Columbia University has postponed a major fund-raising drive in the latest sign that on-campus turmoil caused by the Israel-Hamas war is not only testing the limits of free speech on campus, but is also poised to affect the institution’s pocketbook.
Columbia Giving Day, an annual event in which alumni and donors around the world are asked to donate to the university, was scheduled for this Wednesday. It was called off last week with no new date announced. Last year, the event raised almost $30 million in 24 hours.
Some prospective donors received emails saying that the university was instead focusing its efforts on ensuring student well-being and cultivating a safe campus space. A university spokeswoman, Samantha Slater, told The New York Times, “After careful consideration and consultation with University and alumni leadership, we decided that this is not the appropriate time to move forward with Columbia Giving Day.”
At Columbia, dueling pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations, an assault on an Israeli student who had been hanging posters about Israeli hostages, and inflammatory statements by some staff members have roiled the campus since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. More than 1,400 people were killed in Israel, and more than 200 are believed to be held hostage by Hamas and other armed groups. Israel has responded with an intense counteroffensive in Gaza that has killed more than 5,000 people there, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Other Ivy League universities, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, have seen high-profile donors cut ties over their dissatisfaction with how college leaders are handling student and faculty reaction to the Hamas attack, particularly taking aim at school leaders who do not speak out against pro-Palestinian student groups who have blamed only Israel for the outbreak of violence.
While Columbia administrators have condemned the “disturbing anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts, including intimidation and outright violence” on the campus in recent weeks, they have not taken specific action against any student groups or professors for expressing their views on either side of the conflict. A statement on Wednesday by the new Columbia President, Minouche Shafik, specifically mentioned that doxxing — or the public posting of individuals’ personal information — would not be tolerated, but affirmed her desire not to censor speech on either side.
“Columbia’s role is to create space for our scholars and students to fill with their own moral and intellectual conversations, an essential function in a world in which that space is narrowing,” she wrote.
The anger among Jewish alumni and donors against elite American colleges for allowing on-campus groups to suggest the Hamas attack was an act of legitimate resistance was captured in an impassioned speech last week by Shai Davidai, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School. In what he called an “Open Letter to Every Parent in America,” he called Dr. Shafik a “coward” for refusing to stand up to what he called the “pro-terror” voices on campus.
“We would never allow the KKK to march on our campus,” Professor Davidai said. “We would never allow a pro-ISIS demonstration on our campus. Can you imagine, in the city that had to endure 9/11, the worst attack on American soil, can you imagine that here we have pro-terror student organizations?”
He was referring, in part, to an on-campus demonstration held on Oct. 12, when pro-Palestinian student groups marched on campus. Among their chants, according to a list provided by the protesters, was, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Many Jews view that phrase as a call for the destruction of the state of Israel.
A speech by a leader of Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the organizing groups of the march, called the Hamas attack “an unprecedented historic moment for the Palestinians of Gaza,” according to a transcript provided by the organization to the student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator. “Despite the odds against them, Palestinians launched a counteroffensive against their settler-colonial oppressor,” the speech said.
The words echoed what Joseph Massad, a professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia, wrote online the day after the Hamas incursion. In an anti-Zionist publication, the Electronic Intifada, Professor Massad described the Hamas attack as a “stunning victory.”
An online petition calling for his removal from the faculty has gotten 57,000 signatures; a letter supporting him has hundreds of signatories.
Professor Davidai, in his remarks at a candlelit vigil that he asked students to film, likened such statements to support of terrorism and blasted the school for allowing them. The U.S. government and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
Not all pro-Palestinian groups endorse the actions of Hamas, and Professor Davidai said he considers himself pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian but anti-terror.
In an interview, Professor Davidai, an Israeli citizen, said he spoke not for any organization, but as a “liberal leftist dad who feels like he cannot protect his children.” Saying he no longer felt safe on campus, he called on the parents of current university students to contact Columbia’s administrators to demand that they do more to stop the hateful rhetoric.
He said he had received thousands of emails since his speech went viral, including some from alumni saying that they would stop donating to the school.
“I think lot of people have been sending them the message, what you’re going to run is a taking day, not a giving day, because you’re taking our money and not giving us the basic thing of protecting our children,” he said of Columbia’s postponed Giving Day event.
Some pro-Palestinian students are also frightened that their safety is at risk. Members of Students for Justice in Palestine pointed to an interview on the student radio station, with someone who identified himself as a Columbia University administrative officer at the medical center. That person said, “I hope every one of these people die,” about Columbia students demonstrating for the Palestinian cause.
A Columbia University Irving Medical Center spokesperson condemned the interview, saying that “using words that incite dangerous behavior is clearly prohibited,” the Spectator reported. Dr. Shafik did not address the interview directly, but she said in her Wednesday statement that when “speech is unlawful or violates University rules, it will not be tolerated.”
Pro-Palestinian students are also concerned about doxxing that could affect their careers and safety. Two Columbia students recently had their job offers revoked by Davis Polk, one of the country’s most prestigious law firms, because the firm believed they held leadership roles in pro-Palestinian groups that signed a letter that blamed the attack on the “Israeli extremist government and other Western governments.”
On the main Columbia campus on Monday afternoon, students lounged on the Low Library steps in the autumn sunshine, and there was no outward sign of the conflict. But just below the surface, “the tension on campus has been pretty palpable,” said Isaac Zierenberg, 21, a political science major from Utah who was sitting on a bench nearby.
“It seems like people on both sides are kind of getting very centered in their one side or the other,” he said. “There’s not a lot of room for nuance anymore.”
Liset Cruz contributed reporting.