Columbia President Grilled During Congressional Hearing on Campus Antisemitism

Appearing before the House Education Committee, Minouche Shafik was grilled by Republican representatives.
April 18, 2024
President of Columbia University Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, David Schizer, Dean Emeritus and Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law & Economics, and Columbia Law School, Co-Chair of Board of Trustees at Columbia University Claire Shipman testify before the House Committee on Education & the Workforce at Rayburn House Office Building on April 17, 2024 in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on “Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University’s Response to Antisemitism.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik was grilled by lawmakers during congressional testimony on April 17 over how the university has handled antisemitism on campus.

Shafik began her testimony by claiming that she is “doing everything I can” to fight antisemitism on campus; she and the other members of the university’s leadership testifying — Board of Trustees Co-Chairs Claire Shipman and David Greenwald and Columbia Law School Dean Emeritus and Antisemitism Task Force Co-Chair David Schizer — all answered “yes” when asked if calls for genocide against Jews violated university policy. But the atmosphere grew tense when the questions turned to specific actions.

“Today’s hearing of Columbia University president and board members epitomizes the failed leadership on ‘elite’ college campuses to combat antisemitism and protect Jewish students.” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.)

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) noted that Shafik had responded to an earlier question during the hearing that there have been no anti-Jewish protests on campus; Stefanik asked the other three Columbia leaders if they agreed with that statement. Schizer, Shipman and Greenwald all said there have been antisemitic protests and events on campus. Stefanik turned her attention back to Shafik, and pointed out that campus protests have featured chants like, “F— Jews,” “Death to Jews” and “Death to the Zionist state.” “You don’t think those are anti-Jewish?” Stefanik asked.

“Completely anti-Jewish. Completely unacceptable,” replied Shafik.

Stefanik pressed if that meant that Shafik would change her testimony, to which Shafik said the protests weren’t labeled as “anti-Jewish.” “The question wasn’t, ‘what is it labeled,’” interjected Stefanik. When Stefanik asked again if anti-Jewish protests occurred on campus, Shafik said that “anti-Jewish things were said at protests, yes.”

After Shafik explained that the university has a system where people can report antisemitic incidents and that the university could take action ranging from training to suspension against perpetrators, Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) asked Shafik if “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “long live the intifada” were antisemitic. Shafik replied that she found such phrases “very upsetting.”

“That’s a great answer to a question I didn’t ask,” McClain countered, and repeated the question. Shafik responded: “I hear them as such, but some people don’t.” McClain chided for Shafik for not answering “a simple question,” so she asked the task force if they view such chants as antisemitic. After they answered in the affirmative, Shafik said, “We agree.” McClain asked if that means she thinks “there should be some consequences to that antisemitic behavior,” Shafik replied: “Yes.”

Shafik also told Stefanik that the university has “some disciplinary cases ongoing around that language. We have specified that those kinds of chants should be restricted in terms of where they happened.”

On the issue of faculty members, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said that Columbia Professor Joseph Massad referred to the Oct. 7 massacre as “awesome” and “stunning” and previously referred to Israelis as “cruel and bloodthirsty colonizers” and yelled at a Jewish student to “get out of my classroom.” “Do you stand behind Professor Massad remaining chair of the Academic Review Committee given his support for terrorism and harassing Jewish students?” asked Walberg. Shafik claimed that she believed Massad no longer chairs that committee; however, Stefanik pointed out that Columbia’s website still states that Massad chairs the committee.

“I would need to check that,” Shafik told her.

Stefanik asked if she would commit to removing Massad from the chair position that day, Shafik said she would commit to coming “back to you with the facts.” Stefanik then asked the other Columbia leaders if they believe Massad should remain as the chair of that committee; Shipman said she personally didn’t believe he should be. Greenwald called Massad’s reported remarks “abhorrent and I believe that one of the steps that we could take in terms of discipline is to remove him from that leadership position.”

Shafik also testified that Massad had “been spoken to” about his reported remarks about Oct. 7 When Stefanik pressed for specifics, Shafik said that the professor was told his comments were not acceptable and “he has not repeated anything like that ever since.” “Does he need to repeat stating that the massacre of Israeli civilians was ‘awesome’? Does he need to repeat his participation in an unauthorized pro-Hamas demonstration on April 4?” countered Stefanik, asking if Shafik agreed with the university not taking disciplinary action against Massad. Shafik responded that the university has more than 4,700 faculty members and most of them “spend all of their time dedicated to teaching their students.”

“But I am talking about the faculty members who are supporting terror,” Stefanik fired back.

Massad told the Associated Press that he was not admonished and that he is still the chair of the committee until “his term ends in the coming weeks.” He also claimed that “members of Congress distorted his comments, and he disputed praising the killing of 1,200 Jews.”

Massad was not the only faculty member accused of supporting terror during the hearing. Stefanik pointed to Mohamed Abdou, a visiting professor at Columbia’s Middle East Institute. Stefanik said that on Oct. 11 Abdou posted, ‘Yes, I am with Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad,’ … He also decried false reports accusing Arabs and Muslims of decapitating the heads of children and being rapists. We know that there were decapitations of babies, of Israeli innocent civilians of seniors, of women, there were rapes, and yet Columbia hired this individual as a professor. How did that hiring process work?”

