Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 29 April 2024


Columbia Elects an Israeli Student

“I am always willing to listen,” Ms. Platek says, “but also very good at speaking up when I think something’s wrong.”

She isn’t shy either. Ms. Platek is a member of Students Supporting Israel, a national organization whose mission is “to be a clear and confident pro-Israel voice on college campuses.” It also aims for something Columbia plainly needs: “to reassure students who oppose the demonization of the State of Israel on campus that they are not alone.”

This isn’t Ms. Platek’s first rodeo. In October, she posted a petition seeking to remove Joseph Massad, a Columbia professor who teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history. She directed attention to his Oct. 8 article for an online publication called the Electronic Intifada celebrating the “stunning victory” against Israel the day before.

Mr. Massad is still there, a melancholy fact several congressmen brought up during Columbia President Nemat Shafik’s grilling two weeks ago before the House Education Committee. But Ms. Platek’s petition fleshed out what people mean when they complain that Columbia tolerates antisemitism.

In a speech captured on video a few months back, Ms. Platek spoke about Columbia students and faculty who “manipulate history in order to demonize” Jews. She made clear she isn’t intimidated.

“They choose to advocate for our removal off of this campus over our nationality,’’ Ms. Platek said. “That is discrimination. They choose to regurgitate Nazi Germany’s talking points. They choose to argue that they are righteous to advocate for our death. Wake up!”

In most of America, her objections wouldn’t be controversial. At Columbia they are bracing. They are also a refreshing counterweight to the crowds chanting “Globalize the intifada!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”

“A big part of my campaign specifically was targeted at improving unity and dialogue on campus,” says Ms. Platek, who served a stint as president in the spring of 2023.

Today the spirit of dialogue at Columbia is at an all-time low. Ms. Platek points to an effort to get the student council of the School of General Studies to vote to divest from Israel, terminate the dual degree program with Tel Aviv University, and close the university’s Tel Aviv Global Center. The effort, Ms. Platek says, is being done without any opportunity for students to debate and express their concerns.

Some might argue that Ms. Platek’s election is a fluke. A university staff member explains that the School of General Studies has many nontraditional students, including military veterans. In other words, her election probably isn’t representative of the larger Columbia student body.

Even so, it’s an encouraging development at a time when Ms. Shafik tells Congress that Columbia has a problem with antisemitism but can’t seem to do anything about it. When Ms. Shafik returned to campus from Washington, she initially took a strong line, calling the New York Police Department to clear the protesters who ignored her order to disperse.

But when the protesters came back, Ms. Shafik did nothing. And in echoes of Hamas in its own negotiations with Israel, the student agitators essentially refused to deal.

On Monday morning, Ms. Shafik finally admitted that negotiations with protesters had come to naught. But the admission also came with a new deadline for those squatting at the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment”:

“If you voluntarily leave by 2 p.m., identify yourself to a University official, and sign the provided form where you commit to abide by all University policies through June 30, 2025, or the date of conferral of your degree, whichever is earlier, you will be eligible to complete the semester in good standing (and will not be placed on suspension) as long as you adhere to that commitment.”

Plainly Columbia is hoping to resolve the problem before its May 15 commencement. But a few hours after the 2 p.m. deadline came and went, the protesters showed no intention of leaving. Again, what looked like a signal that enough is enough now appears to be just another elite American institution incapable of enforcing the basic rules of community life.

“It’s a sad thing,” says Ms. Platek, “when a Columbia student can’t walk the campus without fear.”

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