Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 26 April 2024


Columbia Bars Student Protester Who Said ‘Zionists Don’t Deserve to Live’

After video surfaced on social media, the student, Khymani James, said on Friday that his comments were wrong.

Khymani James, a Columbia student, is seen on a video posted to social media. He is wearing glasses and a brown bandanna on his head.
Khymani James’s comments came during and after a disciplinary hearing with Columbia administrators that he recorded and then posted on Instagram. Credit... via X
Katherine Rosman

Columbia University announced on Friday that it had barred from its campus a leader in the pro-Palestinian student protest encampment who declared on video in January that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.”

Video of the incendiary comments resurfaced online Thursday evening, forcing the school to again confront an issue at the core of the conflict rippling across campuses nationwide: the tension between pro-Palestinian activism and antisemitism.

The student, Khymani James, made the comments during and after a disciplinary hearing with Columbia administrators that he recorded and then posted on Instagram.

The hearing, conducted by an administrator of the university’s Center for Student Success and Intervention, was focused on an earlier comment he shared on social media, in which he discussed fighting a Zionist. “I don’t fight to injure or for there to be a winner or a loser, I fight to kill,” he wrote.

A Columbia administrator asked, “Do you see why that is problematic in any way?”

Mr. James replied, “No.”

He also compared Zionists to white supremacists and Nazis. “These are all the same people,” he said. “The existence of them and the projects they have built, i.e. Israel, it’s all antithetical to peace. It’s all antithetical to peace. And so, yes, I feel very comfortable, very comfortable, calling for those people to die.”

And, Mr. James said, “Be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists.”

In announcing their decision to bar Mr. James from campus, the university did not make clear if he had been suspended or permanently expelled.

Other protest groups condemned the comments and pointed out that one student’s statements do not reflect the tenor of the movement as a whole. But the remarks were widely shared on social media and go to the heart of a question that has animated criticism of the protests: How much of the movement in support of the Palestinian people in Gaza is tainted by antisemitism?

College administrators have pledged to Congress that they will take swift action against hateful attacks on Jewish students and antisemitic threats. “I promise you, from the messages I’m hearing from students, they are getting the message that violations of our policies will have consequences,” Columbia’s president, Nemat Shafik, told congressional leaders last week.

On Friday, a school spokesman said, “Calls of violence and statements targeted at individuals based on their religious, ethnic or national identity are unacceptable and violate university policy.”

Brian Cohen, the executive director of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, the center for Jewish campus life, described Mr. James’s statements as dangerous. “I think students who make comments like that don’t belong on campus,” he said.

Noa Fay, 23, a first-year student at the School of International and Public Affairs, said she was shocked by the “unabashedness” of the video. “It’s one of the more blatant examples of antisemitism and, just, rhetoric that is inconsistent with the values that we have at Columbia,” she said. “I was mostly very surprised to see that it was just so out in the open.”

Early Friday morning, Mr. James posted a statement on social media addressing his comments. “What I said was wrong,” he wrote. “Every member of our community deserves to feel safe without qualification.” He noted that he made these comments in January before he become involved with the protest movement and added that the leaders of the student protests did not condone the comments. “I agree with their assessment,” he wrote.

Mr. James did not respond to a request for comment, and student protesters declined to address the matter at a news conference on the Columbia campus Friday afternoon.

But in an interview earlier in the week, Mr. James drew a distinction between the ideas of anti-Zionism, which describes opposition to the Jewish state of Israel, and antisemitism. “There is a difference,” he said. “We’ve always had Jewish people as part of our community where they have expressed themselves, they feel safe, and they feel loved. And we want all people to feel safe in this encampment. We are a multiracial, multigenerational group of people.”

Sophie Ellman-Golan, the communications director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and a Barnard College graduate, said she found Mr. James’s comments awful and upsetting but she added that it was clear his views did not represent those of the other campus protesters.

Ms. Ellman-Golan said that in her 10 years as an organizer, there were always people who tried to inject hateful messages into public action, and that such messages tended to be amplified by those looking to smear entire movements.

“For people who want to believe that characterization, that our movements are inevitably and permanently hostile to us as Jews, this is catnip, right?” she said. “It’s irresistible.”

A spokeswoman for Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-Palestinian advocacy group, said in a statement that the organization was glad Mr. James had realized he was wrong and had acknowledged that his words were harmful.

“We believe that all people have the capacity to transform — many of our own members once supported Israel’s violence against Palestinians,” the statement said, adding that “within the movement we are committed to holding one another accountable to respecting the dignity of all human beings.”

One student protester who is Jewish and who has spoken to Mr. James about the video said she believed he was committed to nonviolence and acceptance of all people. She said that he had reacted emotionally after being trolled online and that it was unfair that his decision to vent his frustration on social media was being used against him.

It remains unclear how many students are directing the Columbia protests, but Mr. James, 20, emerged as a public face of the demonstrations this week when he led a news conference to assert the demands the movement is making of the Columbia administration.

“This encampment — a peaceful, student-led demonstration — is part of the larger movement of Palestinian liberation,” Mr. James said at the conference.

In his biography on X, he calls himself an “anticapitalist” and “anti-imperialist.”

Mr. James was raised in Boston, and graduated from Boston Latin Academy, according to a 2021 interview with The Bay State Banner.

He told The Banner that at Columbia, he planned to study economics and political science. “The ultimate destination is Congress,” he said.

Eryn Davis, Stephanie Saul, Olivia Bensimon and Claire Fahy contributed reporting.

Katherine Rosman covers newsmakers, power players and individuals making an imprint on New York City. More about Katherine Rosman

A version of this article appears in print on April 27, 2024, Section A, Page 14 of the New York edition with the headline: Columbia Bars Protester Who Said Zionists Should DieOrder Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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