My Israeli flag was stolen and burned. I was hit. And the school is preventing the NYPD from protecting us.  Jonathan Lederer for The Free Press.
A view of the banners and Palestinian flags as Pro-Palestinian student protesters resume demonstrations on Friday at Columbia University on the third day of "Gaza Solidarity Encampment" after mass arrests by New York Police Department in New York, United States on April 19, 2024. (Selcuk Acar via Getty Images)

At Columbia I Am Told: ‘Go Back to Poland’

My Israeli flag was stolen and burned. I was hit. And the school is preventing the NYPD from protecting us.

Since the first protest on Columbia’s campus in support of a “Free Palestine” on October 12, I have committed, along with my twin brother and a number of our friends, to show up at these protests with our Israeli and American flags. 

There are often hundreds of people chanting for “intifada” and a handful of us. Suffice it to say, I can think of more pleasant ways to spend a New York City night. We do it for a simple reason: we want to tell Jews at Columbia—and around the world—that we refuse to be bullied off of our own campus.

For nearly seven months, I have been asked the same question by many people in my life: “Do you feel safe on campus as a Jew?” I wear a kippah—I can’t pass. And I have always maintained the importance of standing our ground rather than letting fear drive us away. 

Nothing will stanch that pride, but the situation at Columbia has escalated to a point where my physical safety is in danger.

That is not a metaphor, nor an expression of safetyism. On Saturday night, April 20, I was assaulted and harassed repeatedly inside the gates of Columbia University. 

For five days now, protesters have been camped out on Columbia’s South Lawn demanding financial divestment from Israel, an academic boycott of Israel, a call for cease-fire, and an end to Columbia’s real estate purchases. Their newest demand is to defund Columbia’s public safety, the only people on campus supposedly tasked with keeping us safe. 

On Saturday night, the situation on campus hit a new low. Amid multiple protests both inside and outside of Columbia’s gates, my friends and I decided to show our pride yet again, as we have on so many occasions since Hamas began its war. 

For an hour, 20 of us stood on the sundial in the middle of Columbia’s campus with Israeli and American flags and sang peaceful songs such as Matisyahu’s “One Day” and “V’hi She’amda”—a much-needed ode to the hope and perseverance of the Jewish people in the face of enemies who seek our destruction. 

Even as we sang lyrics such as “We don’t want to fight no more, there will be no more war,” we were met with hostility. Masked keffiyeh-wearers came to us face-to-face, trying to intimidate us. They chanted, “Fuck Israel, Israel’s a bitch!” We were told, “You guys are all inbred.” They threw water in our faces. These groups are not fairly described as “pro-Palestine.” They are active supporters of Hamas and they say so explicitly: “We say justice, you say how? Burn Tel Aviv to the ground,” one group chanted by the gates of my school. “Hamas, we love you. We support your rockets, too.”

One keffiyeh-masked protester came up to my friends and I and held up a sign with an arrow pointing toward us that read: “Al-Qassam’s Next Targets.” Al-Qassam is the military wing of Hamas.

Just after midnight, the protesters began chasing us toward the campus gates. We felt we had to leave for our own safety. In order to exit campus, we had to use the gates on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 116th street—-all other entrances and exits were closed and locked. 

As it so happened, Within Our Lifetime—a group openly committed to the destruction of Israel—was leading a mass protest blocking the gate. On our way out, a keffiyeh-wearing protester began berating my brother and me. A few seconds later, a different protester wearing a keffiyeh came up behind me and grabbed two of my Israeli flags. I chased him toward the gate to get them back. He brought them back to a mob of people still inside the gates of Columbia and who also wore keffiyehs as masks. Unwilling to let them destroy my property, I made my way to the center to get my flags and found them attempting to light one of them on fire. I reached down and pulled the flag away from the fire. As all of this was happening, members of the mob pushed and shoved me.

Watch here: 

At least two solid objects were thrown at me from close range, one of which hit me directly in the face and the other in the chest. Finally, I succeeded in grabbing my flags and ran to rejoin my friends. We ended up being chased out of campus and told to “go back to Poland,” a poignant reminder that even in America, antisemites wish to condemn Jews like me to our ancestors’ tragic fate.

Those were not the only things that were chanted over the past 48 hours at my school.

Students walking by the main library, Butler, might have heard “From the river to the sea, Palestine is Arab!” or “There is no god but Allah, and the martyr is Allah’s beloved!” Anyone walking near the gates on Broadway and 116th probably heard them yelling, “Al-Qassam make us proud, kill another soldier now!” Ironically, the students who have taken over our south lawn are describing Columbia as a “Zionist stronghold.” 

Throughout this entire ordeal, Columbia’s public safety officers were nowhere to be found. The NYPD is not allowed on campus unless specifically asked by administration—and as Mayor Eric Adams made clear today, they have not been asked. We were on our own. 

All of this led one of the rabbis on campus, Elie Buechler, to send a note to the school’s Orthodox community this morning urging students to leave early for Passover: 

What we are witnessing in and around campus is terrible and tragic. The events of the last few days, especially last night, have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy. It deeply pains me to say that I would strongly recommend you return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved.

As for me, I will not stop waving my flags. It is up to Columbia president Minouche Shafik and the rest of the administration to decide whether this means I will be a victim of assault again, or whether she will take all necessary actions to remove the pro-terror mob on campus, and ensure that no other Jew will be assaulted for being proud of his Judaism.

Jonathan Lederer is a sophomore at Columbia studying computer science.

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