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Columbia University suspends three deans for 'antisemitism' in private text messages

Decision is latest example of Ivy League schools squashing speech critical of Israel
Students walk out from George Washington University commencement ceremony in protest against war on Gaza, on 19 May 2024 (Kent Nishimura/AFP)

Columbia University has suspended three administrators, saying that they exchanged antisemitic text messages during a seminar on Jewish campus life in May.

In a letter released on Monday, Nemat Shafik, Columbia's president, said the administrators “disturbingly touched on ancient antisemitic tropes”.

"Whether intended as such or not, these sentiments are unacceptable and deeply upsetting, conveying a lack of seriousness about the concerns and the experiences of members of our Jewish community,” Shafik wrote.

The suspension came after conservative news outlet, The Washington Free Beacon, leaked photographs of the three deans’ text exchanges which included one dean using two vomit emojis in response to a reference to an article published in the Columbia student newspaper by Yonah Hain, the campus rabbi, about students’ response to 7 October.

In the article, Hain wrote "Debates about Zionism, one state or two states…are all welcome conversations on campus”, but he said statements of support for the “Palestinian Resistance” equated to the “normalization of Hamas…[and] a point-of-no-return moment at Columbia”.

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Another text exchange saw one dean ask the others if it was true that Columbia students had been kicked out of clubs for being Jewish.

The three deans include Cristen Kromm, the former dean of undergraduate student life; Matthew Patashnick, the former associate dean for student and family support; and Susan Chang-Kim, the former vice dean and chief administrative officer.

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In a separate exchange, Chang-Kim expressed her reservations about the panel speaking on antisemitism. "This is difficult to listen to but I'm trying to keep an open mind to learn about this point of view," she wrote.

In a separate text, Patashnick texted that one speaker was “taking full advantage of this moment”, adding “Huge fundraising potential”. In another exchange, the deans appeared to suggest that the parent of a Jewish student had access to Columbia administration because of her wealth.

Josef Sorett, the dean of Columbia College, also engaged in the text exchange but was not placed on leave.

The suspension of the deans is the latest example of how Ivy League schools have moved to squash any speech critical of Israel or simply challenging the view that students who express pro-Palestinian sentiment are inciting antisemitism.

Late last year, Columbia University moved to ban two pro-Palestinian student groups, Jewish Voice for Peace's student chapter and Students for Justice in Palestine.

But Ivy League schools have been hit by criticism from both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian student voices. While critics of Israel’s war on Gaza have faced repression on campus, other students have pushed the administration to clamp down even further.

On 2 July, over 1,000 Columbia students and alumni penned a letter demanding Sorett be removed along with the other deans.

Hotspot

Columbia has been the spotlight of the student protest movement in solidarity with Gaza over the past several months.

On 30 April, university administrators ordered police to conduct a sweep of the campuses of Columbia University and City College of New York. Police ended up arresting around 300 protesters, with witnesses telling Middle East Eye that police had assaulted a number of demonstrators and blocked them from receiving medical assistance.

The police raid was called after students at Columbia had taken over Hamilton Hall, a building on campus, and renamed it “Hind’s Hall”, after the six-year-old Palestinian girl was killed in February by Israeli tank fire.

Columbia also came under heavy criticism after the board of the school’s law review journal shut down the website over the publication of an article that both accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, while also calling for a new framework to look at the Palestinian issue.

Last month, alumni of the university signed a letter pledging to withhold “all financial, programmatic and academic support” to the university until a list of 13 demands is met, including a demand to divest from “all companies and institutions that fund or profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine”.

The letter, which currently has more than 2,200 signatories, also contains a demand for the university to finance the healthcare needed for the students “brutalised by the NYPD” on 30 April.

Republicans have meanwhile attacked the leadership of several top universities for not doing enough to crack down on protests.

In December, a congressional hearing was held by lawmakers in which the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania were called in to testify about their responses to the student protest movement.

Republicans used this hearing to bash these presidents and accuse them of allowing antisemitism to be expressed on campus,  referring to the pro-Palestine demonstrations.

Several days after the hearing, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill, resigned from her post. And the next month in January, Harvard's president, Claudine Gay, also resigned.

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