Columbia president faces anti-Semitism Congress hearing: What’s at stake? | Israel War on Gaza

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Columbia president faces anti-Semitism Congress hearing: What’s at stake? | Israel War on Gaza

On Wednesday, Columbia University President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik will face a congressional committee over allegations that the leadership of the Ivy League school has failed to protect students and staff from rising anti-Semitism on its New York City campus.

The university is one of many elite schools across the United States that have emerged as battlegrounds for protests, counterprotests and explosive allegations linked to Israel’s war on Gaza, in which more than 34,000 people have been killed, most of them women and children.

Pro-Palestinian protesters have alleged that they have been victimised by university authorities and that they have faced physical attacks in some instances. Others have accused university authorities of not doing enough to counter anti-Semitism on campus.

Amid these heightened tensions, a congressional committee has been investigating allegations that universities have failed to shield students from anti-Semitism. The stakes are high for Shafik, the first female president of the university, appointed last year. Virginia Foxx, the Republican chairwoman of the committee, has accused Columbia of “some of the worst cases of anti-Semitic assaults, harassment, and vandalism on campus”.

The House investigation has already claimed two scalps: University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) President Elizabeth Magill and her Harvard counterpart Claudine Gay, amid similar allegations against them, and criticism of their responses to the congressional committee.

As Shafik prepares to face the House panel, here is a look at what the controversy is all about, how divisions over the war have played out at Columbia, and what might happen next.

What’s the backdrop?

Three of the US’s top universities came under the unwelcome spotlight late last year when the presidents of UPenn, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were summoned for a congressional hearing on anti-Semitism.

The event was seen as a triumph for House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, a confessed “ultra-MAGA”, who ambushed the trio — UPenn’s Magill, Harvard’s Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth — at the tail end of a five-hour grilling, pressing for a “yes” or “no” response on whether protesters calling for genocide of Jews were breaking college speech rules.

Though there Stefanik and others on the House committee did not present any evidence of chants calling for genocide of Jews on these university campuses, the legalistic responses of Magill, Gay and Kornbluth in the December hearing drew bipartisan condemnation.

All three equivocated, saying in various ways that it depended on context, Stefanik’s outraged dissection of their fumbling responses going viral. The bipartisan backlash that followed led Magill to resign, and Gay followed suit after a subsequent pile-on of plagiarism allegations.

Harvard President Claudine Gay
Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens, during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, on December 5, 2023, in Washington, DC [Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo]

Days after the hearing, the House passed a bipartisan resolution brought by Stefanik, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Democratic Representatives Jared Moskowitz and Josh Gottheimer, shaming the college elders for “evasive and dismissive” testimony.

Regardless of whether heads roll this time round or not, Shafik’s hearing is likely to be gruelling. “It’s the Wild West,” says Christopher Armstrong, a partner at law firm Holland & Knight, who represents clients under congressional investigation. “With cameras in Congress and with our politics becoming more divided and heated, it’s a minefield for witnesses.”

What’s the case against Columbia?

Shortly after December’s hearing, lawmakers intensified their scrutiny of universities, opening an official investigation on learning environments and disciplinary procedures at UPenn, Harvard and MIT, which was extended in February to include Columbia.

Committee Chairwoman Foxx sent Columbia’s leadership a letter (PDF), demanding they hand over a trove of documents, alleging that “an environment of pervasive antisemitism” had been documented at the university for more than two decades before the start of the current war on Gaza following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7.

“We have grave concerns regarding the inadequacy of Columbia’s response to antisemitism on its campus,” said Foxx in the letter, which outlined numerous cases of verbal and physical abuse, intimidation and harassment.

She referenced on-campus distribution of pamphlets carrying the “from the river to the sea” slogan — a Palestinian call for freedom from the occupation that Israel’s critics say it has tried to falsely portray as an anti-Semitic, or even genocidal, chant. Fox cited the display of posters with images of a blue and white skunk with a Star of David on its back, and the presence of protesters endorsing the Intifada — which is what Palestinians have called civil uprisings against Israel’s occupation of territory recognised internationally as belonging to Palestine. Fox also mentioned support on campuses for attacks by Yemen’s Houthi fighters on Israel-linked ships in the Red Sea.

By trying to punish chants for legitimate Palestinian protest and dreams of freedom from occupation, the House committee, say rights activists, is showing that it is less concerned about rights and the safety of people on campus — and is focused more on partisan politics.

Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, sees parallels with the days of McCarthyism and the Vietnam War.

There is a risk, she said, of Congress forgetting about the “law of the land” and carrying out investigations without following “the proper procedures”. “If we have Congress employing subjective standards, we run Into First Amendment concerns.”

“The threat of punishment can chill speech.”

What’s the mood on campus?

Shafik, an Egyptian-born British-American economist, has held top jobs at institutions like the Bank of England, latterly serving as director of the London School of Economics before landing her current position last year at Columbia.

While Shafik has insisted that the Ivy League school is “not an ivory tower”, it is precisely the image of universities as liberal bastions of privilege that is at the centre of the anti-Semitism allegations it faces.

Stefanik, regarded as a potential running mate for Donald Trump in November’s presidential election, went on a political fundraising blitz after going viral last December, raking in $7.1m in the first quarter of this year.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump listen as former Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., speaks at a campaign event in Concord, N.H
Republican Elise Stefanik, left, with presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump, listens as former Rep Lee Zeldin speaks at a campaign event in Concord, New Hampshire, on January 19, 2024 [Matt Rourke/AP Photo]

At Columbia, meanwhile, Shafik has faced criticism from both sides. Last November, the university suspended chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, saying the groups had violated university policy. The New York Civil Liberties Union and a Palestinian rights group have filed a lawsuit at the state Supreme Court in Manhattan, naming Shafik as one of the defendants.

In the run-up to the congressional hearing, the university hired a public investigation firm to nail pro-Palestinian students, who held a Resistance 101 event in March. In a statement, Shafik said the event featured “speakers who are known to support terrorism and promote violence”. The university’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter said six students were suspended and evicted.

Pro-Palestinian students have borne the brunt of disciplinary measures, said Morey. “[They] are definitely in the sights of many administrators. There’s pressure from funders and legislators and when there’s that pressure, there’s a pressure to censor,” she said.

The scrutiny on US campuses has also tested the ability of universities to stand up for freedom of expression, say critics.

“We see a lot of focus on inclusion and diversity which is taking precedence over core rights including free speech,” said Morey. “We’re not saying diversity is not important, but you have to have freedom of expression.”

What next?

The hearing opens at 10:15am Eastern Standard Time (14:15 GMT) on April 17. While there is no set roadmap, congressional investigations are generally aimed at ensuring compliance with existing laws or informing the drafting of future legislation.

Congressional committees have broad powers of investigation, including the ability to punish parties deemed to be obstructing progress, as was the case in February, when Foxx issued subpoenas to Harvard heads for failing to treat the inquiry into anti-Semitism with “appropriate seriousness”.

Morey said she believes December’s hearing revealed “college elders need a much more robust understanding of their role in protecting free speech”. To her, Magill, Gay and Kornbluth looked like they had only been brought up to speed on their college policies.

The pressure will be on Shafik to avoid tripping up, said Armstrong.

“If lawmakers are out to get you, it can be precarious,” he said. “I often tell witnesses that you can’t win a hearing, but you can certainly lose one.”