On May 16, the Task Force on Antisemitism published an op-ed in the Spectator addressing results from listening sessions held over the past academic year. In response, Columbia professor and producer James Schamus published an op-ed in Mondoweiss, condemning the Task Force. 

On November 1, 2023, the University announced the creation of the Task Force on Antisemitism in order “to enhance [the University’s] ability to address [antisemitism]” and maintain a safe campus in the wake of reported antisemitic behavior during the preceding month. Over the course of the 2023-2024 academic year, the Task Force, led by co-chairs Ester Fuchs, Nicholas Lemann, and David Schizer, held various listening sessions and published a report addressing their findings. This report, released on March 4, 2024, called for increased enforcement of the Interim University Policy for Safe Demonstrations

On May 16, after the conclusion of the Spring 2024 semester, the Task Force on Antisemitism published an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Spectator addressing their findings from listening sessions, acknowledging that further reports will be published “in the coming months.” The Task Force stated that around two dozen listening sessions “centered on students but open to a wide variety of affiliates” were held at various schools within the University.

In response to this op-ed, Columbia School of the Arts professor James Schamus published an op-ed in Mondoweiss, a Jewish-led news publication reporting on Palestine and Israel from the perspective of the United States. In the op-ed, Schamus criticized the goals of the Task Force, claiming that their “purported fight against antisemitism is wrapped up in the administration’s ongoing efforts to crush political speech regarding Israel on campus.” 

The op-ed also claimed that the Task Force “has made a point of refusing to define what it means by ‘antisemitism,’” also referencing an email chain between Schamus and Co-chair Lemann where Lemann stated in January that the Task Force had not come to a conclusion regarding a definition. News organization The Intercept reported that in a listening session, Co-chair Fuchs “yell[ed] at students who questioned the group’s refusal to define ‘antisemitism,’” stating that defining the term was “not the purpose of” the Task Force. Ultimately, during the April 17 congressional hearing on antisemitism, Co-chair Schizer stated that the definition of antisemitism is “bias against Jewish people which can manifest as ethnic slurs, stereotyping, Holocaust denial, double standards as applies to Israel, and antisemitic tropes.”

In their op-ed, the Task Force wrote that the feedback received in listening sessions “amounts to a heartbreaking account of harassment and exclusion—things that should never happen to Columbia students because of their identity, but do happen far too often to many Jewish students.” While the contents of the listening sessions were kept confidential, the Task Force provided an anonymized account of specific participants’ experiences. “We are not assigned or empowered to handle specific incidents, but to look for patterns that need to be addressed,” the Task Force stated. 

Firstly, the Task Force declared that the “dominant note” of the 2023-2024 protests “has been anger at the state of Israel—increasingly, not just its government’s policies but the fact of its existence as a Jewish state.” It gave an example of the term “Zionist” being used pejoratively and stated that the “distinction between Israel and Jews” has started to blur. Schamus, however, attested that “this blurring… is performed and now enforced crucially [by the Task Force,” condemning the “conflation of Judaism with Zionism.” 

“It is usually only Israelis and Jews who are asked to assure people, as the price of acceptance, that they are not ‘Zionists.’” the Task Force stated. “That is about as clear-cut a case of discrimination as one can find,” they claimed. Schamus responded that the Task Force’s sentiment “indicates that Columbia faculty and students critical of Israel and Zionism may well be in real danger should the Task Force deliver on its currently-stated goals.” 

In listening sessions, the Task Force stated that they heard various students have been unable to participate in activities or feel safe on campus “if they consider themselves to be ‘Zionist.’” They also referenced alleged instances of “Jewish insignia,” such as kippot, six-pointed stars, or mezuzahs, “being torn down or pulled off of students’ bodies” or property. The Task Force also reported hearing that “Jewish and Israeli students described being singled out in class by their teachers and subjected to public ostracism, in the name of making them answer for the supposed misdeeds of the Israeli government.” 

The Task Force on Antisemitism concluded their op-ed by stating that it is an “illusion” to suggest that “nothing said about Israel, even violent statements like ‘Death to the Zionist state,’ can be considered antisemitic,” claiming that Israel is “inextricably part of [Jewish students’] identity. They further claimed that it is “simply unacceptable” and “wrong” to treat Israel as fundamentally malign and illegitimate in ways that no other country is.” 

In opposition, Schamus wrote that “the [Task Force’s] goal is clear: to intimidate, muzzle, silence, and eventually remove from the public sphere, including from our campus, all those who would push back against the racist logic so bracingly articulated in the Basic Law.” 

The Basic Law, passed by the Israeli government in 2018, states that “the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People,” Jerusalem is the capital, and Hebrew is the official language. It also enshrined “Jewish settlement” as a “national value.” This law has come under fire by many, who “say this measure is undemocratic and essentially enshrines two separate classes of citizens: Jews, and everyone else,” according to Vox. In the past, Hebrew and Arabic were also both official languages of Israel, while going forward Arabic was designated a language with a “special status.” Schamus claimed that the Basic Law was ultimately passed due to “growing fascist and fundamentalist political formations.” 

In conclusion, Schamus wrote that antisemitism is “now being used as pretext for the administration’s relentless campaign to end-run established norms and rules of faculty governance, due process, and academic freedom.” This comes after various condemnations from faculty members, who claim the University has violated these principles over the past several months. Schamus ultimately ended his op-ed by calling for the resignations of Task Force members from the initiative, which he declared “should itself be disbanded.” 

Low Library via Bwog Staff