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Columbia cancels in-person classes after some students say they don't feel safe


Demonstrations focused on the Israel-Hamas war are roiling a number of college campuses. About 45 people were arrested at Yale yesterday while protesting against investment in weapons for Israel, while students on other campuses across the country walked out or set up encampments declaring solidarity with pro-Palestinian demonstrators at Columbia University. Columbia is where police were called last week to make arrests. And yesterday, Columbia canceled in-person classes after Jewish students said they didn't feel safe.

For more, let's talk with Debbie Becher. She's an associate professor of sociology at Barnard College, which is part of Columbia. She joined a faculty protest at Columbia yesterday. Professor, what does it feel like on your campus now?

DEBBIE BECHER: Thank you for asking. In my campus, it actually feels quite safe and peaceful. It's unfortunate that leaders are telling Jewish students who support Israel's war on Gaza that they are unsafe and that the national news and some social media had been portraying our campuses as rife with violence and protests. In fact, the center of attention - there's an encampment, a pro-Palestinian encampment, at Columbia right now - has been a place of sharing and community building. Students have watched movies there. They hold teach-ins. They study. They eat together.

Last night, I attended a Passover seder in the middle of it with about 75 Jewish students, a dozen Jewish faculty and many non-Jewish students and faculty. It was beautiful to see so many different cultures participating in a seder in a pro-Palestinian space. And I think it's important to say that we can't keep one group safe by punishing and repressing others.

So what's happening is that, in the name of preventing antisemitism, the university has suspended a dozen or more Jewish students for taking part in nondisruptive, peaceful action. Does their safety matter? What about the safety of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Black and brown students arrested by the NYPD at Columbia's request and those kicked out of their dorms by Barnard College?

MARTÍNEZ: So you're saying there is communication happening, that people are talking to each other face to face.

BECHER: Absolutely. There is more talking happening now in the last week that protests have resumed, even though the university is calling them unauthorized. I think what I want people to know is that the actual crisis here is the university leadership's failure to stand up to pressure from right-wing actors. These actors don't care about universities or student well-being.

We wanted our leadership and have wanted our leadership to support student and faculty rigorous debate, to support the way that we teach and learn. And instead, they're capitulating to right-wing actors who want to gut universities for what they see as our woke indoctrination. They don't care about our students.

And our president has - over the past six months and at Congress last week - abandoned our institutions of academic freedom, freedom of expression and turned our campus into a police state. And now other campuses around the country are following suit. We have institutions where students and faculty together work out how they think, how they feel, how to learn together. That's what universities are for. And it will make people uncomfortable, and we expect that, and we need to support the institutions of freedom that allow us to manage these difficult times.

MARTÍNEZ: What would you say, though, Professor, to a student, a Jewish student, who feels that maybe their - that what's going on now has gone to antisemitic language?

BECHER: I would say that antisemitism is something that needs to be approached seriously. It's everywhere. It is not a tool in a political game. And it's being used by Congress and universities in the last six months as a tool in politics. Antisemitism deserves rigor. That means we need procedures in place for investigations. What we don't need is panicking and caving in response to external pressure.

What we've seen is that congressional Republicans and Democrats are going along with those who are panicking, and the university is going along with the Republicans and Democrats and getting immediate results in the form of firing, suspensions and expulsions. That's political point scoring, not student well-being. And it's making it worse, not better. When the university uses this kind of disproportionate power in the interest of one group, supposedly, this is just going to reinforce for them and their peers the idea that Jews have disproportionate power, a core antisemitic belief.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Debbie Becher, associate professor of sociology at Barnard College. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

BECHER: Thank you.

MARTÍNEZ: And in a statement to NPR, Columbia University said Columbia students have the right to protest, but they are not allowed to disrupt campus life or harass and intimidate fellow students. They went on to say they are acting on concerns expressed by Jewish students to ensure the community remains safe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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