The latest installment in the ongoing Congressional probe of antisemitism on U.S. campuses came last Wednesday with the appearance of Nemat Shafik, the president of Columbia University before the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce. And she was very forceful in expressing only negative things about antisemitism: “Antisemitism has no place on our campus and I am personally committed to do everything I can to confront it directly.”

She also took a more expansive view of what constituted actionable antisemitism than did some other Ivy league presidents back in December before the same committee. When the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard and MIT were asked if calls for the genocide of Jews would violate campus policies, they equivocated and mumbled something about while actions could be targeted, the widest possible berth always had to be given to freedom of speech.


But Shafik said a call for the genocide of the Jews would be prohibited. Unfortunately, she also said, when asked if phrases such as “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free” or “long live the intifada” are antisemitic, she answered, “I hear them as such, [but] some people don’t.”

She also carefully avoided coming out with words to the effect that the task at hand is not to tout Columbia’s commitment to free speech but rather to maximize the ability of Jewish students to freely express their views about Israel and Judaism without fear of intimidation or retribution from faculty or fellow students.

While we strongly believe in the right to the free expression of ideas, in the light of the campus antisemitism crisis, we also believe that when there are credible claims of antisemitic harassment, the emphasis must be on first investigating the truth of those claims and consider appropriate action – and then, only afterwards, whether they are protected by free speech values.

What we have now is a procedure in which claims of harassment never rise beyond the level of abstraction which are then weighed against idealistic notions of free speech. This is just not a realistic plan for eliminating antisemitic harassment or any kind of harassment for that matter.

Ms. Shafik also failed to persuade committee members that she had taken disciplinary action against students and faculty she conceded had been guilty of antisemitic harassment. Not only does this tend to undercut her bona fides, but it also suggests that schools be required to keep and share statistics and other records relating to charges of antisemitism and their dispositions.

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