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Columbia University Chaplain: Anti-Semitism Protests Must Stop

A sign sits erected at the pro-Palestinian demonstration encampment at Columbia University in New York, Monday, April 22, 2024. U.S. Colleges and universities are preparing for end-of-year commencement ceremonies with a unique challenge: providing safety for graduates while honoring the free speech rights of students involved in protests over the Israel-Hamas war. (Photo: Stefan Jeremiah/AP.)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Amid pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University that have led to more than 100 arrests, forced classes online, and left Jewish students and faculty feeling unsafe and unwelcome, the university’s Catholic chaplain says the path forward “must first ensure that such malevolent protests, brimming with anti-Semitism, be stopped.”

“The solution is going to require prioritizing among values and being more clear and decisive,” Father Roger Landry told The Tablet April 22. “I think that the educational mission of the university and the safety and protection of its students have to be vigorously defended, rather than, de facto, allowing protests to control the university’s agenda and milieu.” 

Father Landry said he has witnessed many pro-Palestinian protests that have taken place since mid-October — when Israel began its retaliation against Hamas in Gaza after the terrorist organization on Oct. 7 killed more than 1,200 people, and took more than 200 hostages. 

Tens of thousands Gazans have died, and more than 1.5 million are now displaced.

Father Landry said that while many protests have remained peaceful, many have also turned “ugly, as some in the crowds chant and behave in ways inimical to peace on campus, in the Middle East, or anywhere. 

“If the protests happening on and around Columbia’s campus were peaceful, I don’t think Jewish students would feel endangered,” Father Landry said. 

“Protests that feature pro-Hamas slogans or justifications for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, that chant ‘From the River to the Sea’ that Jewish students interpret as a call for the elimination of the State of Israel, and that praise the Al-Qassam brigades are not peaceful, but downright hostile.” 

Father Landry said he has “concern and sadness over what’s happening.” He said he laments that at a time in which students should be preparing for exams, writing final papers, and enjoying spring, the campus is essentially under lockdown, Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome, student protestors are getting arrested, and classes are being canceled or moved online. 

Father Landry also lamented that “division, hostility and class warfare are being fomented, and various outside elements are trying to use Columbia as a backdrop to push their political agendas. 

“The students who have come here for an education are being forgotten, it seems, by those in positions of leadership on all sides, as the toxic animosities of Middle Eastern conflicts have overflowed onto campus,” Father Landry said. “The principles, prudence, and courage necessary to help resolve the conflict have been wanting.” 

Current protests at Columbia University boiled over last week, when students set up an encampment on the university’s South Lawn to oppose Israel’s military action in Gaza, and demand that the university divest from companies with ties to Israel. Ultimately, more than 100 demonstrators were arrested after the university called in police to help dispel the crowd. 

Protests have continued this week. Protestors are now also there to stand in solidarity with those arrested last week. On April 23, about 150 demonstrators were arrested for defying a university order to leave.

Father Landry said that when he’s passed the current encampment at Columbia University it has been “tranquil, and a more silent form of protest.” The challenge, he said, is that it shows no signs of shutting down on its own and that “every day that nothing happens in consequence, some among the protestors get bolder.” 

“Under the present dynamics, it seems bound to grow,” Father Landry said. 

In his role as a Catholic leader on Columbia’s campus, Father Landry said he is working with the university’s Catholic students to help them recognize the importance of prayer and love, and that they’re called to be peacemakers. He also said he is helping students focus on what they can do to improve the situation and informing them of Pope Francis’ statements on the war.

“We’re praying each day for the situation and trying to reach out to those immediately affected — Jewish students, Palestinian students and those from Gaza and others — to make sure they know we have their back,” Father Landry said.