Minneapolis Resident Gives Account On Columbia U. Unrest

Since the Oct. 7, 2023 attack by Hamas against Israel, college campuses have become a flash-point for protests, whether supporting Israel or opposing it. Since late last week, there has been no more active campus than Columbia University in Manhattan. For one Minneapolis native, a first-year student in the Barnard College/Jewish Theological Seminary joint program, the unrest has been approaching their front door.

“The reporting in the last week has been more accurate, and more accurate to how dramatic things are, because more reporters from more news sources are actually here,” said the student, who has been granted anonymity due to safety concerns on campus. “[It’s]not my preference to walk down the street and have seven cameras and seven reporters, but I do think it’s made the news more accurate.

“Do I prefer it to the [news] helicopters that were here in October? I don’t know.”

As Passover approached, much was made of a statement that Rabbi Elie Buechler sent Sunday morning to a group chat of nearly 300 students. Buechler, the director of the Orthodox Union-Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Columbia/Barnard, wrote: “The events of the past few days, especially last night, have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy.”

The student TC Jewfolk spoke with was already planning to be away from campus for the first two days of Passover. After that, the student has concrete plans for returning to campus, but do have a backup plan if it’s not safe to return.

The student also often wears a kippah, and said they can understand where Buechler was coming from when he sent the message to the group chat.

“He is one of many (rabbis on campus), and he is pretty prominent. And the Orthodox community is quite large here,” they said. “His Jewish community is a very visible Jewish community. The community he works for is the modern Orthodox, the people wearing long skirts, who are very visibly Jewish, the men who are always wearing kippot. That’s who he is primarily keeping in mind.”

The student was frustrated with recent coverage from the Columbia Daily Spectator, the school paper. Particularly in how long it took for antisemitic incidents that occurred Saturday night to be made more widely public. The article in question wasn’t published until late afternoon Sunday.

“They had been on their reporting very quickly recently, and this was written by one of the few Jewish reporters,” they said. “Which says to me that the Spectator doesn’t see this as an issue worth reporting on. Those were echoes [of what] I was hearing from the rest of the Jewish community as well.”

The incidents that the Spectator reported on included students being harassed for wearing a kippah, and calls for individuals to “go back to Poland.”

“If people are going to go and sing Hatikvah right next to a pro-Palestinian protest and there are antisemitic incidents that occur, that’s obviously not okay. But there’s instigation and I get it,” they said. “But a student wearing a kippah and walking down a hallway? There’s no instigation there. And that’s where I have lost a lot of respect for the protests.”

Campus access has been tightened to the point that there are only two entrances to the Columbia campus open to students, and one entrance to Barnard, which is on the west side of Broadway; Columbia is on the east side of Broadway.

The student said they aren’t taking any classes in a Columbia building this semester; the only reasons they have to go to Columbia are to use the dining halls or libraries, so avoiding the chaos is possible.

“If you don’t want to be involved, you don’t have to be involved. If you don’t want to see it, you don’t have to see it, especially if you go to Barnard or JTS,” they said.

Their frustration starts to rise when people who are not students and have no stake in the campus show up to protest and say they have a voice. “I’m very happy that they have a voice, but I’m not quite sure what their voice is going to do for our campus,” they said.

When protesters show up outside the gates of the schools on Broadway or 116th Street, that’s when it starts to be harder to ignore, the student said.

“They’re not contained, and those are people who are not Columbia students coming up to our campus to protest,” they said. “That’s what’s been frustrating me. And that’s frustrated me from a Jewish angle; there’s been a few, like ‘End Jew Hatred’ protests [where] I look at the people protesting and most of them look like Upper West Side parents. And I’m like, ‘why are you here?’

“I get the need (to counter pro-Palestinian protests), but you impeding my ability to get to dinner is not doing anything.”

The student said they aren’t angry about what they’re witnessing on campus; just sad.

“I wish that something had been [done] about this in October, November or December,” they said. “Truly, it had been totally manageable up until this point, but there was evidence that it was going to get to a boiling point.”

They cited an Oct. 24, 2023, op-ed column in the Spectator by Rabbi Yonah Hain, the Columbia/Barnard campus rabbi, where he talked about the direction the discourse on campus was taking.

“But the movement for Palestinian freedom of the past intentionally maintained some distance between itself and Hamas’ terrorism. This gap has been erased,” Hain wrote. “By describing Hamas barbarism as ‘an unprecedented historic moment,’ the rally asserted binary thinking – us versus them – as anti-Zionism aligns with Hamas.”

The student said the message they’d like people watching from afar to keep in mind is to “remember the nuance.”

“There is so much that every one person involved in a protest, or even just on this campus thinks, and no one is clearly to one side or the other. And there aren’t really even sides,” they said. “There’s people who are in the encampment – and I know plenty of people who disagree with the encampment, but [they] respect friends who are in it, and are helping to bring them blankets and gloves. They’re like ‘That’s not for me, but I understand why people are in it, and I’m going to support them.’ And I think it’s important to know that there are a lot of people in the middle ground even when it doesn’t seem like it.

“It’s hard because I think everybody is asking ‘What can I do?’ I don’t blame you for asking the question. But I also think part of it is recognizing that there’s actually nothing that we can do right now. It is a little bit too far gone.”