The co-president of a Sikh student group at Columbia University’s Barnard College is claiming that she was forced out of her position in the club in December simply for being pro-Israel.
The student, who identified herself solely as Simran, told her story in a Jan. 29 episode of “The Uproar,” a podcast hosted by Columbia student Eliana Goldin to tell people what’s happening on campus since Oct. 7. Simran, a psychology senior at Barnard, was the co-president of Sewa, which describes itself as being “a social justice and community service organization that is based upon the Sikh value of sewa (selfless service).”
Simran explained that the pressure on campus to “socially conform” to the pro-Palestinian view has intensified ever since the university’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) were suspended. The suspension of the two chapters was a catalyst in the revival of the Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) coalition that had been inactive since 2020; the coalition calls for both the SJP and JVP chapters to be reinstated with an apology, a ceasefire in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and the university to cease ties with Tel Aviv University on their joint program, among other demands. Initially, Simran felt like there was minimal interest from Sewa members to sign onto CUAD, primarily out of concern of it potentially harming their future employment opportunities, but some members did “recognize Oct. 7 as a tragedy.”
“As president of the group, I felt a responsibility to protect the social and career interests of everyone in the group,” Simran said. “I thought that staying sort of neutral group but obviously allowing members to do what they wanted in their free time was the best way to go. I think it’s damaging to conflate an entire religion with one view or another on such a polarizing issue.”
However, in November Sewa faced “immense pressure” from a couple of recent alumni to sign onto the CUAD’s demands and that “there was a lot of shaming going on” for not doing so. Simran, who is open about her pro-Israel views, claimed she got a lot of messages from Sewa members about how they did not want to sign onto the CUAD’s demands, and thus Sewa decided to remain neutral.
But the group again faced “resistance” from alumni, and there were a couple of older members in Sewa who were vocal about wanting to sign on, which Simran believes had some sway over younger members who wanted to run for leadership positions in the club. Consequently, Sewa decided to put the issue up to a majority vote rather than a unanimous vote, a move that Simran viewed as “very, very dangerous” for “individuals that may not share those views to be labeled as supporting CUAD.” The vote in Sewa was held anonymously, and 75% voted in support of signing onto CUAD’s demands; an unspecified number of members voted to abstain.
A few days later, the co-president of Simran’s chapter of Sewa told her during a FaceTime conversation that “my personal views have made individuals in the club and that it was their belief that had I not been co-president, they would have reached the same decision to sign onto CUAD sooner. So for that reason, they had given me the option to either step down and resign as co-president, or be put through a formal impeachment process.” Simran then decided to resign.
Simran believes that she was discriminated for simply being supportive of Israel. “Some of these people I was so close with that were like my family, I am never going to speak to again in my life,” she said, “because I was discriminated against for a personal view. They told me how to practice my religion and shamed me for not practicing it a certain way. And it’s sad.”
She has been in contact with both Columbia and Barnard about the matter. “I do feel the support of the university behind me,” Simran said. She has no intention of returning to Sewa.
Simran herself became pro-Israel when she attended a Jewish preschool. “It’s not even about being pro-Israel, it’s just seeing an issue a little more objectively than how the world wants to see it,” she said. Simran does not really consider herself to be a political person.
The reason why so many people are pro-Palestinian at Columbia is because it’s “trendy” in the “social justice warrior” campus culture, Simran opined.
She believes that a way to create more dialogue would be for groups like Students Supporting Israel (SSI) to engage more with other religious groups on campus. “I think that if SSI were to speak to religious leaders the way that we’re getting like a million [direct messages] from SJP and JVP … it would be easier for groups to be bipartisan at the least, if not so vehemently pro-Palestine,” Simran said.
A university spokesperson said in a statement to the Journal, “We encourage everyone in our community to report if they feel they’ve experienced bias. You can access the form to report here.” The spokesperson elaborated that this statement is more of a generalized comment and that the university cannot comment on any individual cases due to confidentiality policies.
Sewa did not respond to the Journal’s requests for comment.