Editor’s Note: Shai Davidai is an assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School. He received his PhD in social psychology from Cornell University and has previously taught at Princeton University and at The New School for Social Research. He is on X @ShaiDavidai. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I’m a 40-year-old Columbia University professor and last month I found myself crying in front of dozens of strangers on campus.
I wasn’t planning on crying. The tears just came out when I spoke about the danger of antisemitism on US campuses in a video that has since gone viral. Judging from the thousands of supportive messages I’ve received, it seems that Jewish Americans around the country have been crying with me. It was a cry of despair — a howl, really — that took on the purest form of human pain. A cry that arose from the darkest, deepest and most primal of fears. A cry that has been consuming me for weeks, urging me to speak up.
Following the horrific massacre in Israel by Hamas terrorists on October 7, I felt an intense, relentless grief. Grief for the thousands of civilians shot, murdered, mutilated, raped and beheaded. Grief for the intentional killing of babies, some burned beyond recognition. Grief for the confused children dragged at gun point by violent men into captivity in Gaza.
Yet there was a deeper, darker grief. A grief that seeped from a wound I’d thought was healed. A grief that comes from the trauma hiding at the bottom of every Jewish person’s heart. A grief that comes from seeing, once again, Jewish people targeted in their homes and communities.
Soon, this darkest of griefs was joined by intense fear. I feared not only for the future of innocent Israeli and Palestinian children, but for the future of my family here, in New York City.
Having spent over 13 years building a close-knit community of like-minded liberals, I suddenly find myself abandoned. Abandoned by the resounding silence of friends and neighbors who refuse to publicly denounce Hamas’ evil crimes against humanity. Abandoned by colleagues who whitewash and excuse barbarities that included the raping of Israeli women and the execution of disabled Israeli children as a mere “military response,” who consider such horrors as “awesome” acts of “resistance.” Abandoned by student organizations who have welcomed and celebrated the October 7 massacre with the chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” code words for the eradication of Jews living in Israel.
Abandoned by Columbia University — my very own employer — which, in the name of fostering “different points of view” has allowed such expressions to take place. Its statement that “we must avoid language that vilifies, threatens, or stereotypes entire groups of people” rings hollow when it doesn’t condemn the professors and students doing exactly that.
This is happening not in Gaza. Not in Israel. Here, in the United States of America. Here, at universities, which are supposed to provide safe spaces for everyone in the community. Everyone, it seems, but Jews and Israelis.
On the day following Hamas’ unspeakable massacre, I woke up to the most petrifying realization a parent can have: the realization that right now, all across America, there are people who see my 7-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, both dual citizens of Israel and the US, as legitimate targets of resistance.
Were they older, I would have loved for my children to attend an incredible institution like Columbia. But not now, not under this leadership. I would be too worried for their safety. The differences between the student organizations’ chant of “from the river to the sea” and the Nazi chant of “Germany for Germans” are mere semantics. The antisemitic sentiment is the same.
It is not just these chants that keep me up at night. It is the antisemitic violence that inevitably follows when university leaders are willing to look the other way.
There is the Israeli student who was physically attacked at my workplace, Columbia University, while hanging posters of the kidnapped babies in Gaza, the Jewish students here who have been spat on, cursed at and received death threats. There are the online threats to rape Jewish women and throw them off a cliff and slit the throats of Jewish men on Cornell University’s campus, my alma mater. (A suspect has been arrested and is being held in jail, with the university president saying the school would respond “rapidly and forcefully” to threats.) There are the student organizations who, in their support of Hamas’ actions, pounded on the doors of a library while frightened Jewish students locked the door and sheltered inside at Cooper Union in Manhattan. There are the Jews supporting Israel who were punched and whacked at Tulane in New Orleans. There is the UC Davis professor who threatened to attack Jewish journalists and their children, ending her social media post with emojis of a knife, a hatchet and three drops of blood. The list goes on and on.
These days, taking the subway to campus or strolling with my family through Central Park, I experience an acute and very specific anxiety: Who among my colleagues, friends and neighbors sees my children as legitimate targets? Who among my community sees the lives of my Jewish and Israeli students as expendable? How can I ever feel safe myself at a campus whose leadership fails to condemn the rape of young women and other horrors perpetrated by Hamas on October 7.
The horrific rise of antisemitism on US campuses is a wakeup call for action. Contact every politician in your city and state. Join your PTA. Write an op-ed. Call your alma mater. File a lawsuit. We must hold accountable the leaders of institutions who, in their silence, embolden those who wish to exterminate an entire people. We must tell the heads of our universities that vacuous public relations stunts creating antisemitism task forces are meaningless when they refuse to condemn support for terror within the campus community. We must send the world a clear message: Our lives are just as valuable as anyone else’s.
At the same time, we Jews and Israelis can – and must – stand in unity with the Palestinian people and work toward peaceful coexistence. Even in our darkest times, we must foster empathy for every person currently striving for safety and dignity. One can support a free Palestine without being antisemitic or anti-Israeli. One can fight for a sovereign Palestinian state and feel deep pain at the anguish of innocent Palestinian children while also publicly expressing a loathing of Hamas. I know, because I do. I know, because many students and faculty at Columbia have told me that they want to support the Palestinian people yet refuse to march in hate-filled protests that celebrate Hamas’ crimes.
What we cannot do is accept the existence of internationally recognized terror organizations that explicitly call for our demise. We cannot accept pro-terror student groups in the US that celebrate the atrocities committed by these organizations. We can never accept torture and murder of civilians as a legitimate act of resistance.
This fear that has engulfed me is not new, of course. Every Jewish person carries it within them, regardless of whether they are Orthodox, Reform or a humanist atheist like myself. This fear is as old as the existence of the Jewish people, as old as our persecution. It is a fear that lurks in the dark basements of every Jewish mind, a basement whose door we usually don’t allow ourselves to prop open. It is a fear that Jewish children inherit from their parents and Jewish parents try to shield their child from.
Last week, crying in front of complete strangers on Columbia’s campus, it was that exact fear that howled through my throat. It was the fear of history repeating itself, the fear of the world’s apathy in the face of the largest Jewish death toll on a single day since the Holocaust. I was encompassed by the darkness of that hidden basement, crying for the world to listen: Never again is now.