Columbia University faces full-blown crisis as rabbi calls for Jewish students to ‘return home’

CNNColumbia University is facing a full-blown crisis heading into Passover as a rabbi linked to the Ivy League school urged Jewish students to stay home and tense confrontations on campus sparked condemnation from the White House and New York officials.

The atmosphere is so charged that Columbia officials announced students can attend classes and even possibly take exams virtually starting Monday – the first day of Passover, a major Jewish holiday set to begin in the evening.

Tensions at Columbia, and many universities, have been high ever since the October 7 terror attack on Israel by Hamas. However, the situation at Columbia escalated in recent days after university officials testified before Congress last week about antisemitism on campus and pro-Palestinian protests on and near campus surged.

The latest crisis has opened Columbia President Minouche Shafik up to new attacks from her critics, with Republican US Rep. Elise Stefanik demanding she step down immediately because school leadership has “clearly lost control of its campus.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx, the Republican chair of the House Education Committee, sent a letter on Sunday to university leaders warning them of consequences if they do not rein in protests on campus.

“Columbia’s continued failure to restore order and safety promptly to campus constitutes a major breach of the University’s Title VI obligations, upon which federal financial assistance is contingent, and which must immediately be rectified,” Foxx wrote.

Underscoring concerns about student safety, Rabbi Elie Buechler, a rabbi associated with Columbia University’s Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, confirmed to CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that he sent a WhatsApp message to a group of about 300 mostly Orthodox Jewish students “strongly” recommending they return home and remain there.

In his message, Buechler wrote that recent events at the university “have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety.”

“It deeply pains me to say that I would strongly recommend you return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved,” the message reads.

White House condemns calls for violence against Jews

The situation at Columbia has even drawn the attention of the White House, joining local leaders in urging calm.

“While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement shared with CNN on Sunday. The statement did not include examples of those incidents.

President Joe Biden similarly said Sunday, “Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews. This blatant antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous – and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.”

In response, organizers of the protest — Columbia University Apartheid Divest and Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine — said in a statement, “We have been peaceful,” and distanced themselves from non-student protestors who have gathered outside the campus, calling them “inflammatory individuals who do not represent us.”

“We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand vigilant against non-students attempting to disrupt the solidarity being forged among students – Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, Jewish, Black and pro-Palestinian classmates and colleagues who represent the full diversity of our country,” the activists’ statement continued.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said on X that threatening Jewish students with violence is antisemitism. “The First Amendment protects the right to protest but students also have a right to learn in an environment free from harassment or violence,” the Democratic governor said.

In a statement, New York Mayor Eric Adams said the city’s police department has an “increased presence of officers” in the area around Columbia’s campus “to protect students and all New Yorkers on nearby public streets.”

The Democratic mayor said he was “horrified and disgusted with the antisemitism being spewed at and around the Columbia University campus.”

‘Discomfort and fear’

In a Sunday statement to CNN, a university spokesperson said the safety of Columbia’s community is “our number one priority.”

The statement added, “We are acting on concerns we are hearing from our Jewish students and are providing additional support and resources to ensure that our community remains safe.”

While Buechler called for Jewish students to stay home, the campus Hillel said in a Sunday post on X that they “do not believe that Jewish students should leave” the campus.

“This is a time of genuine discomfort and even fear for many of us on campus,” the Hillel said in a statement. “Columbia University and the City of New York must do more to protect students. We call on the University Administration to act immediately in restoring calm to campus. The City must ensure that students can walk up and down Broadway and Amsterdam without fear of harassment.”

Throughout Passover, there will be a police presence at the Kraft Center, a Jewish cultural center shared by Columbia and Barnard, and campus public safety will provide walking escorts to and from the building starting Monday, according to an email from Brian Cohen, the center’s executive director.

Chabad, a Jewish organization the University, said on Facebook they’ve hired additional security to protect students during Passover. They said they were “horrified by what we witnessed last night on and near Columbia’s campus,” but still planned to host Passover celebrations on campus.

The rabbi sent the message after videos circulated showing a man outside the university saying, “Never forget the seventh of October,” and “that will happen not one more time, not five more times, not 10 more times, not 100 more times, not 1,000 more times, but 10,000 times!”

A video taken on the university’s campus Saturday night also shows a small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators chanting, “F**k Israel. Israel is a b*tch,” while waving the Palestinian flag.

