Everything was business as usual at Columbia University’s Teachers College on a Monday morning in mid-December. A single public safety officer sat behind a table at the entrance to Horace Mann Hall, where students clustered inside a towering classroom auditorium. On upper floors, the hallways and offices were quiet and calm.
But less than two weeks before, a Jewish professor who had walked into one of those offices at the Columbia-affiliated graduate school felt afraid: on Elizabeth Midlarsky’s walls, someone had spray-painted two bright red swastikas and the derogatory term “Yid”. The case is still under investigation.
Columbia University, former president Barack Obama’s alma mater, has long been synonymous with student activism and progressive values. In American history textbooks, the institution is often mentioned as high school students learn about college protests and strikes during the Vietnam era. That legacy acts as a backdrop for a school whose backbone is made of left-leaning political action, yet whose response to recent racist incidents has been questioned many of its students.
“I will say that walking around campus, there is a sense that when these types of things happen, it could be anybody,” said Ramsay Eyre, a 19-year-old sophomore at Columbia involved in student council. “That is a really deeply uncomfortable feeling for a lot of students.”
Eyre added: “You always think that, being in New York City at one of the world’s largest and most liberal universities, that this kind of thing can’t happen, but then it happens.”
In the last few months, a disquiet has crept over Columbia’s campus. It started after a massacre in Pittsburgh left 11 people dead in an attack that targeted Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue. In an email to students and staff after the attack, Columbia failed to reference Jews or antisemitism, though they did list other vulnerable communities who have been targeted in recent years, including “worshippers”, “civil rights and anti-racist protesters”, “groups gathered to celebrate an LGBT Latin night at Pulse Nightclub” and two black shoppers shot dead in Kentucky.
The sprawling statement that never explicitly addressed anti-Jewish hate upset many on campus, who voiced concerns on social media and directly to administrators.
You always think that, being in New York City at one of the world’s largest and most liberal universities, that this kind of thing can’t happenRamsay Eyre
“I know a lot of my friends were devastated by that email,” said Gidon Halbfinger, a Jewish studies major. Columbia’s message was eventually revised to reflect the concerns of Jewish students and alumni, but at that point the damage had been done.
Then came the graffiti attack on Midlarsky’s office.
“Jews on campus were already feeling a little bit uncomfortable,” Halbfinger said. “And then this was a really overt sign that this stuff exists close to home.”
The vandalism comes amid a spike in antisemitic incidents in the United States. Anti-Jewish hate crimes surged by 37% in 2017, according to the FBI.
The Anti-Defamation League’s New York and New Jersey chapter has fielded hundreds of calls reporting antisemitic hate speech or hate crimes since the Pittsburgh shooting. Evan Bernstein, the group’s regional director, said recent incidents involve everything from harassment, to antisemitism in the classroom, to swastikas on lockers, to antisemitic slurs, to violent assaults.
“We’re seeing this uptick in New York, which everyone thinks is this liberal state,” Bernstein said. “When you’re seeing that kind of rise, especially in schools, that makes me take pause.”
Other New York universities have had swastikas appear on their grounds in recent years, but Bernstein said the hate crime at Columbia was different. Usually, that kind of act is perpetrated in a more public venue, but here it was meant to be up close and personal.
“It was inside the building in someone’s intimate space,” Bernstein said.
Columbia sent another email following the vandalism. This time, Jewish students felt the language was more on par with what the situation deserved.
“The university strongly denounces this antisemitic act that seeks to create fear and to intimidate members of our community,” the statement read.
But some Columbia students said some professors and administrators still didn’t talk to them about the hate crime. Neither Eyre nor Halbfinger could recall a single in-person comment from staff.
Nor were students always vocal themselves. Orit Guggenheim, a Columbia sophomore and the incoming president of Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel, wrote an op-ed for Columbia’s student newspaper urging her classmates to care about antisemitism after the Pittsburgh shooting.
She said the attack reinforced her belief that students at Columbia are not interested in addressing anti-Jewish hate as one of the many social causes they promote.
“Besides sporadic Facebook posts on my news feed, there has been again a significant lack of response from my peers,” Guggenheim said.
Despite a rising tide in antisemitic violence in the US, Guggenheim and Halbfinger, who are both Jewish, said they feel physically safe at Columbia.
But recently a video of a Columbia student went viral after he was recorded in front of the institution’s main library screaming: “White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world.” The student in question, Julian von Abele, has denied that his words were meant to be racist, but they have been interpreted by many as an outburst of white supremacy on Columbia’s campus.
The incident is under investigation by the office of student conduct and community standards, and the school released yet another statement in response.
“We are alarmed at the rise of incidents of racism and hate speech in our world today,” the message read.
To Eyre, these online statements aren’t enough. The university administration must recognize that these tendencies toward prejudice are not so far removed from campus.
“We … think that in some way we live in a bubble that’s separate from some of those issues,” Eyre said. “And really, we don’t.”