What died at Columbia

Columbia used to be a university. I now see it as the burial ground of many foundational concepts of the contemporary American Jewish experience. 

Here you go again, I hear you saying, exaggerating, dramatizing, catastrophizing. After all, aren’t we talking about a few hundred students and a few radical professors doing something that most Americans ignore or deride?

True, the “protests” aren’t representative of America, and probably not of most Columbia students; but they are what Argentinian psychoanalyst Enrique Pichon-Rivière calls a “social emergent.” According to Pichon-Riviere, the emergent is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Just as  mental illness in a family member is, in many cases, an expression of troubled family dynamics, in group dynamics a member being disruptive may be the sign of something emergent in the group at large. 

An image from the protest encampment at Columbia University in New York City on April 22, 2024. Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

I think that Pichon-Rivière would call the Columbia protesters emergents. They may not be numerous, or even representative, but they are showing us the death of many ideas we held dear. 

For instance:

‘Education is the antidote for antisemitism’ 

This idea should have been buried long ago. After all, many Nazi cadres were highly educated. In fact, the Einszatgruppen killing squads that murdered 1.5 million Jews boasted Ph.D.s, jurists and even a Protestant theologian. Voltaire, the most educated Frenchman of his time, was a rabid antisemite, and many in the intellectual elite of Spain cheered the Inquisition. 

Our belief in the education-to-acceptance fallacy is understandable. We want to believe that people are essentially good and that hatred they may harbor is the result of ignorance. We want to believe that education is a silver bullet that will eradicate bigotry. But now antisemitism is coming from the most educated people in America, and maybe the world, so we need to wake up to the idea that education doesn’t prevent hatred. It only gives you a better vocabulary for your arguments in defending it. 

‘Left-wing antisemitism isn’t dangerous’

Prior to Oct. 7, many thought that left-wing antisemitism was real and worrisome, but that the most dangerous bigotry came from the far right. After all, they thought, who really cares what some troubled teenager in the Whatever Studies Department says? White supremacists kill Jews in synagogues. The right, they thought, has real power: It already gave license to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and should former President Donald Trump return to the Oval Office, it would certainly be worse. Why worry about “cancel culture” in the anthropology department at Swarthmore when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis imposes censorship over the 430,000 students in the state of Florida? 

It is true that only right-wing antisemitism was killing Jews, and that most of the GOP had fully surrendered to Trumpism. But it was wrong to underestimate how much left-wing antisemitism could make the lives of Jews a living hell, thanks to the left’s control of the cultural discourse and the intellectual elite. Shootings and terror attacks are unthinkably horrific, but they are rare and recognized as abominations in our society. Legitimization of hatred from the cultural apex of the country has more impact on the daily lives of people who aren’t direct victims, making Jews unsafe and frightened in more direct and personal ways and changing what is seen as acceptable behavior by the culture at large. 

Jews don’t generally find themselves in polite company with white supremacists or rural racists, but we have, for many decades, been part of the liberal intellectual cultural fabric. If Sigma Alpha Epsilon, an all-white fraternity at the University of Oklahoma with a troubling history or racism, doesn’t accept Jews, few would care or even notice. Being in that fraternity wasn’t in the college game plan for Jewish students. But Barnard College is 28% Jewish, and Ivy League schools are the ones setting the cultural tone in the settings that most Jews live in. 

Political power is not the only locus of power in society. Education informs attitudes and policies.

‘It was about diversity, equity and justice’

One hesitates to criticize DEI because of two reasons. First, it’s based on real grievances about racism and discrimination, which need to be addressed. Second, the right’s attack on DEI is political, and in many cases nefarious, and one doesn’t want to feed that rage machine. 

However, the brutal double standards of prominent advocates of DEI shows that much of it was a project of cultural hegemony and personal power, and those high values were just a way in. It was about enforcing uniformity and homogeneity of thought, about creating a new aristocracy with inalienable rights to moral impunity. Those who for years advocated that every victim of sexual violence must be believed discredited the mass rape that occurred on Oct. 7. People who rail against microaggressions and ruin careers because of supposed minor infractions to an ever-changing canon of offenses now promote macroaggressions while using victimhood as a shield against consequences. 

