We were up late celebrating Jewish life at Columbia the night before the attacks. Our Chabad House hosted one of its largest-ever Shabbat and holiday dinners for Shemini Atzeret, a Jewish festival. It was an overflow crowd. So many Jews from the United States and Israel — and everywhere in between — came out to dance at this autumn Jewish festival that we had to bring out extra tables. As we danced, we felt joy in our faith and sense of peoplehood. We felt that Jewish life and Jewish lives were treasured here.

My friends came over afterward to play sheshbesh. It’s called backgammon here in America, but many of my friends are Sephardic Jews from the Mideast, so we call the game by its Middle Eastern name. We stayed up late enough for someone to mention that there was a rocket attack on Israel, though we didn’t feel especially concerned about it — we knew that Hamas’s rockets are awful, but they’re only run-of-the-mill awful for Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to killing Jews. They don’t usually hurt people — Iron Dome intercepts the ones headed for civilian targets, and the rest fall in empty desert (and sometimes in Gaza itself). So we didn’t make much of it. We said we hoped that our close friend who had recently enlisted in the IDF was safe, and we went back to our board game. We went to bed happily, comfortably, as Jews at Columbia.

It was only in the morning that I saw the atrocities. I innocently opened Instagram and was greeted by videos and images of barbaric acts of pure Jew-hatred. Rape, murder, torture. Massacres. Innocent children butchered. Young people, the same age as us, riddled with bullets as they danced at a music festival.

When I first saw these attacks, it wasn’t on a Jewish post, or a post from someone with enough common sense and common decency to condemn mass murder and mass abductions. It was on the Instagram Story of a pro-Hamas girl in my year at Columbia. According to her social-media posts, those innocent civilians were getting what they deserved. She celebrated the most despicable acts of terror and depravity. She lauded war crimes. Had I been in Israel, according to her, maybe on one of the three trips I’ve taken there in the past couple of years, I would have deserved this fate. I would have deserved to be brutalized, raped, murdered. Beheaded. Burned.

How can my fellow Columbia students believe this? 

After the release on Monday of a pro-Hamas open letter from Columbia’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (the all-time misnomer), it became clear that the ideology that encourages students to voice these shameful beliefs is explicitly taught in many classrooms at Columbia. 

Take them at their word. “As Columbia students,” they wrote in their October 9 letter, “our classes regularly discuss the inevitability of resistance as part of the struggle for decolonization.” This weekend they told us what this “struggle for decolonization” that they’ve learned in our classrooms really means. I guess I was too innocent — I didn’t realize we were being taught that burning innocent families alive in their homes and cars was how to “decolonize,” or that this was part of Columbia’s values and curriculum.

But now I know what they mean. They mean terrorism is okay; sexual violence is okay. The kids I eat with in the dining hall and study beside in the library think that it’s okay for terrorists to parade lifeless bodies that are stripped to their underwear, while shouting “God is great.” They think it’s justified. 

Charred babies, dead babies covered in blood: justified.

At Columbia we are apparently taught that this is justice. The liquidation of Jews is a “counter-offensive against their settler-colonial oppressor.” Look beneath the hood of their Ivy League degrees, and this is what you find. Monstrosity.

“We study under renowned scholars,” they write. For many of my fellow students, Columbia inculcates in them an ethical framework that not only defends, but glorifies, those who go with grenades and automatic weapons to villages and massacre innocents for hours. Columbia faculty are teaching them that those who broadcast a grandmother’s slaughter on Facebook Live, bragging while they show her body collapsed in a spreading pool of blood, are on the right side of history.

Take Columbia professor Joseph Massad, who teaches two courses this fall and will teach two more in the spring. He hailed the paragliders who slaughtered revelers by the dozen in the Re’im music-festival massacre as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.” This “air force” descended not on a military target but on young Jews, dancing to music on Shemini Atzeret. He called this terrorist attack “awesome.” He felt “jubilation and awe.”

This man, a Columbia professor, is entrusted with our education, as he has been for decades. According to Columbia, he is fit to teach us. Maybe he shouldn’t be fired, though I’m not sure where academic freedom ends and glorification of mass murder begins. But, at the very least, he should be condemned. The values of the university demand it — though apparently not when atrocities happen to Jews.

Massad’s students and protégés have already brought their violence to campus: An Israeli student was attacked and injured by a pro-Palestinian student on Wednesday. What did he do wrong, besides merely existing? He was allegedly assaulted for distributing posters of Israeli hostages — children and elderly women among them — held by Hamas in Gaza. In an interview afterward, he said, “As an Israeli Jewish student, I don’t feel safe going to campus anymore.”

How could any person, let alone a Jew, not be terrified to be in classrooms with professors like this and the students who adore them? How could any Jew expect to be safe, let alone be treated fairly, by a pro-Hamas professor? If he endorses the same tactics used by the Nazis, what kind of papers are we expected to write? What does it take to succeed in the class of a man who approves of the mass slaughter of infants?

Look at Columbia SJP’s most popular Instagram post, which presents their open letter. It has 32,000 “likes” and climbing. The comments from other students read “in solidarity always” and “long live the revolution” and “long live palestine,” accompanied by clapping and heart emojis.

I know these people. I go to class with them. The same intersectional feminists who claim to oppose misogyny in all its forms are supporting the mass rape and brutalization of Jewish women. They’d never be caught dead victim-blaming — except when it comes to brutally violated Jewish women. They glory in our pain.

On Monday night we had a vigil. Not a march, not a protest: a vigil, for us to mourn the hundreds slaughtered in Israel. There was nothing political about mourning innocent civilians — pogrom victims — who were slaughtered by terrorists who behaved like Nazis. Like Cossacks. But what did we hear when we prayed for the innocent lost souls? Around us we heard people shouting, “Free Palestine!” “Free Palestine!”

Don’t get me wrong: I, too, want a free Palestine. But only if it means a stable country on Israel’s border that respects Israel’s right to exist. That ship seems to have sailed far away.

Our vigil came and went without a statement from Columbia. What our Jewish community needed to hear in those moments was simple: a condemnation of Hamas’s terrorist attacks, one that called evil by its name. A statement that refutes those who claim that Columbia is teaching them to glory in murder. A statement that explains why I and my Jewish friends sit in class crying. A statement that clarifies that those who support terrorism, mass murder, torture, abduction — the worst, most barbaric attacks on Jews since the Holocaust — are unwelcome in Columbia’s community.

That’s not a hard line for any decent person — any person who has a shred of respect for human life — to take.

But when it was belatedly released, the Columbia statement didn’t call evil by its name. It didn’t use the words “Hamas” or “terrorism.” It didn’t differentiate between the victims of intentional acts of terror and the consequences of a justified military response. Columbia University couldn’t even spare one full sentence for the Jews.

The university’s lack of moral clarity indicates a deeper rot. Our alumni must join our students, and those at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, to demand more than just a bland remedial statement. We demand serious, lasting change that ensures we all cross this low bar: No student should come away from a class thinking that genocide is justified.

That bar is on the floor. But today, raising it is too much to expect from our university.

God help us.

This article was published on October 16, 2023.