Congress to hear anti-Semitic testimony from Columbia president: What is in jeopardy?

Previous hearings resulted in the resignation of the bosses at UPenn and Harvard. Minouche Shafik of Columbia is now in the firing line.

Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, the president of Columbia University, will testify before a congressional committee on Wednesday. The committee is investigating claims that the Ivy League school’s administration has not done enough to shield staff and students from the growing anti-Semitism on the campus in New York City.

The university is just one of many prestigious institutions in the country that have become flashpoints for demonstrations, counterdemonstrations, and explosive claims related to Israel’s war in Gaza, which has resulted in the deaths of about 34,000 people, the majority of them women and children.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have claimed that university administrators have mistreated them and that, on occasion, they have even been physically attacked. Some have charged that administrators at the university are not doing enough to combat anti-Semitism on campus.

A congressional committee has been looking into claims that universities have not done enough to protect students from anti-Semitism in the midst of these heightened tensions. Shafik, the university’s first female president who was appointed last year, has a lot on the line. Columbia University has been accused of “some of the worst cases of anti-Semitic assaults, harassment, and vandalism on campus” by Republican committee chairwoman Virginia Foxx.

Two people have already been eliminated by the House investigation: Elizabeth Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), and Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard. Both women were the targets of similar accusations and criticism for their answers to the congressional committee.

This article examines the nature of the controversy, the ways in which wartime divisions have manifested at Columbia, and potential future developments as Shafik gets ready to address the House panel.

What’s the backdrop?

The presidents of MIT, Harvard, and Penn State were called to testify before Congress on anti-Semitism towards the end of last year, drawing unwanted attention to three of the nation’s best universities.

It was hailed as a victory for House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, a self-described “ultra-MAGA” who had ambushed the three (MIT President Sally Kornbluth, Harvard’s Gay, and University of Pennsylvania’s Magill) at the conclusion of a five-hour questioning session, demanding a “yes” or “no” response regarding whether or not demonstrators chanting for the extermination of Jews were violating university speech policies.

The legalistic answers of Magill, Gay, and Kornbluth in the December hearing drew bipartisan condemnation, despite the fact that Stefanik and other members of the House committee did not provide any evidence of chants advocating for the genocide of Jews on these university campuses.

All three hesitated, claiming that it depended on the situation in different ways. Stefanik’s indignant analysis of their awkward answers went viral. Following a partisan backlash, Magill resigned, and Gay did the same in response to a series of additional plagiarism accusations.

A bipartisan resolution criticizing the college elders for their “evasive and dismissive” testimony was passed by the House a few days after the hearing, thanks to the efforts of Representatives Jared Moskowitz, Josh Gottheimer, and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise.

Shafik’s hearing is going to be difficult whether or not heads roll this time around. Christopher Armstrong, a partner at Holland & Knight who defends clients facing congressional investigations, characterizes the situation as “the Wild West.” “It’s a minefield for witnesses, with cameras in Congress and our politics growing more divided and heated.”

What’s the case against Columbia?

Legislators stepped up their scrutiny of colleges soon after the December hearing. They launched an official investigation into the disciplinary policies and learning environments at MIT, Harvard, and Penn, and later expanded it to include Columbia in February.

Committee Chairwoman Foxx claimed that “an environment of pervasive antisemitism” had been documented at the university for more than 20 years prior to the start of the current war on Gaza following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. She sent a letter (PDF) to Columbia’s leadership demanding that they turn over a plethora of documents.

With reference to multiple instances of verbal and physical abuse, intimidation, and harassment, Foxx stated in the letter that “we have grave concerns regarding the inadequacy of Columbia’s response to antisemitism on its campus.”

She brought up the distribution of leaflets with the slogan “from the river to the sea” on campuses. This is a Palestinian demand for independence from the occupation, which Israel’s detractors claim it has attempted to misrepresent as an anti-Semitic or even genocidal cry. Foxx cited the presence of demonstrators supporting the Intifada, or what Palestinians have called civil uprisings against Israel’s occupation of territory recognized internationally as belonging to Palestine, as well as the display of posters featuring images of a blue and white skunk with a Star of David on its back. Foxx also brought up support on college campuses for Houthi fighters from Yemen’s attacks on ships in the Red Sea that are associated with Israel.

Rights activists claim that the House committee is demonstrating its lack of concern for people’s rights and safety on campus by attempting to punish chants that support legitimate Palestinian protest and aspirations for freedom from occupation. Instead, they claim that the committee is more interested in partisan politics.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression in Philadelphia has Alex Morey as its director of campus rights advocacy. He draws comparisons between the Vietnam War and the McCarthy era.

She warned that there is a chance Congress will forget the “law of the land” and conduct investigations without adhering to “the proper procedures”. “We have First Amendment concerns if we have Congress using subjective standards.”

“The threat of punishment can chill speech.”

What’s the mood on campus?

Shafik is a British-American economist of Egyptian descent who has held senior positions at organizations such as the Bank of England. She most recently served as the director of the London School of Economics prior to taking up her current role at Columbia last year.

Even though Shafik has maintained that the Ivy League school is “not an ivory tower,” the accusations of anti-Semitism it faces are primarily centered around the perception of universities as liberal bastions of privilege.

Considered a possible running mate for Donald Trump in the November election, Stefanik went on a fundraising spree for political causes after becoming well-known in December of last year, raising $7.1 million in the first quarter of this year.

Shafik, meantime, has encountered opposition at Columbia from all quarters. The university suspended the Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine chapters in November of last year, citing policy violations by the organizations. Shafik is one of the defendants in a lawsuit that the New York Civil Liberties Union and a Palestinian rights organization filed at the Manhattan state supreme court.

The university engaged a public investigation firm to target pro-Palestinian students who organized a Resistance 101 event in March, ahead of the congressional hearing. Shafik claimed in a statement that “speakers who are known to support terrorism and promote violence” were present at the event. Six students were suspended and expelled, according to the university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

According to Morey, pro-Palestinian students have been subjected to the most severe punishments. There is no doubt that many administrators are keeping an eye on them. Funders and lawmakers are exerting pressure, and when that happens, censorship is put under pressure, the speaker stated.
Critics claim that the examination of US campuses has put universities’ capacity to defend free speech to the test.

“We see a lot of emphasis on diversity and inclusion, which is displacing fundamental rights like free speech,” Morey said. “We do not deny the value of diversity, but freedom of speech is essential.”

What next?

On April 17, the hearing begins at 10:15 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (14:15 GMT). Although there isn’t a predetermined path, congressional investigations typically try to make sure that current laws are followed or provide information for the creation of new legislation.

Congressional committees possess extensive investigative powers, which include the authority to penalize entities believed to be impeding advancement. This was demonstrated in February when Foxx served subpoenas to Harvard officials for neglecting to handle the anti-Semitism investigation with “appropriate seriousness.”

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