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Three takeaways from the Columbia University president’s testimony on antisemitism

<i>Ken Cedeno/Reuters via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Columbia University President Nemat
Ken Cedeno/Reuters via CNN Newsource
Columbia University President Nemat "Minouche" Shafik testifies before a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on "Columbia University's Response to Antisemitism

By Matt Egan and Ramishah Maruf, CNN

New York (CNN) — For nearly four hours, another Ivy League school president faced a congressional grilling over antisemitism on campus.

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik tried to avoid the firestorm of controversy that pushed out two of the three university presidents who testified on Capitol Hill in December.

Shafik, who was traveling during that last hearing, had the advantage of time to avoid some, though not all, of the landmines.

Here are three takeaways from today’s hearing.

Better preparations for some questions

Shafik was better prepared for the question that tripped up the leaders of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania in December: whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate university rules.

While the other university presidents provided lawyerly answers that went viral, Shafik and her three Columbia colleagues all unequivocally stated that such calls would violate the code of conduct at Columbia.

However, on some more specific issues, Shafik waffled and struggled to give clear answers, giving her critics considerable fodder along the way.

For instance, the Columbia president was asked by Rep. Lisa McClain whether mobs shouting “from the river to the sea” or “long live the intifada” qualify as antisemitic comments.

At first, Shafik said she finds such comments offensive.

Pressed by McClain about whether these chants are antisemitic, Shafik said: “I hear them as such. Some people don’t.”

Only after David Schizer, the co-chair of Columbia’s task force on antisemitism, indicated it would qualify as antisemitism did Shafik agree.

Professors face consequences

A similar situation played out when it comes to disciplining professors.

“On my watch, for faculty who make remarks that cross the line in terms of antisemitism, there will be consequences,” Shafik said during the hearing.

Shafik said tenured professor Joseph Massad, who called the October 7 attacks “awesome” in an online piece the next day, had been “spoken to” by members of his department.

However, Shafik walked back her answer on his removal as chair of an academic committee though she did confirm he was under investigation for discriminatory remarks.

“I do condemn his statement. I am appalled by what he said,” Shafik said in response to a question from Rep. Tim Walberg. “He has been spoken to.”

In an emailed response to CNN, Massad said that his chairmanship of the commitee was simply coming to the end of the one-year appointment and that he was unaware of any probe prior to today’s hearing.

Shafik said a professor who expressed support for Hamas on social media following October 7, Mohamed Abdou, is grading his students’ papers but will “never teach at Columbia again, and that will be on his permanent record.”

And Shafik said one professor, Columbia Business School assistant professor Shai Davidai, is under investigation for harassment.

Davidai called Shafik a “coward” in a fiery speech last year criticizing the university president for failing to quiet “pro-terror” voices at the school.

The same professor has more than 50 complaints against him, Shafik said. Columbia University confirmed Davidai is under investigation.

Davidai said to CNN that he has never spoken against students by name, only “pro-Hamas” student organizations and professors.

“They’re investigating me for the entire reason this hearing was held in the first place. Columbia is investigating me for my social media tweets and only my social media tweets,” he said.

Abdou did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More work is needed

Of course, none of this is a trivial matter for Columbia students, including those who attended the hearing, chanted outside the hearing and spoke out during a press conference beforehand.

One undergraduate student, Eden Yadegar, accused Columbia leaders during the press conference of sitting “idly by as a tsunami of antisemitism,” including harassment, intimidation and threats of physical violence, “flooded every aspect of campus life.”

Shafik made clear during the hearing that Columbia officials “will not tolerate antisemitic threats, images and other violations.”

However, Shafik acknowledged that Columbia officials have “much more work to do” as they seek to balance protecting free speech with ensuring all students feel safe.

Contributing: CNN’s Elisabeth Buchwald.

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