Columbia University is another Charlottesville

(RNS) — Exodus, anyone?

Just in time for Passover, the celebration of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from Egypt, and the creation of the Jewish people, a modern rabbi is urging an exodus.

Not from Egypt.

But from Columbia University.

Rabbi Elie Buechler, a rabbi associated with Columbia University’s Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, confirmed to CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday (April 21) that he sent a WhatsApp message to a group of about 300 mostly Orthodox Jewish students “strongly” recommending they return home and remain there. (This opinion is not shared by the Hillel on campus.)

Why? Because of the growing anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and, yes, antisemitic demonstrations that have called for violence against Jews, and that have roiled the campus.

A few vignettes:

  • A man outside the university said: “Never forget the seventh of October… that will happen not one more time, not five more times, not 10 more times, not 100 more times, not 1,000 more times, but 10,000 times!”
  • A small group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators chanted: “F— Israel. Israel is a b—-.” (So much for concerns about gender-based violence and sexist language.) 
  • Pro-Palestinian activist thizzL posted on social media videos of students chanting, “We say justice, you say how? Burn Tel Aviv to the ground. Go Hamas, we love you. We support your rockets too.” Earlier in the week, thizzL posted videos of protesters yelling, “Kill another soldier now.”
  • According to The New York Times: A video posted on X shows a masked protester outside the Columbia gates carrying a Palestinian flag who appears to chant “Go back to Poland!”
  • A demonstrator holds a placard: “Al Qasam’s next targets,” pointing to a group of students marching with Israeli flags.
  • Groups of students have chanted: “We don’t want no Zionists here!” (Nice grammar.) The overwhelming majority of American Jews are sympathetic to Israel and have historically been Zionists. So, they are basically saying, “We don’t want no Jews here!”

More than a hundred students have been arrested. Things have become so bad that Columbia announced that classes would shift to online learning.

New York Mayor Eric Adams has condemned these actions:

I am horrified and disgusted with the antisemitism being spewed at and around the Columbia University campus … and I condemn this hate speech in the strongest of terms. Supporting a terrorist organization that aims to kill Jews is sickening and despicable. As I have repeatedly said, hate has no place in our city, and I have instructed the NYPD to investigate any violation of law that is reported. Rest assured, the NYPD will not hesitate to arrest anyone who is found to be breaking the law.

We will not be a city of lawlessness, and those professional agitators seeking to seize the ongoing conflict in the Middle East to sow chaos and division in our city will not succeed.

From the White House:

While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous.

President Joe Biden said: “Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews. This blatant antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous — and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.”

It’s not just Columbia. At Yale University, an anti-Israel protester stabbed a Jewish student in the eye with a flagpole. The demonstrations have spread to other universities — a Passover plague.

As John McWhorter wrote in The New York Times:

I thought about what would have happened if protesters were instead chanting anti-Black slogans, or even something like “D.E.I. has got to die,” to the same “Sound Off” tune that “From the river to the sea” has been adapted to. They would have lasted roughly five minutes before masses of students shouted them down and drove them off the campus. Chants like that would have been condemned as a grave rupture of civilized exchange, heralded as threatening resegregation and branded as a form of violence. I’d wager that most of the student protesters against the Gaza War would view them that way, in fact. Why do so many people think that weeks long campus protests against not just the war in Gaza but Israel’s very existence are nevertheless permissible?

Let me be clear.

We remember the custom at the Passover Seder — when we recite the plagues that befell Egypt, we spill a drop of wine in remembrance of the innocent Egyptians who suffered. Many Jews will have spilled drops of wine at the Seder — in remembrance of all the innocents, including residents of Gaza, who are suffering.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators gather for a protest at Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators gather for a protest at Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

But when your support for Palestinian dignity and autonomy becomes a denial of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign, secure and Jewish state; when your criticisms of Israeli actions become full-blown antisemitic and violent rhetoric, then you might consider that your so-called pro-Palestinian positions are merely a mask for your deeper antisemitic ideas.

The masks are off.

Consider this: It sometimes seems that every misbegotten, thoughtful and/or clumsy statement on the college campus requires a trigger alert, lest someone’s feelings get hurt.

That being the case, we might rightfully ask: Do Jewish students also merit trigger alerts?

That student whose grandmother is a Holocaust survivor — does she merit a trigger alert? That student whose grandfather fled the anti-Jewish violence in Iraq — does he get a trigger alert?

Just asking.

I will go one step further.

For those of us who worry about the antisemitism of the right, it is long past time for us to worry about the antisemitism of the left.

Let us imagine a final exam in an American studies class — spring semester, 2025.

There is only one question: “Compare and contrast the events at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, 2017, with the events at Columbia University, 2024.”

We can imagine the following answers:

At Charlottesville, the rally was just for one day. At Columbia, the demonstrations went on for weeks.

At Charlottesville, there was a mixture and coalition of far-right groups. At Columbia, there was a mixture and coalition of far-left groups.

At Charlottesville, they had only one slogan: “The Jews will not replace us!” It demonstrated their obsession with the Jews — the Great Replacement theory. At Columbia, they had many slogans, which also revealed an obsession with the Jews.

At Charlottesville, there were Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols. At Columbia, there were chants that deliberately evoked the Nazis: “Go back to Europe. … Go back to Poland.”

At Charlottesville, Virginia’s then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency. At Columbia, as of this writing, the situation is getting frightfully close to that.

At Charlottesville, a woman was killed when James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. At Columbia, there have been no fatalities.

At Charlottesville, no Jews were sympathetic to the marchers. At Columbia, there are Jewish students who are sympathetic to the demonstrators — apparently, oblivious to the threats to physically harm Jews.

Regarding Charlottesville, then-President Donald Trump said: “There are very fine people on both sides.” Regarding Columbia, Biden said that those actions are “reprehensible and dangerous” — with no equivocation.

I will go one step further.

Those students who are praising Hamas are, knowingly or unwittingly, also praising the actions of Iran.

Iran — which has pledged death to Israel and death to America.

Let that sink in.

As for me, I am piling my matzo with charoset — the sweet apple and nuts mixture that, paradoxically, symbolizes the mortar the Israelite slaves used.

Which is to say: Our brick and mortar educational institutions need serious moral critique.

Which is to say: This Passover, I am trying, desperately, to overdose on the sweetness, even as I acknowledge the presence of the bitter.

A continued sweet Passover to all.