Dual Degree Students Fear Leaving Tel Aviv University To Study at 'Anti-Semitic' Columbia University. They are Calling on the School For More Support.

(Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
April 9, 2024

TEL AVIV—At least two students have dropped out of Columbia University’s dual degree program with Tel Aviv University since Oct. 7, saying they feared out-of-control anti-Semitism on the Manhattan campus.

Others have considered leaving the program for the same reason, or said they wish they could. Eighty-five dual degree students, along with 80 of their parents, signed onto a letter sent to Columbia's president and college leaders on Monday that said: "Since the October 7th terror attacks on Israel, our program specifically has faced heightened animosity and discrimination by students at Columbia."

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, demanded an "official statement that our Dual Degree Program is supported by [the] administration and is not in danger of cancellation, and that TAU students are welcome at Columbia." The administration had for months been silent about a student campaign calling on Columbia to end the dual degree program and divest from Israel.

"We are repeatedly assured in private that the TAU Dual BA Program will not be canceled," the letter continued. "However, Columbia’s administration has never publicly stated or demonstrated any indication of this to its student body and beyond, leaving the impression that a cancellation is a viable option and thus leaving us students isolated in the face of this intimidation."

The crisis in the dual degree program, which includes some 140 students, comes amid mounting pressure on Columbia over its handling of post-Oct. 7 anti-Semitism by students and faculty. The university faces lawsuits by Jewish students, pressure from donors, and federal and congressional investigations over the matter. Columbia president Minouche Shafik is scheduled to testify before Congress on April 17 about the "administration’s failure to enforce its own policies to protect Jewish students," in the words of the committee's chairwoman, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.). Shafik will be joined by the co-chairs of the Ivy League university’s board of trustees.

In response the students' letter, a Columbia spokeswoman said the administration "will continue to whole-heartedly support" the dual degree program.

"Columbia University welcomes and embraces the Israeli students, faculty, and staff on our campus and [is] proud of their accomplishments on behalf of the greater Columbia community," the spokeswoman said in a statement to the Free Beacon, reiterating the administration's opposition to anti-Semitism. "We also benefit greatly from our dual degree program with Tel Aviv University, a program that the University will continue to whole-heartedly support. Just last week, we were thrilled to offer admission to our fifth cohort of students, and we look forward to them joining us next year."

Ilan Weiss, 20, a junior from Detroit, withdrew from the dual degree program in January after one semester at Columbia and returned to Tel Aviv University to finish his undergraduate studies. He said he felt physically unsafe and unwelcome at Columbia, especially after Oct. 7, as radical anti-Israel activists were allowed to chant genocidal slogans and call for his banishment from the campus on a daily basis.

"I never saw so many mortified Jewish students who felt the administration was not just not there for them, but actually against them," he told the Free Beacon.

Weiss, who described himself as "a little Ashkenazi looking," began using a different subway stop and taking longer routes to classes to dodge the anti-Israel protesters. But there was no avoiding the posters calling for the cancellation of his program and divestment from Israel—or as he understood the messages, "kick out all the Israelis and destroy the Zionist entity."

Columbia College and Barnard College’s student governments last month voted to hold referendums singling out the dual degree program as part of a proposal that Columbia divest from "companies and academic institutions that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts of occupation, apartheid, and genocide." The students would also have Columbia cancel the planned opening of a global center in Tel Aviv.

At Tel Aviv University, Weiss said, he studied and lived alongside Arab students and became "nearly fluent" in Arabic. He met many young Arab Israelis who, like him, felt uniquely able to be openly gay in Tel Aviv. But he said he dared not study Arabic, or continue his Middle Eastern studies major, at Columbia.

"Middle Eastern studies was a no-go whatsoever based on the course offerings and the people and the professors—and forget about the posters all over the building," he said.

Ilan Weiss (Via Ilan Weiss)

Loren, 23, a sophomore from Vienna who asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid harassment, left the dual degree program in February rather than start at Columbia in the fall. Even with Israel's war against Hamas threatening to escalate into a regional conflagration, Loren said she felt safer at Tel Aviv University than Columbia.

"It seems like Columbia cares more about students’ emotional safety than their physical safety," Loren told the Free Beacon, noting that the administration repeatedly failed to enforce the rules of protests against anti-Israel activists even as Jewish students were assaulted on campus in recent months. "I’m like, 'How are you allowing this kind of violence to happen at your school?'"

Sabrina Zulman, 22, a junior from Sydney, Australia, said she would not have come to Columbia from Tel Aviv University last fall if she had known what the response to Oct. 7 would look like.

