By Claudia Villalona
A petition calling for the removal of a Columbia University professor has gathered over 56,000 signatures in the wake of an article by the professor, Joseph Massad, that described the Hamas attacks on Israel as a “resistance offensive.”
The petition, first posted on change.org by Columbia General Studies student Maya Platek, calls the article, titled “Just Another Battle or the Palestinian War of Liberation?” an unacceptable defense of terrorism.
Posted on the online site The Electronic Intifada, the article described the Hamas attacks that began October 7th as an unprecedented “resistance offensive” and a “stunning victory” against the Israeli military.
“Massad’s decision to praise the abhorrent attack encourages violence and misinformation in and outside of campus, particularly putting many Jewish and Israeli students on campus at risk,” wrote Platek in her appeal for support of the petition.
The petition was reported by the Columbia Spectator, a campus newspaper, but it gained substantial traction beyond Columbia after David Friedman, Columbia alumnus and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, shared it on X, formerly Twitter, on October 15th. Other media outlets, including Fox News and the New York Post, have published articles accusing the professor of supporting terrorism. Those articles helped fuel an explosive growth in attention – and petition signatures.
According to Platek, change.org suspended the petition on October 17th, placing it under review by moderators that enforce the platform’s community guidelines. After publishing a second petition that got a little over 900 signatures, the website reinstated Platek’s original petition, which had over 56,700 signatures on Monday.
While Columbia’s administration has not commented on the petition, over 2,000 Columbia faculty members, students and alumni have signed an open letter expressing “unwavering solidarity” with Professor Massad and his right to academic freedom of expression. The letter says that the administration’s silence on the matter has fueled further attacks that threaten academic freedom and personal safety.
“The right to free speech protects expression that may be considered offensive, hateful, or violent,” said Zachary Greenberg, Senior Program Officer for Campus Rights Advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), in an interview with West Side Rag. “Universities cannot punish faculty for expressing political views in a personal capacity,” Greenberg said.
Hamas’ surprise attacks and Israel’s subsequent retaliatory bombardment of Gaza have led to heightened tensions on college campuses. Recent developments at Columbia University reveal a deepening ideological split, raising concerns over freedom of speech on campus and the university’s responsibility to ensure the safety of students and faculty.
Some students within the Columbia community have reported a hostile climate of doxxing, harassment, and censorship on campus, and dueling protests on October 12th led the administration to take the rare step of closing its campus to outsiders during the protests.
Since the competing protests, Columbia has kept the Morningside Heights campus gates closed and limited access out of an “abundance of caution.” Several student organizations have held separate vigils and town hall meetings, and student groups supporting Palestinians have called for a nationwide walkout on campuses on Wednesday, October 25th.
Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace published a joint op-ed in the Columbia Spectator on October 17, expressing fear for their safety and citing a rise in Islamophobia and incidents of “physical harassment, doxxing, and verbal assaults.”
According to the student organizations, students have been “intimidated into silence because the University has failed to ensure our protection, even from our fellow classmates and faculty.”
Canary Mission, a website that publicly identifies individuals and organizations that have expressed what it considers anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments, has published the photos and personal information of several Columbia students and faculty in an effort to intimidate or silence them, according to the joint op-ed.
“Universities have an obligation to both protect students’ safety and uphold the right to free speech,” said Greenberg of FIRE. “The university must make clear the distinction between protected free speech and unlawful violence.”
On October 9th, Columbia’s recently inaugurated president, Minouche Shafik, released the first in a series of statements regarding the conflict, emphasizing the vital role universities play in “fostering critical thinking and scholarship,” but stating that “hate speech, discrimination, or violation of our core values will not be tolerated.”
In a follow-up statement emailed to students and members of the community on October 18th, President Shafik expressed disappointment at the “abhorrent rhetoric coming from members of our community, including members of our faculty and staff.” The statement did not identify any specific comments.
Beyond campus, concerns have mounted over companies and organizations rescinding job offers and punishing current or former students for their political affiliations. The New York Times reported that the law firm Davis Polk is reconsidering its decision to rescind job offers made to two Columbia Law School students because of their leadership roles in organizations that signed on to a joint statement from Palestine Solidarity Groups at Columbia University.
“While private employers do not have the same obligations to the First Amendment as universities, it is nevertheless troubling that private employers are choosing to punish students for their protected political speech,” said Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression at PEN America – a nonprofit organization that advocates for the protection of free speech on campus.
To receive WSR’s free email newsletter, click here.