President Biden denounces antisemitism on colleges as Columbia protest continues

President Biden condemned antisemitism on college campuses in a statement on Sunday, three days after more than 100 people protesting the Gaza war on Columbia University’s campus were arrested.

Biden’s statement, which came as part of a lengthy Passover greeting he issued from the White House, didn’t name Columbia directly but said there had been “harassment and calls for violence against Jews” in recent days.

“This blatant Antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous — and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country,” the statement said.

The president and the White House often issue holiday greetings for various faiths, but the latest statement was notable for its political references. It noted that Passover was coming at a difficult time for Jews still processing the Oct. 7 attacks, when Hamas militants killed 1,200 in Israel and took numerous hostages.

Earlier Sunday, the White House issued a separate statement directly in response to anti-Israel protests at Columbia, which are continuing this week as students occupy the university grounds in tented encampments.

“While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly Antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous,” said the statement from Andrew Bates, deputy White House press secretary.

Monday is the beginning of Passover, a celebration of Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.

The protest at Columbia University came the same week as many other demonstrations across the country that were meant to highlight Israel’s war in Gaza. Protesters have blocked major roads in New York and San Francisco and airport access roads in Chicago and Seattle.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators shut down roads and bridges across the United States on April 15, calling for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

But the situation at Columbia has come under a bigger political spotlight after its president, Minouche Shafik, was called to testify Wednesday before a House Committee investigating campus antisemitism.

The following day, Shafik summoned New York Police Department officers in riot gear to the campus. The arrested students, who offered little resistance, were charged with trespassing. Shafik told New York police in a letter that students involved in the protest would be suspended.

Students have returned to the grounds to occupy on Sunday, prompting new concerns and condemnations.

On Sunday morning, Elie Buechler, a rabbi at the Hillel for Columbia University, told Jewish students in a WhatsApp message that they should leave campus until safety measures have improved, he confirmed to The Washington Post.

“What we are witnessing in and around campus is terrible and tragic,” Buechler’s message said. “The events of the last few days, especially last night, have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy.”

Brian Cohen, a director of Columbia’s Hillel, said in a statement later Sunday that the university’s center for Jewish student life would remain open. The directors of Columbia’s Chabad also encouraged students on social media to join the organization’s Passover activities.

New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) said in a statement Sunday night that more New York police officers have been stationed near Columbia’s campus. He said that a protester at the university yelled “We are Hamas.”

“As mayor of the city with the largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel, the pain these protests are causing Jews across the globe is not lost on me,” Adams said. “I also see and hear the pain of those protesting in support of innocent lives being lost in Gaza.”

Since Israel’s war in Gaza began in the wake of the deadly Hamas attacks, colleges have struggled to balance freedom of speech and protest. A protest recently emerged on Yale University’s campus, where more than 500 gathered in an encampment Saturday night, according to the Yale Daily News.

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