December 25, 2023

Dear Dean Yarhi-Milo and SIPA Administration,

By the time you finish reading this letter, Israeli bombing will likely have killed at least one more Palestinian child in the Gaza Strip. One child has been killed on average every 10 minutes since October. These were future leaders, scholars, artists, journalists, teachers, plumbers, doctors, farmers, poets, and SIPA students.

We, alumni of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University living around the world, are deeply concerned, alarmed, and frustrated at the suppression of views regarding Palestine and Israel at SIPA, Columbia University and other universities across the United States. The deliberate efforts to silence students and faculty engaged in Palestine solidarity threatens the reputation and ethos of the school we have been proud to be alumni of, an ethos embodied by knowledge, inquiry and often, social justice activism, conducted in safety.

Let us remember that as of today, Israeli bombing has killed at least 20,000 people in the Gaza Strip since Hamas’s brutal attack on October 7. Today, the entire population in the Gaza Strip faces the imminent risk of starvation. The bombing campaign is among the heaviest in military history. Major international and Israeli human rights organizations, the UN and International Criminal Court have raised the likelihood of multiple war crimes being committed. Over 1.9 million people are displaced – the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons concluded on December 22 that the aim is “to deport the majority of the civilian population en masse”, i.e. ethnic cleansing.

If anyone has been unwilling to believe Palestinians about the devastation they face, or our own eyes seeing the visuals, every day, more evidence comes to light about the horrors, increasingly verified by multiple American media outlets. Let us also believe the bombing’s strongest supporters: President Joe Biden himself has described it as “indiscriminate”.

Our time at SIPA directly fostered our current life and career paths. Our thinking was critically forged in an academic environment that was open to debate, exposing us to uncomfortable views, and encouraging engagement with diverse peers and faculty representing a plurality of perspectives. Yet, we must express our disappointment in the privileging of a specific point of view by the SIPA administration in response to these horrific events. These include the high-profile Rapid Response webinars which had a significant lack of Palestinian voices and approached the issues from a narrow Israeli and American military perspective. They problematically framed the situation in the Gaza Strip as a humanitarian crisis, rather than one created and being made worse by deliberate policy decisions of the Government of Israel. Your communications as well as the joint statement by Columbia Deans in December repeatedly equate “from the river to the sea” and “intifada” (rise up) as calls for the elimination of Jewish people, and further, decontextualize these from their histories and intentions.

Such characterizations help enable the vicious attacks on SIPA and Columbia students and faculty for expressing grief or solidarity with Palestinians and for protesting against an illegal military occupation, a regime described as apartheid, and a potential ongoing genocide. These appalling attacks on Palestinians and advocates of their rights have included doxxing, physical and verbal assaults, and malicious bad faith attempts to smear them as antisemitic and as supporters of terrorism and genocide. We find equally abhorrent antisemitic incidents that have occurred on campus, including in the SIPA building. We realize that some students, including Israelis, may be feeling unsafe on campus for expressing their grief in the current environment. We do not take political disagreement as a basis for differential treatment, which we have sadly not observed in the actions of SIPA and Columbia administration recently. It is SIPA and the University’s responsibility to protect ALL students equally, and we reaffirm their rights to express their views in safety, without retaliation.

This oppressive atmosphere has been exacerbated on campuses by threats from powerful donors, politicians, and media. There is pressure on universities to promote a certain view supportive of all of Israel’s actions while silencing others, such as the importance of international law and human rights, and one’s right to criticize the government of Israel and its ongoing unprecedented military assault. SIPA must always put the freedom of expression of its students and faculty above the interests of donors and political special interests.

We are especially shocked at the cynical deployment of longstanding anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, antisemitic, and Islamophobic tropes against university students exercising their fundamental rights. We are also concerned by the continued weaponizing of accusations of antisemitism which conflate criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Jewish racism. Multiple scholars of antisemitism have stated their dismay this misuse is justifying collective punishment of Palestinians and shutting down criticism.

We are particularly alarmed at the role this played in the suspension of the Columbia chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. It sets a dangerous precedent. We stand in solidarity with their right to express their views and protest and are concerned about the selective and untransparent enforcement of policies. We acknowledge the creation of the SIPA Anti-Hate Taskforce and urge you to ensure it includes views of actual experts and scholars of racism, including antisemitism, many of which are at Columbia University. We shall be closely observing its outputs.

We recognize your recent pleas for mutually respectful dialogue, nuance, and engagement with difficult conversations. We have heard directly from current students however who feel afraid to engage in the debate, and as such in activism. They are afraid of losing their current and future livelihoods and, in the case of international students (the majority of SIPA students), their visas. They are worried that perpetrators of attacks on them are not being appropriately pursued. They observe a growing atmosphere of fear of speaking out. Most importantly, they feel profoundly let down by SIPA’s administration in supporting them. As SIPA strives to be a truly international public policy school, this limitation on freedom of expression is of urgent concern to us.

We therefore call upon SIPA to:

As ambassadors of SIPA, we keenly recommend aspiring students to choose SIPA. As the University is currently not offering a safe space for students, and shows partiality for some groups over others, we shall be withholding our recommendations and financial contributions to the school until the points above are addressed.

We remain deeply committed to the equal application of international law, human rights, justice, and peace for all people. We are afraid that the global credibility of institutions underpinning these norms is under grave threat, as these principles are selectively applied for Palestinians. The extraordinary risks are seen in the UN Secretary General invoking Article 99 of the UN Charter for just one of the few times in the organization’s history. As an international policy school, SIPA must take a lead in defending these norms forcefully.

As Christmas was canceled in Bethlehem, Pastor Munther Isaac reminded us, “Gaza today has become the moral compass of the world.”

Let us not forget.