence, indeed.
Defenders of Israel’s actions often repeat the claim that it is the only free country in the Middle East, but since October 7th there has been an alarming effort, both in Israel and abroad, to stifle speech that is critical of Israel’s actions or supportive of Palestinians. Last month, Suella Braverman, the British Home Secretary, suggested that it might be illegal in the U.K. to wave a Palestinian flag. (She has since been removed from her post.) In Florida, Ron DeSantis’s administration ordered state universities in Florida to “deactivate” chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine; the next day, the Anti-Defamation League asked universities across the country to investigate S.J.P. students for “materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization.” In Calgary, a man who chanted “from the river to the sea” was charged with a hate crime; in California, the editor of a science magazine was fired after retweeting The Onion. On MSNBC, three Muslim anchors were temporarily removed from the air, though the network said that the removals were coincidental; one of them, Mehdi Hasan, recently had his show cancelled, though the network would not say why.
Nathan Thrall, a Jewish author who was born in California and lives in Jerusalem, spent the past several years working on a narrative nonfiction book called “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama.” The book, a searing yet understated account of one Palestinian family’s travails under occupation in the West Bank, was published four days before the Hamas attack. “Obviously, the book is not a polemic about the recent conflict,” Thrall told me. “It hardly even mentions Gaza.” Still, when he embarked on an international book tour, several of his long-scheduled events were abruptly cancelled. “I hope we can have it in person soon, when this dies down,” an organizer who withdrew an invitation in Los Angeles told the Guardian. Thrall was on his way to speak at Conway Hall, in London, when he heard that the Metropolitan Police had ordered the venue to close its doors; a concert of Palestinian classical music, at Southwark Cathedral, was also postponed, owing to “safety concerns.” “It’s a moral panic,” Thrall told me. “People would rather hear nothing than hear anything that challenges their assumptions about the root causes of the conflict.”
“We’ve seen this many times over the years, but the vehemence this time does feel different,” Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia and probably the most prominent living historian of Palestine, told me. Khalidi was an adviser to the Palestinian delegation at the Middle East peace talks in Madrid, in 1991, and in Washington, D.C., in 1993. His most recent book, “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine,” was published in 2020; this year, after October 7th, it became a best-seller.
The book’s subtitle frames the conflict in terms of “settler colonialism and resistance.” “The 1988 Hamas charter is full of blatant anti-Semitism, no doubt,” he told me, “but the issue of Palestinian resistance is not fundamentally an anti-Jewish issue. It is an anti-colonial issue. If the people stealing Palestinians’ land had been Martians, the reaction would have been no different.” At the same time, he has rejected the claim that all forms of anti-colonial resistance are justified, and he has been clear since October 7th that Hamas’s targeting of Israeli civilians was a war crime. “If a Native American liberation movement came and fired an R.P.G. at my apartment building because I’m living on stolen land, would that be justified?” he said. “Of course it wouldn’t be justified. . . . You either accept international humanitarian law or you don’t.” This combination of views has earned him antagonists on all sides, but, he said with a shrug, “That’s what tenure is for.” His foes on the Israel-apologist right have often lamented, sometimes in racist terms, how difficult it is to get professors like Khalidi fired. The most recent issue of The New Criterion opens with an essay fulminating against Khalidi and his “anti-Semitic, historically illiterate” colleagues, under the headline “Tenured Barbarians.”
Khalidi holds an endowed professorship named for Edward Said, who began teaching at Columbia in 1963 and stayed for four decades. During that time, Columbia built an internationally famous department of Middle Eastern studies, with a particular focus on Palestine. I spoke to one Jewish professor who referred to Columbia as “Birzeit on the Hudson”; he meant this as a compliment, but other Jews, throughout the decades, have not. “A million Jews live in New York, more than in any other city in the world except Tel Aviv, and it is safe to say that whenever something involving Jews unsettles the Columbia campus, uptown in Morningside Heights, New Yorkers know,” Jane Kramer wrote, in The New Yorker, in 2008. “Israel is the cause that can raise a constituency out of an otherwise fractious, and famously skeptical, Jewish population, and push it into a kind of collective panic.” Kramer was writing about another series of disputes at Columbia over critiques of Zionism and academic freedom. The article mentioned Khalidi and Joseph Massad—and a few students who reported feeling marginalized in Massad’s class, including a recent Columbia graduate named Bari Weiss—but its main focus was the anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, who had done her field work in Israel and had recently come up for tenure. “No one in her department doubted she would get it,” Kramer reported—until a Jewish Barnard alumna started a campaign to derail Abu El-Haj’s career. (The alumna told Kramer that she considered Abu El-Haj’s ethnic background—her father was born in Palestine—to be a “red flag.”)
