Hundreds of Columbia Jewish students sign pro-Israel letter. Not all Jewish students agree.

Hundreds of Jewish Zionist students at Columbia University signed a letter calling for peace amid on-campus antisemitism they said arose in recent pro-Palestinian protests and asserting that "Judaism cannot be separated from Israel" – a message that some other Jewish Columbia students reject.

"We proudly believe in the Jewish People’s right to self-determination in our historic homeland as a fundamental tenet of our Jewish identity," the students wrote. "Contrary to what many have tried to sell you – no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel."

The more than 500 students who signed, as of Thursday, all listed their full names, school affiliation, and year in school.

The letter says that Jewish students at Columbia have been targeted with threats of violence and antisemitic language since the recent eruption of protests on the Manhattan campus against U.S. support for Israel's invasion of Gaza and urging the university to pull its investments from Israel. The authors write that Jewish students were subjected to comments from protesters such as, “we don’t want no Zionists here,” “death to the Zionist State,” and “go back to Poland."

The students also say that some Jewish students were blocked from entering shared parts of campus.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), an on-campus group involved with organizing the protests, did not respond to a request for comment.

Hundreds of Jewish students at Columbia University signed a letter decrying antisemitism in recent protests on campus.
Hundreds of Jewish students at Columbia University signed a letter decrying antisemitism in recent protests on campus.

Jewish Zionist students say they are the 'majority of Jews on campus'

Eliana Goldin, a junior at Columbia's School of General Studies who helped pen the letter, said its purpose was to "let the world know what Columbia Jewish students actually think and feel."

"There's such a spotlight on Columbia's campus right now, and a lot of anti-Zionist Jewish voices are being amplified, whereas the pro-Israel Jewish voices are kind of getting left behind," said Goldin, president of Aryeh, a pro-Israel student organazation. "We wanted to make sure that our voice was out there as well."

But not everyone agrees with the letter. Aharon Dardik, a sophomore at the School of General Studies and lead organizer of Columbia University Jews for Ceasefire, says the letter shut down the opportunity for a broader conversation presented by the recent protests.

"It is relying on a sort of assumption that they are already right," Dardik said of the letter and its writers. "And therefore, everything going on, that any disruption to their life, to the war efforts, is unjustified."

With around 5,000 Jewish students, according to Hillel, an on-campus Jewish organization, Columbia's student population is just over 20% Jewish, meaning around 11% of Jewish students signed the letter.

Goldin said she and the other writers wanted to assert that most Jewish students at Columbia are Zionist.

"It's important that we would be able to speak in our own name, and having people sign it, only students, would show that we are a significant, a significant majority," Goldin said. "We're more quiet about it, but we are here and we don't want to stay silent any longer."

Dardik said stating that any Jewish student critical of Israel's actions towards Palestinians and in Gaza "is a fake Jew, is not Jewish, doesn't have authentic connections to Judaism or the Jewish community, is deeply offensive and antisemitic."

"We want to say that there is a diversity of voices in the Jewish community, and they hear that as us saying that their voice is illegitimate," he added. "I think that says a lot about how they think."

Goldin said she wished "the entire world would stop getting involved" in events on Columbia's campus. "The goal of protests is to have all this media attention, and they're achieving it really well. So I wish they weren't getting as much attention as they are," she added.

Dardik, who led a protest activity in the encampment, said Zionist students are able to broadly condemn pro-Palestinian demonstrations as "too disruptive" because their position already holds "institutional power."

"If nothing changed, Columbia would still continue to fund the Israeli army indirectly through their investments and the Israeli war effort would continue on," he said. "The question here is, how are we going to change the status quo? And their answer is no, and we shouldn't even talk about it."

Goldin said many Zionist students felt uncomfortable and unsafe appearing in protests. "They don't want to feel like they have to take a side because they want to be able to criticize the Israeli government while also being a Zionist and still pro-Israel to a large degree."

"I think it merits exploration of why," Dardik said of feelings expressed by some Jewish students of being unsafe amid campus protests.

He compared those concerns to those of fellow student protesters who told him they feel uneasy with the continued police presence on campus, which the university has said will extend through commencement.

"When other communities say that they feel unsafe... it literally is due to a very intimate sense that violence could happen," Dardik said. "A lot of my peers feel unsafe when there's incredible cop presence on campus."

The university's administration first called outside police into the campus in late April when President Minouche Shafik asked the NYPD to clear Hamilton Hall, a building on campus, of protesters in a decision that sparked criticism and controversy. The protesters had barricaded themselves inside the building and renamed it "Hind's Hall" after a six-year-old Palestinian girl killed in the conflict in Gaza.

The White House condemned the protesters' takeover of the campus building and criticized the protests for "antisemitic smears and violent rhetoric." Andrew Bates, a White House assistant press secretary, condemned the term "intifada" and "other tragic and dangerous hate speech displayed in recent days."

As the president of two major on-campus Zionist organizations, Goldin said her groups have been holding smaller talks, as opposed to protests. Holding a "massive protest," she said, "quashes difference and complexity."

"The kind of activism we tried to do is more educational, more nuanced, more one on one," she said.

Dardik said pro-Israel and Zionist groups on Columbia's campus simply didn't have enough supporters to put up a protest of a similar size. "They don't have the numbers, size, and energy to engage in those protests," he said.

Columbia students received word this week that the main commencement ceremony scheduled for May 15 was canceled. The announcement came after protests against Israel's assault on Gaza roiled the campus for weeks, leading to hundreds of arrests. The university's administration also canceled in-person classes in response to the demonstrations.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Columbia Jewish students pen letter condemning 'hateful rhetoric'