My family has long been proud of our ties to Columbia University. My wife and I are alumni, a tradition that extends to all four of our children, with my youngest daughter currently a junior there.

Which makes the present situation all the more painful.

When I was an undergraduate at Columbia, I never felt unsafe or targeted for expressing support for Israel. Never was my Zionism hurled at me like a slur or accusation. Nor did I ever feel like I had to hide my Jewish identity, or that my pro-Israel self and my Columbia self were in opposition.

At the same time, there was no dedicated building for Jewish students to gather in back then; prayer services were held in a nonsectarian space. And there were limited opportunities to engage Jewishly on campus. Today, in welcome contrast, Jewish students gather at the beautiful Columbia/Barnard Hillel – The Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life, where they can explore and celebrate their Jewish identities in a nurturing, warm, and inclusive setting.

Paradoxically, as Jewish life at Columbia has found a home to grow even more vibrant, being Jewish on campus has become exponentially more difficult. Jewish students today are being forced to grapple with impossible choices. Expressing support for Israel makes them targets for other students and faculty who accuse them of enabling “genocide.” They are being harassed and intimidated because of their Zionism, which, in more cases than not, is a stand-in for their Jewishness.

As a student, I spent countless hours in classes at Hamilton Hall. The same building was violently taken over this week, with a large banner unfurled from the roof calling for “intifada.” What is intifada? Buses being blown up, cafes and pizzerias turned into scenes of carnage. Using this word in this context is grossly offensive at best, a direct threat at worst.

To be clear, students and faculty have a right to protest; it’s a cornerstone of campus life and American society. We don’t attend universities to all agree with one another. We come to learn, to hear voices different from our own, to develop our own points of view. Criticism of Israeli leaders or government policies are of course legitimate expressions of dissent.

However, the line is crossed when protests run 24 hours a day, when encampments are intentionally set up near Jewish student dorms or in the entranceway to college classrooms, or when there is overt hostility and hate speech directed at Jewish students.

Some are defending the protests, comparing them to the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1960s. But…

“Long live October 7” is not a peace slogan.

“By any means necessary” is not a peace slogan.  

“Glory to the martyrs” is not a peace slogan.  

“Go back to Poland” is not a peace slogan.  

“We are Hamas” is not a peace slogan.

On the most basic level, students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. And Jewish students don’t feel safe. In a poll conducted a month ago by Hillel International, 54% of Jewish students across the country said they felt unsafe on campus. No doubt, the number would be much higher if the poll were taken today.

Right now, with security a primary concern, our Community Security Initiative (CSI) has been in frequent contact with Columbia Hillel’s director and Hillel directors across the New York area, visiting campuses and providing security support. For example, at the request of Columbia's Chabad and Orthodox Union campus rabbis, CSI provided security and escorts for students to and from campus for meals during the Passover week.

More broadly, UJA has been the largest funder of Jewish life on New York campuses for decades. Since October 7, recognizing the growing stresses facing Jewish students on campus, we’ve increased funding to the 11 Hillels serving 20 campuses in our catchment, both for mental health services as well as enhanced Jewish programming. And we’re funding a full-time lawyer from the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to help advise Jewish students and organizations about their legal rights on campus. This week, the lawyer met with over 20 Columbia students, including Israelis and IDF veterans.

On a parallel track, we’re funding the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) to provide strategic and technical support to pro-Israel students. And we’re speaking on an almost-daily basis with elected officials, including the governor and mayor, who have been very responsive and supportive in denouncing the current intimidation of Jewish students on campus. Just this afternoon, we spoke with the United States Secretary of Education to demand a more forceful federal response to the current crisis.

Jewish students are not asking for special treatment. Columbia, like all universities, must uphold its own codes of conduct in a transparent, even-handed way. Harassment and intimidation must not be tolerated. Classes must be held as scheduled in classrooms (not at encampments). The actions taken by Columbia to clear out the seized building is an important step, but far more still needs to be done.

In fact, ensuring that Jewish students feel safe on campus is the bare minimum. More fundamentally, universities need to address the core issues that have given rise to this campus environment, recognizing the highly illiberal orthodoxy that has taken hold where people are categorized as either oppressor or oppressed, and where Israel has somehow become the proxy for every perceived societal ill.

Long after the encampments are dismantled, resetting the narrative on campus about Israel and the Jewish people will require a sustained, purposeful focus. But events since October 7 must serve as a wake-up call for all of us.

We have a lot of work to do.

Shabbat shalom