Biden denounces campus antisemitism amid Columbia University arrest scandal

New York, New York - President Joe Biden condemned any antisemitism on college campuses Sunday, as pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University spent their fifth day demanding the school sever financial ties with Israel.

Students occupy the campus ground of Columbia University with their Gaza Solidarity Encampment.
Students occupy the campus ground of Columbia University with their Gaza Solidarity Encampment.  © Alex Kent / AFP

Students camped out on university grounds are calling for the prestigious New York school, which has an exchange program with Tel Aviv University, to boycott all activities associated with Israel in light of the country's brutal siege of Gaza.

"Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews. This blatant anti-Semitism is reprehensible and dangerous – and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country," Biden said in a statement ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins Monday night.

Universities have become the focus of intense debate in the United States, as many students' pro-Palestinian demonstrations have drawn accusations of antisemitism. The crackdown on peaceful protests has sparked fears for free speech rights and academic freedom.

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A rabbi associated with an Orthodox Jewish student organization at Columbia "strongly" advised Jewish students to go home Sunday, CNN reported.

Recent events "have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the (New York Police Department) NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students' safety," Rabbi Elie Buechler wrote in a message to about 300 students, according to CNN.

Hillel, another Jewish organization at Columbia, however, said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Jewish students should not leave campus, but that the university should "do more to ensure the safety of our students."

According to student newspaper the Columbia Spectator, "a group of around 10 pro-Israel counterprotesters faced instances of antisemitism at (campus landmark) the Sundial Saturday night, according to interviews with students and videos."

During the demonstration Sunday, "Music continued to play as students, some laying on blue tarps, others sitting in camping chairs with laptops, talked among each other," the Spectator reported.

Social media images posted Friday appeared to show Muslim and Jewish pro-Palestinian student protesters all praying together in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, organized by the Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

Columbia University calls NYPD on student protesters

Columbia University President Nemat Shafik testifies before a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on "Columbia University's Response to Antisemitism."
Columbia University President Nemat Shafik testifies before a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on "Columbia University's Response to Antisemitism."  © REUTERS

Tensions were particularly high Thursday, when 108 protesters were arrested after university president Nemat Shafik requested police intervention to disperse the crowd, who she said had violated campus security regulations.

New York Police Chief of Patrol Services John Chell told reporters "the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner" and that there were "no incidents," but that a separate group gathered and shouted insults at the officers.

The daughter of Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar was among those detained.

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New York Mayor Eric Adams on Sunday said he was "horrified and disgusted" by reports of antisemitism at Columbia, and that police "will not hesitate to arrest anyone who is found to be breaking the law."

However, he said, "Columbia University is a private institution on private property, which means the NYPD cannot have a presence on campus unless specifically requested by senior university officials."

Columbia University president questioned by Congress

The strained scenes came the same week that university president Shafik appeared in Congress, where she said "antisemitism has no place on our campus."

During the hearing, Representative Omar questioned Shafik about an apparent chemical attack by two Israeli students at an on-campus pro-Palestine rally earlier this year.

Palestinian rights protesters – many of whom are Jewish – insist they are standing up for peace, not hate.

Columbia University currently faces a lawsuit after it bypassed normal procedures to suspend its SJP and JVP chapters last November.

Cover photo: Alex Kent / AFP

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