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‘I’m Ready to Leave This Campus’: Jewish Students at Columbia Feel Discomfort and Isolation Following Thursday’s Unrest

In the months since Oct. 7, Columbia has at times felt like a battleground as pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students have faced off against each other and, often, the university administration.
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April 21, 2024
Students and pro-Palestinian activists face police as they gather outside of Columbia University to protest the university’s stance on Israel on April 18, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Yakira Galler, a first-year student at Barnard College, has had trouble sleeping.

Galler has an apartment that looks out onto Broadway, which divides Columbia University’s campus from Barnard, its women’s college. Each night this week, she has heard crowds of protesters banging pots and pans, chanting “Intifada, revolution” and calling for the Ivy League university to divest from Israel.

The street protests accompanied a much larger on-campus demonstration that devolved into unrest on Thursday, when the university asked police to dismantle an encampment pro-Palestinian students had set up; more than 100 people were arrested. The scenes from Thursday drew global attention, a statement from the mayor and passionate debate over the limits of campus civil disobedience.

For Galler, though, seeing hundreds of students — including some she knows — protesting Israel brought her back to a different time of trauma, not long ago: The days after Hamas attacked Israel, killing some 1,200 people and launching the war in Gaza.

“Wednesday at Hillel felt like October,” she said. “I remember speaking to one of the Hillel professionals, just telling her that all I feel is anger and I feel like I’m being radicalized and I don’t want to be.”

She added, “I just want to be able to think clearly and in a nuanced way and rationally but I am so overcome with these emotions.”

In the months since Oct. 7, Columbia has at times felt like a battleground as pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students have faced off against each other and, often, the university administration. Thursday’s protest represented an escalation of those tensions, with police entering campus and loading students into NYPD vans.

Reflecting on Thursday’s unrest, Jewish students, most of them in and around the Kraft Center for Jewish Life, where Hillel is housed, told JTA that they felt uncomfortable and unheard on campus. Some said they’re glad the school year is almost over.

Daniel Barth, who graduated last semester and will be participating in commencement ceremonies next month, said he appreciated his time at Columbia and the vibrant political debates on campus. But Barth, who wears a kippah, says that practice has been “tested” recently, including when someone spit near him.

“I’m ready to leave this campus,” he said. “I thought it would be a lot more bittersweet, but I think it’s just a sense of relief. I’m not necessarily attached to being here anymore.”

Ezra Dayanim, also a senior, is enrolled in Columbia’s joint undergraduate program with the Jewish Theological Seminary. He happened to be in a class on political protest when he learned about the arrests on Thursday and said they drove home for him that constructive debate feels impossible at his school.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been far larger and louder than pro-Israel ones, he said. And he feels discussion has been difficult because pro-Palestinian groups have a policy of not engaging with Zionist groups. (The school suspended its chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group, last semester — a core grievance among pro-Palestinian protesters.)

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