Late last month, Abu El-Haj was one of a few Barnard professors who had the idea to organize protests against the administration. “I didn’t expect much heroism from administrators, I have to be honest, but even I have been shocked by how thoroughly they have caved to outside pressure,” she said. “It’s not only about the question of Palestine. It’s about the next time mega-donors pressure you to make an exception to academic freedom and robust debate, how can we trust that you’ll stand your ground?” Administrators told her that they were hearing from Jewish students who found phrases like “free Palestine” threatening. “I told them, ‘If you want to go down that road, then I have plenty of Arab students who feel threatened by the Israeli flag or the Israeli national anthem. Are we going to ban all of it?’ They had no response to that.”
Ahmed dropped the posters at his office in the history department, then walked across Amsterdam Avenue to the law school, where students had invited him to participate in a lunchtime teach-in about South Asia and Palestine. Flyers for upcoming teach-ins were laid out on a table, along with a “Boycott List” (“Starbucks is suing its union after the union expressed support for Palestine. Buy Joe Coffee instead”) and a “Genocide Report Card” (“Law firms are enabling Israeli settler colonialism, apartheid, and Palestinian genocide. . . . Remember this during recruiting season”). Before the event, the student tasked with introducing Ahmed asked whether she should pronounce his first name with the emphasis on the first or second syllable. “Depends which side of the border you’re on,” he replied, referring to India and Pakistan; in Morningside Heights, he went on, “anything goes.”
The teach-in covered a lot of ground: the repressive imperial strategies of Lord Curzon, the militant resistance of Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. While Ahmed spoke (“I’d like to think together with you about the definitional question of what constitutes legitimate resistance”), trays of food were delivered, and the scent of saffron wafted through the classroom. A student organizer returned to the dais and said, “I’d like to acknowledge that the biryani has arrived.” The students broke for lunch. Ahmed left, gathered the posters from his office, and headed for Low Library.
Several dozen faculty, graduate students, and staff stood on the library steps, while a police helicopter hovered overhead. “I’m tenured, but a lot of adjuncts and others here are taking a real risk,” Ahmed said. The demonstration began, and Ahmed spoke first, doing his best to distill his discursive style into something closer to call-and-response. “We come together to reject all efforts to curtail or prohibit political speech on campus,” he shouted into a megaphone. “Make some noise for freedom of expression!”
About a hundred students were there, including students from the two banned groups, some holding up cardboard signs (“I am a Jewish voice for peace”), or banging pots and pans in lieu of applause. Behind them, about two dozen counter-protesters—many of them Israeli faculty at Columbia, including professors of engineering and computer science—held up red posters bearing the names and photos of hostages taken by Hamas. “Bring them home!” they chanted. On the steps, Joseph Howley delivered a nuanced and surprisingly personal speech. “My Jewish ancestors were killed and made refugees by pogroms like the ones carried out by Hamas militants on October 7th, and like the ones that have been happening all year in the West Bank,” he said. “No Jews anywhere are safe from the scourge of antisemitism as long as a nuclear superpower governed by extremists carries out daily atrocities in our name.” The counter-protesters did not seem to be listening. “Look at the babies!” a woman holding a hostage sign shouted. “You don’t care about the babies!” One counter-protester, an Israeli professor, told me, “The things these protesters are doing, blocking streets, occupying buildings—Jewish students would never do this.” I asked him why, and he looked at me as if the answer were too obvious to bear mentioning. “Because they’re more civilized,” he said.
The Columbia chapters of S.J.P. and J.V.P. have not been reinstated as of this writing, and administrators have declined to provide specific information about when they might be or precisely how the decision will be reached. (“The action taken was limited and proportional to the violations,” the Columbia spokesperson wrote. “It is a temporary suspension that invites the groups to get back into dialogue with their official advisers so that the suspension can be lifted.”) The day after the faculty protest, in a small, wood-panelled room on campus, the undergraduate dean of humanities introduced a conversation between Rashid Khalidi and Yinon Cohen, on the capacious topic of “War and Peace in Israel/Palestine.” Cookies and coffee were served (not Starbucks). Abu El-Haj sat in the front row. Ahmed tried to get in, but the room was full by the time he arrived, with students packing the aisles, and he was turned away.
The two professors held forth for an hour and a half, mostly taking questions from the audience. Khalidi spoke extemporaneously; Cohen seemed to have a slide deck prepared for every question. When someone asked whether Hamas had a democratic mandate in Gaza, Cohen stood, plugged in his laptop, and opened a PowerPoint, dense with polling data, called “What Palestinians Really Think of Hamas.” When another audience member asked whether “from the river to the sea” was an inherently genocidal phrase, Cohen, with a weary sigh, stood again and pulled up a PowerPoint called “From the River to the Sea.” On his way out, Khalidi was surrounded by admirers, but he did his best to push through: he was scheduled to speak at another event across campus, and he was already late. The same day, Columbia law students had scheduled a teach-in with Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch. Shortly before that event began, the university cancelled it, citing “security concerns.”
Andrew Marantz is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation.”