It is well known that, in most cases, DEI programs don’t include Jews or antisemitism, despite anti-Jewish offenses accounting for half of all religion-based hate crimes in the U.S. The generation of students, professors, university administrators and DEI consultants who forced everybody to use trigger warnings to protect people from discomfort now sees nothing wrong with “triggering” Jews by calling for their murder. We were told that racism is judged by its effect, not intent, but this standard goes out the window when people can declare “Kill the Zionists” with impunity, provided they deny any antisemitic intent. The biggest cancelers of all, those wanting to remove any trace of Israel from campuses, American policy and existence, are now claiming to defend freedom of speech. 

‘Jews have reliable allies in other minorities’ 

The notion that Jews, historically reliable allies to other minorities in America and around the world, could count on those allies in our time of need also lays dead in Morningside Heights. 

To be sure, Jews need to support the fight for real racial, gender and social justice simply because it’s the right thing to do. But we shouldn’t harbor any expectations that this will buy us any goodwill or that our support will be reciprocated or even recognized. 

Just imagine if an African American club was mobbed at any campus. The local Hillel would be out in force to stand next to the victims. If a mosque was vandalized, the local Jewish community would be there to offer support. 

When Jewish students at Columbia are harassed, no other student union – Black, Latino, Muslim, Queer, etc. – shows up. None. 

In a normal world, thousands of Columbia students and faculty would have been out there defending their Jewish classmates. In our world, nobody showed up. The university community abandoned them — or worse, joined the mob. 

‘America is different’

This is maybe the most important takeaway from the situation at Columbia, because it encompasses all the rest. 

I grew up in Argentina. I love my native country — as many readers know, I’m a big patriot — but like Jews everywhere throughout the Diaspora, I never fully trusted it. I knew that I always needed to have my passport ready. I knew that Argentina, like many other countries before it, could turn on me without warning. As much as I loved my country, deep inside, it felt like a stopover more than a destination.

Not so American Jews. Most of them felt that America was different than other countries in the Diaspora: a home, not a stopover. Our acceptance here wasn’t conditional or fragile. After all, Jews came to the American continent before the British. Jews are not guests here, but a constitutive part of the American ethos, aren’t they? 

In the last few years, and now especially at Columbia, we saw that America is not different after all. Antisemitic mobs can form as easily here as they formed in Spain in 1391. Yes, it’s not the same; the power of the state mostly defends the Jews instead of persecuting them. But don’t kid yourself. Sooner or later, the state follows the society. 

If non-Jewish Americans are too apathetic or uninterested (or worse) to take the easy and costless step of protecting their classmates or students, you think they’d hide you in their cellars? We already saw that antisemitic candidates of both parties aren’t penalized for their hateful ideas; rather, they win reelection. Most Americans aren’t antisemitic, but evidently don’t consider antisemitism a disqualifying trait in a political candidate. 

The obsession and morbid fascination with anything involving Jews is as present in America as it was throughout Western history. How else could one justify that from all the causes in the world, only attacking Israel justifies encamping universities? Did we see encampments to defend Roe v Wade? Or to demand an end to gun violence, which kills 47,000 Americans every year? Or to demand higher minimum wages or universal health care? Nothing was done to protest the 600,000 Syrians killed by Assad, the invasion of Ukraine, the genocide of the Uyghurs, or the occupation of Tibet. Columbia received Chinese funds. Did anybody occupy Hamilton Hall to demand the severance of ties? This is not whataboutism, but the realization that when Jews are involved, in America as everywhere else, the standards are different. 

Frankly, I don’t know what to do with these realizations, especially the last one. And no, I’m not claiming that 2024 America is equivalent to the darkest times in our history. Far from it; we’re still blessed to live here, even in these times. What I am pointing out is that many of our basic assumptions about the Jewish experience in America and its supposed exceptionalism have been proven wrong. This year will probably be a watershed moment in the history of American Jewry, altering forever our sense of belonging and existential safety. Is this just a blip, or as author Jonathan Safran Foer wrote, “the end of the golden age of American Jewry”?  

For now, there is one practical lesson that funders need to take when they see the figurative dead bodies strewn on the Columbia lawn: Focus inward. Invest your resources in strengthening the Jewish community and Israel, because Columbia proves, yet again, that we can only count on ourselves. Make sure that when Jews turn to Jewish institutions for belonging, comfort, spiritual meaning and safety, they find them up to the task. 

The death of illusions is always sad, but it’s also salutary. Let’s mourn these dead and move on.  

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.