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In Letter, 540 Jewish Columbia Students Defend Zionism, Condemn Protests

LocalIn Letter, 540 Jewish Columbia Students Defend Zionism, Condemn Protests


A group of Jewish Columbia students has written an emotional and forceful public letter that takes on one of the most divisive issues on college campuses: whether opposition to Israel should be equated with antisemitism.

In the letter, the students argue that “Judaism cannot be separated from Israel.” They also charge that anti-Zionist Jews who deny Israel’s right to exist and stand with pro-Palestinian protesters “tokenize themselves” and try to delegitimize the experiences of Zionist Jews on campus.

Some of the students who signed the letter, which had 540 signatories as of Thursday morning, have already spoken publicly against Columbia for the antisemitism they say they have faced there. One student testified before Congress about the issue; others have been counterprotesters at pro-Palestinian rallies. Others have not spoken out before.

In all, by Thursday the letter was signed by just over 10 percent of the estimated 5,000 Jewish undergraduates and graduate students at Columbia and its affiliated colleges. All signatories gave their names, college affiliation and year of graduation, unlike some public letters, that allow for anonymous signatures.

Titled “In Our Name: A Message from Jewish Students at Columbia University,” the letter represents the views of students who state that they love Israel, even though they do not always agree with the actions of the Israeli government.

“Our love for Israel does not necessitate blind political conformity,” the letter stated. “It’s quite the opposite. For many of us, it is our deep love for and commitment to Israel that pushes us to object when its government acts in ways we find problematic.”

The letter did not specifically critique any Israeli actions, stating that “our visions for Israel differ dramatically from one another.” Yet, it continued, “we all come from a place of love and an aspiration for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

The letter comes as Columbia copes with a deeply divided campus reeling from two recent police interventions against pro-Palestinian activism on campus, including the takeover of a campus building that resulted in more than 200 arrests. On Monday, Nemat Shafik, Columbia’s president, canceled the main graduation ceremony, citing security concerns, and the main campus remains in a state of partial lockdown.

It was unclear how the letter would impact tensions on campus. Columbia and its affiliated schools have Jewish and non-Jewish faculty and students who are strongly anti-Zionist and who argue that Zionism is a not a requirement for Jewish identity.

At pro-Palestinian rallies on campuses at Columbia and beyond, the shouting of anti-Zionist slogans — including “we don’t want no Zionists here” — is common. Anti-Zionist demonstrators argue that this is not antisemitic, a distinction that not everyone accepts.

For students who identify as Zionists, it has been deeply hurtful.

The Anti-Defamation League defines Zionism as the movement for the self-determination and statehood for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland in the land of Israel. But the definition is contested, and some see it as a movement that controversially conflates Jewish religious identity with a modern political, nationalist project.

The students in their letter seek to clarify what they believe it means and why they believe the way protesters interpret the concept is wrong.

“There’s a huge misconception that Zionism necessitates conformity with the Israeli government, and anti-Zionism means criticism of it,” said Elisha Baker, a Columbia undergraduate. “But that is not the case. And one of our goals is to make very clear that Zionism is the belief in Israel’s right to exist, and anti-Zionism is the denial of that right.”

Most of the signatories, the open letter stated, “did not choose to be political activists.” But they have felt compelled to speak because they feel demonized “under the cloak of anti-Zionism” and forced to publicly defend their Jewish and Zionist identities.

“We proudly believe in the Jewish People’s right to self-determination in our historic homeland as a fundamental tenet of our Jewish identity,” they wrote. “Contrary to what many have tried to sell you — no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel. Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief.”

“We are proud to be Jews, and we are proud to be Zionists,” they wrote.

Mr. Baker wrote the letter, along with Eliana Goldin, Eden Yadegar and Rivka Yellin. Mr. Baker said in an interview that the letter began circulating among students on Saturday and that he expected the number of signatories to grow.

“This letter was about amplifying Jewish voices that have been silenced for seven months and about making very clear that there is a unified Jewish community on campus,” he said.

In the letter, the students said they felt betrayed and hurt by the views of many of their fellow students, and by the treatment some Zionist students faced at the encampment that took over a Columbia lawn for two weeks before being removed by police. The protesters who set up the tents have demanded, among other things, that the university divest from Israel.

The letter said that students were not surprised when one of the encampment’s leaders, Khymani James, said that “‘Zionists don’t deserve to live’ and that they were lucky he was “not just going out and murdering Zionists.”

Pro-Palestinian student organizers with Columbia’s encampment disavowed those comments, which were made in January, and Mr. James apologized. He has been suspended from school and banned from campus.

Maryam Alwan is an organizer with Columbia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which was suspended last fall. She said in a recent interview: “I think that antisemitism is horrible, but I don’t think that using the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism as an excuse to crack down on pro-Palestine advocacy is justifiable or related in any sense.”

The letter, though, disputes that distinction.

“If the last six months on campus have taught us anything, it is that a large and vocal population of the Columbia community does not understand the meaning of Zionism, and subsequently does not understand the essence of the Jewish People,” the students wrote. “Yet despite the fact that we have been calling out the antisemitism we’ve been experiencing for months, our concerns have been brushed off and invalidated.”

The students ended the letter on a note of conciliation, saying they want to work to repair the campus together.

“While campus may be riddled with hateful rhetoric and simplistic binaries now, it is never too late to start repairing the fractures and begin developing meaningful relationships across political and religious divides,” they wrote. “Our tradition tells us, ‘Love peace and pursue peace.’”





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