Shafik replied that she found Abdou’s social media posts repugnant and declared that “he will never work at Columbia again.” When Stefanik pressed further, she clarified that “he is grading his students’ papers and will never teach at Columbia again.” However, Stefanik later pointed out that Abdou “is on campus at the unsanctioned anti-Israel antisemitic event that is being supported by pro-Hamas activists on campus, so that’s what Professor Abdou is doing at this very moment.”

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) questioned Shafik about how a glossary provided by the Columbia School of Social Work to students defines “Ashkenormativity” as “’a system of oppression that favors white Jewish folx” [sic]… This is handed out to your students,” he said.

“By other students,” replied Shafik. “It is not a product of the faculty of Columbia University … it is something that a group of students produced. I don’t agree with it, I think it’s not very useful, I don’t condone it.”

Banks then asked Shafik why the guidebook spelled the word “folx” with an “x.” “They don’t know how to spell?” Shafik responded.

Banks proceeded to ask the other three Columbia leaders about the guidebook. Schizer called the “Askenormativity” term as “shockingly offensive.” Shipman said it was “outrageous” and that the board has discussed running all material that appears to “be run by the dean.” Shafik proclaimed that the university would ensure that that guidebook “is not part of any orientation process.”

At one point, Rep. Bob Good (R-Penn.) asked Shafik if there have been any anti-Muslim or anti-Arab protests on campus; Shafik began to answer by that there have been pro-Israel protests and that “there have been many incidents” before Good interjected, “The answer would be no, correct?” “Yes,” Shafik replied.

Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, gave a speech to “set the record straight.” She said it was “misleading” for Shafik claim earlier in her testimony that “there have been 15 suspensions related antisemitic incidents.” Foxx claimed that there have been only three students subjected to interim suspensions over antisemitic incidents between Oct. 7 and March 23 and “all three were lifted or dropped to probation,” one of which was a student shouted, “F— the Jews.” Further, while Columbia did suspend 10 students over the “Resistance 101” event that featured speakers praising terror, Foxx pointed out that suspensions were lifted for five of those students after the university concluded that they weren’t involved. The only two students whose suspensions given before Shafik was called to testify that still remain in force are Jewish students who sprayed an odorous substance toward pro-Palestinian protesters, according to Foxx.

However, Foxx claimed that documents that the committee obtained from the university revealed that the substance that the two Jewish students sprayed “was a non-toxic gag spray.” “While that was an inappropriate action, for months Jewish students have been vilified with false accusations of a ‘chemical attack’ and Columbia failed to correct the record,” Foxx said.

Stefanik said in a statement posted to social media after the hearing, “Today’s hearing of Columbia University president and board members epitomizes the failed leadership on ‘elite’ college campuses to combat antisemitism and protect Jewish students. From the university president’s moral equivocation on antisemitism, to glaringly inconsistent testimony regarding disciplinary action and lack thereof taken against antisemitic students and pro-terrorist faculty, to astonishingly stating that there has been no ‘anti-Jewish’ protests on campus only to then acknowledge that ‘F– the Jews’ & ‘Death to the Jews’ is in-fact anti-Jewish when she was further pressed.”

She also alleged that during a break, “the witnesses were overheard discussing how well they thought their testimony was going for Columbia. This arrogance is eerily reminiscent to the previous three university presidents who believed walking out of the hearing that their testimony was acceptable. Columbia is in for a reckoning of accountability.” “If it takes a member of Congress to force a university president to fire a pro-terrorist, antisemitic faculty chair, then Columbia University leadership is failing Jewish students and its academic mission,” added Stefanik. “No amount of overlawyered, overprepped, and over-consulted testimony is going to cover up for failure to act.”

Also during the hearing, in response to a question from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Shafik revealed that Professor Shai Davidai is being investigated for harassment and that he has more than 50 complaints against him. “I’m used to being attacked, but attacking our students is unacceptable,” Shafik said.

However, in a video posted to YouTube, Davidai said that Shafik knowingly lied about why he was being investigated. “I am being investigated for my social media activity,” Davidai claimed, “which is open to everyone … and it starts with that Oct. 18 in that video when I say that rape is never okay. That is what I am being investigated for. I have never harassed or targeted any individual student at Columbia.”

Davidai lambasted Shafik’s testimony, accusing her of lying to Congress; he lauded Stefanik for calling Shafik out on them. Davidai claimed that Abdou is still listed as a visiting professor on the Middle East Institute’s website and that Abdou took part in the unauthorized pro-Palestinian protest that occurred on campus on April 17. He referred to the testimony from Shafik and the other university leaders as consisting of  “vacuous rhetoric.” “They have prepared for months for this and have done absolutely nothing,” Davidai said. “They could have spent this time stopping these protests. They could have spent this time actually enforcing the suspension of SJP and JVP. They could have spent this time actually enforcing the suspension of the student organizers who invited a terrorist to campus under ‘Resistance 101.’ One of those students is still in their dorm room refusing to evacuate after two weeks.

“She lied, she distorted the truth and she spent all of her time preparing her rhetoric so she can kind of lie her way through Congress and do nothing to protect the Jewish and Israeli community,” Davidai said, and that Shafik “is unwilling to deal with the moment … and she needs to step down now.”

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