The Office of University Life revised a statement of support in response to the recent shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, after the initial statement garnered widespread criticism from Jewish students and alumni for failing to recognize and condemn the anti-Semitic nature of the attack.
Early Saturday morning, Robert Bowers attacked the synagogue armed with an AR-15 rifle and three handguns, killing 11 people and injuring half a dozen more before police apprehended him. Prior to the attack, Bowers had made repeated anti-Semitic statements on Gab, a self-proclaimed “free speech social network.” According to data from the Anti-Defamation League, there was a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, in comparison to the previous year.
On Sunday, a statement released by Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg and emailed to students by Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm, condemned the senseless act of violence, noting the growing number of attacks on people of marginalized identities and faiths. Later that day, hundreds of students attended a vigil, held by Columbia/Barnard Hillel at the Kraft Center, in memorial of the victims of the attack.
“This has been a very difficult time for the Jewish community. Our community is extremely supportive and comes together in times of crisis. It has been inspiring to see the ways in which students find comfort in one another in this time of distress and sorrow. While, of course, I wish we didn’t have to go through experiences like these, I am proud to see the way we unite in the face of tragedy,” Hillel President Noa Shapiro, BC ’19, said.
However, many Jewish students and alumni expressed their frustration with the University’s statement for failing to directly acknowledge the Pittsburgh shooter’s anti-Semitic motives and to address the national rise of anti-Semitism. While the statement acknowledged victims of other recent attacks, including hate crimes against LGBTQ and black Americans, it made no explicit mention of Jews or anti-Semitism.
“By using vague, non-specific language, they seemed to be dancing around the fact of the Jewishness and anti-Semitism of the event,” Danielle Harris, CC ’20, said. “They universalized the tragedy by never once using Jewish language, which is problematic in addressing a community’s tragedy.”
The backlash surrounding the statement was covered by a number of outside media outlets, including the Jewish Journal, Daily Wire, and The Resurgent.
One alum, Zachary Neugut, CC ’16, condemned the statement on Twitter, writing, “I’m embarrassed today to call myself an alumnus & regret having donated to [Columbia College] this year.”
Neugut received a message from the Columbia College Twitter page, saying that, in response to his tweet, the Office of University Life revised its language to make it more explicit that the attack was against the Jewish community. The statement’s first sentence was amended to read, “We are deeply saddened by the horrific anti-Semitic attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday morning,” and a sentence was added to acknowledge that the shooting was a “violent attack on the Jewish community.”
However, Neugut still pushed back against the revision, noting that the statement still included references to the attack on the LGBTQ community at Pulse nightclub in 2016 and the racially motivated shooting of two African-Americans in a Kentucky grocery store last week.
“The second statement is slightly better, but it conflates anti-Semitic hatred with other forms of hatred,” Neugut told Spectator. “Anti-Semitism has existed literally for millennia, and it will exist for the next millennium too. Instead of taking an intersectional approach, which dilutes the focus from Jewish oppression immediately after the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history, the focus should be on anti-Semitism.”
In the wake of the shooting, Albert Mishaan, CC ’19, said he felt that the Jewish community on campus had become more united as a result of the tragedy.
“People underestimate the degree to how diverse the Jewish community is. But it says a lot about that so many people showed up to the vigil on Sunday,” Mishaan said.
However, some Jewish students have said that there exists a sense of apathy among the wider Columbia community when it comes to taking a stance against anti-Semitism.
“I have seen a lot of reactions from Jewish students on campus, changing their profile pictures and really empathizing with this group trauma, but I haven't felt any reaction from my non-Jewish classmates,” Harris said. “I think that most Jews immediately see this as part of a tradition of anti-Semitism, which was not lost after the Holocaust.”
On Tuesday, a group of students also released a statement against anti-Semitism, which has been shared by a number of Jewish student organizations, calling on Columbia students and faculty to pledge their support to the Jewish community. The statement has since been signed by the Columbia College, General Studies, and Engineering Student Councils, after unanimous votes.
In her email, Goldberg urged students to reach out to their dean or to the Office of University Life for support and listed contact information for Counseling and Psychological Services, Columbia Health, and the University Chaplain.