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Why I joined the lawsuit against Columbia over its antisemitism

PoliticsWhy I joined the lawsuit against Columbia over its antisemitism

As a mother of two teenage daughters, I returned to grad school at Columbia University to build my skills in charitable work and meet professors, alumni and partner organizations who also cherish this mission. 

A few weeks ago, just months from graduation, I joined a federal lawsuit against the school — which I love — to make sure it’s held accountable and finally takes action against campus antisemitism.

After months of anti-Israel protests and verbal and physical assaults against Jews, it became clear that I must be brave and take action others aren’t comfortable taking.

Columbia’s leaders have failed to enforce their own rules of conduct requiring them to protect Jewish students’ safety and guarantee our right to “engage in academic pursuits requiring uninterrupted attention.”

They failed repeatedly to protect Jewish community members, despite their obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Columbia is a tax-exempt nonprofit; many find that surprising since tuition at this Ivy League university is among the highest in the United States.

Columbia’s IRS form 990 shows it receives $1.2 billion in government grants annually.

Yet, despite its financial resources and countless pleas from students, Columbia has elected not to keep Jewish students safe.

When I first got to Columbia in 2022, I was eager to make new friends and be exposed to people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

I looked forward to expanding on my decades of experiences as a volunteer on numerous nonprofit boards, including as the Chair of the Gabriel Project Mumbai, a charity serving the most vulnerable in India based on Jewish values. 

Jewish values and charity — tikkun olam (“repairing the world,” or making it a better place) — have always been a significant part of my life, and I wanted to share these values with my classmates.

Near the start of my first semester, I hosted students for Sukkot and did so again last year, on Oct. 5. 

When we returned to campus, just days after the Oct. 7 attack — everything had changed for the worse for Jewish students.

I felt the antisemitism on campus right away.

That week, the head of my school’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility committee sent the agenda for our next meeting, failing to even mention the terrorist attack. 

But this feeling was not new.

I’d experienced antisemitism in my first-year required class, “Ethics in the Nonprofit Sector,” where my professor — the school’s chief diversity officer — added a reading to our syllabus to discuss the “ethical dilemma” of Jewish donors influencing Israel studies programs.

He chose to discuss this on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, after Jewish students informed him of our religious observance and planned absence from class.

The article criticized The Schusterman Family Foundation and its donations, even though the following week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy touted it as worthy of the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy.

Why would an ethics professor choose to indoctrinate students, including many from abroad, with his negative views of Jews, masked in a lesson of “donor influence”?

When I reported this incident, and other cases of recurring Jew-hatred, the deans met with me but failed to follow through on their duty to report it to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

Follow along with The Post’s coverage of Israel’s war with Hamas

I emailed President Minouche Shafik, met with deans and attended the president’s listening forum. I did everything I could to educate other students and the administration about antisemitism.

I have reported every antisemitic incident that I experienced.

That includes being physically blocked from Butler Library due to an anti-Israel protest. And having my class interrupted when Students for Justice in Palestine chanted outside my classroom. 

Finally, I joined the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice lawsuit against Columbia, led by Kasowitz Benson Torres; many Jewish students on campus have also experienced antisemitism but felt they could not speak up because of their parents’ fears, concern for grade retaliation and the risk of hindering job opportunities.

I knew I had to step up.

I’ve given “Mom Hugs” to Jewish students all over campus, after hearing their heart-breaking stories about what they’ve endured.  

In honor of my Grandma Ann, a Holocaust survivor, and my mom, Louisa, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, and for the sake of my daughters, future grandchildren and Jewish students everywhere, I cannot stand idly by while this university chooses not to protect its Jewish community from antisemitism. 

Valerie Gerstein is a second-year graduate student in the Nonprofit Management master’s program at Columbia University and alum of the Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet.  

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