"For sure I would have dropped out. No way I would pay this institution so much money to be anti-Semitic," Zulman told the Free Beacon. "I'm already here and I've already committed, and I'm not going to drop out now because I'm already in it. But there is no way if I was first or second year at Tel Aviv University that I would have gotten on a plane and come to Columbia. It’s just not worth it."

"I think the kids in the years below don't really know what's going on at Columbia," she added. "We don’t tell them everything because we don't want to scare them."

Zulman said she has struggled to find courses at Columbia for her major at Tel Aviv University,  modern Jewish and Israel studies, that are not taught by professors who are openly hostile to the Jewish state.

"I go to the administration, like, ‘Help me find other classes. I need help. Everyone [of these professors] is anti-Semitic. What do you want me to do? How am I supposed to graduate?'" she said.

"I tell people that it's worse than what the media portrays, really. Because the protests, they suck, but they last about an hour or two, and then they're over. But you can't not go to class. You have to interact with your professor and your peers every single day, and the media isn't inside the classroom to capture that, you know?"

A few weeks after Oct. 7, 144 Columbia faculty signed an open letter that described the Hamas attack as a "military response by a people who had endured crushing and unrelenting state violence from an occupying power over many years." The letter came in defense of an earlier statement by 20 Columbia student groups that argued "oppression breeds resistance" and called the Israeli government "fascist, racist, and colonial." Columbia's administration said nothing.

In January, Katherine Franke, an anti-Israel "gender and sexuality" law professor at Columbia who organized the faculty letter, indicated in a TV interview that "many of us were concerned" about the dual degree program "because so many of those Israeli students who then come to the campus are coming right out of their military service, and they've been known to harass Palestinian and other students."

Without directly addressing Franke's comments, a Columbia "spokesperson" told Israel's Haaretz newspaper the university was "proud" of its Israeli students and staff and "disheartened to see some members of our community and beyond use this moment to spread antisemitism, Islamophobia, bigotry against Palestinians and Israelis."

Meanwhile, Columbia has suspended a handful of anti-Israel students and student groups for unsanctioned campus activism. Shafik in a statement on Friday condemned a "Resistance 101" event held last month by an anti-Israel student group, noting it featured speakers who "support terrorism and promote violence."

Chloe Katz, 20, a junior from New Jersey, expressed hope that Monday’s letter, which she wrote along with fellow dual degree student Inbar Brand, would encourage Columbia’s administration to do more to support the program.

"I really love my program, and I want things to improve at Columbia," Katz told the Free Beacon. "If things do, Columbia would be an amazing place to be Jewish and to be Israeli and to be from TAU. I just hope that Columbia really works on this issue."

But, at the moment, she acknowledged: "The anti-Israel sentiment is everywhere—everywhere, all the time. … It’s concerning. Things are concerning."

Inbar Brand, left, and Chloe Katz (Via Chloe Katz)

According to the letter, the dual degree students face "[o]bvious negative judgment from peers and professors when we introduce ourselves in class as part of the TAU Dual Degree Program'' as well as campus-wide activism to "abolish our program." The campaign includes flyers "distributed on campus and posted in academic buildings," rallies "in the middle of campus," and upcoming student "referendums … allowing our peers to vote on whether we have the right to be on campus," the letter said.

"Other dual degree programs do not suffer from this hurtful degradation which affects all TAU Dual Degree students, whether they are Jewish, Israeli, or neither," the letter concluded. "We should be treated as equally legitimate members of the Columbia campus and community, as are all students of Columbia’s other Dual BA programs."

A Tel Aviv University spokeswoman told the Free Beacon in a statement: "The dual degree with Columbia is our flagship international BA program and we are very proud of this partnership. While the current climate introduces new challenges for our students, we are fortunate to be working with a wonderful team at Columbia who are working closely with us to navigate these complicated times. The program continues to attract excellent candidates and to offer them first-rate education in the two institutions."

Benny, 21, a sophomore from New Jersey, has gone back and forth about whether to leave Tel Aviv University for Columbia in the fall along with the rest of his dual degree class. At the moment, he said, he plans to complete the program "for professional purposes primarily."

"There is a lot of talk between our Tel Aviv University cohort about how what’s going on on campus at Columbia is horrific," Benny told the Free Beacon, asking that his last name not be published so as not to "bite the hand." "We’re all seeing the videos, and we’re all hearing from our friends who are a year or two above us. It’s scary."

"It would be nice to receive an email from Columbia, like, ‘We support you guys no matter what. We're here for you guys. Don't worry about the protests,’" he added. "But maybe I'm asking for too much. It is a political organization."