In addition to the student protests on campus, groups of protesters have also gathered outside the campus gates. It’s unclear from the video whether the person yelling is affiliated with the university.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest addressed the “unassociated incidents” in an Instagram story, writing that their “priority is the safety of all,” which “includes not antagonizing counter protestors or escalating situations unnecessarily.”

The encampment began the same day Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, testified before Congress about antisemitism on campus.

Speaking with CNN, one Jewish Columbia student highlighted the hazards risked by the students protesting as well as interfaith prayers and a Seder service at the encampment.

“Columbia students organizing in solidarity with Palestine – including Jewish students – have faced harassment, doxxing, and now arrest by the NYPD. These are the main threats to the safety of Jewish Columbia students,” Jonathan Ben-Menachem, a PhD student, told CNN.

“On the other hand, student protesters have led interfaith joint prayers for several days now, and Passover Seder will be held at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment tomorrow,” he went on. “Saying that student protesters are a threat to Jewish students is a dangerous smear.”

Another student, Noah Lederman, told CNN he was “terrified, angry, upset, and horrified that the university failed to take action.” Lederman said he had been accosted in early February and had asked the university for remote learning options. “What’s happening on campus is blatantly antisemitic,” he added.

Students will be permitted to attend classes virtually due to the ongoing demonstrations, a university spokesperson told CNN on Sunday.

‘Gaza Solidarity Encampment’ enters its fifth day

Sunday marked a fifth day of demonstrations at the prestigious school, with students camping out overnight on the school’s lawns.

Columbia’s Campus Rabbi Yonah Hain shared a statement with CNN saying the university’s Center for Jewish Student Life is and will remain open and is welcoming students.

On Thursday, the university’s president requested the NYPD remove student protestors, leading to the arrest of over 100 people. “The students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner,” said NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell.

CNN has reached out to Columbia University and the university’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing for more information on their investments and for comment on the protest organizers’ allegations.

The encampment was jointly organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest – a student-led coalition of more than 100 organizations – Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace, to protest what they describe as the university’s “continued financial investment in corporations that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and military occupation of Palestine,” according to a news release from Columbia University Apartheid Divest.

In response to

The protests come as the death toll of Israel’s war in Gaza has continued to rise. At least 34,097 Palestinians have been killed and 76,980 injured since October, according to the enclave’s health ministry. Israel launched ongoing attacks after a Hamas attack on October 7 killed more than 1,200 people.

The demonstrations – and the suspension and arrests of students involved – have inspired solidarity rallies at other universities, including Yale, Harvard, the University of North Carolina, and Boston University.

Allegations of violence have also appeared at some of these other demonstrations.

A Yale sophomore, Sahar Tartak, says another student assaulted her with a Palestinian flag Saturday while she was documenting a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus. Video of the incident from Tartak shows a student passing by while holding a Palestinian flag before the person filming exclaims, “Ow, ow!”

Yale’s Office of Public Affairs said in a statement, “The Yale Police Department is investigating a report of an assault that occurred during a protest on Beinecke Plaza. The university does not tolerate violence, threats, harassment, or intimidation of members of our community, and is providing support to a student who made the report.”

In January, the International Court of Justice found that Israel was “plausibly” violating laws on genocide in its war on Gaza and ordered Israel to take “all measures” to prevent genocide.

In response, Israel rejected what it called the “grossly distorted” accusation of genocide leveled against it by South Africa over its military action in Gaza, telling the United Nations’ top court the case was an attempt to “pervert the meaning” of the term.

One Columbia law school student, Elijah Emery, who is Jewish, told CNN Sunday that “the right of peaceful protest is paramount.”

“I’m personally extremely disturbed by the use of the police to disrupt the encampment,” he said. “It was a mistake by the university. It made me more supportive of the encampment and what it represents about free speech.”

He contrasted the “pretty peaceful” environment on campus with the more energized demonstrations outside campus, referencing “deeply disheartening” incidents that took place Saturday night outside campus by people Emery said were not affiliated with the university. He added that some more observant Jewish friends of his had experienced harassment but that Jewish students should feel safe on campus.

“Especially during the day, I’m never really worried about anything getting out of hand,” he said.

CNN’s Sarah Dewberry, Sam Fossum, Caroll Alvarado, Paradise Afshar and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.