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‘They’re Failing to Protect Their Pro-Palestinian Students’

Students who were hit with a chemical agent at a rally on Friday say Columbia’s leaders are partly to blame.

8:06 PM EST on January 23, 2024

(Courtesy of Atish Saha)

Amid the ongoing Israeli siege and bombardment of Gaza, which has killed at least 25,000 Palestinians and left nearly a million people at critical risk of starvation, all with the implicit blessing and explicit funding of the United States, the nation’s focus has—naturally—settled on elite centers of learning, including New York’s own Columbia University.

Egged on by donors, Zionist groups unaffiliated with the university, and some professors, critics have repeatedly accused Columbia's leaders of endangering Jewish and pro-Israel members of the community by "allowing" protected First Amendment activity on campus—even after the university took the controversial step of banning two pro-Palestine student groups in November.

But on Friday, it was pro-Palestine demonstrators, including numerous Jewish students, who were attacked on campus.

During a rally calling on the university to divest from companies linked to the occupation of Palestine, an apparent chemical agent was released that emitted a noxious smell that clung to people's clothes and stung the eyes, noses, and lungs of anyone unlucky enough to be exposed to it. In the days following the attack, at least eight students have sought medical attention for issues ranging from blurred vision, extreme nausea, and respiratory distress, according to organizers.

Soph Askanase, a member of the suspended chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, told Hell Gate that they first noticed the smell after protesters had marched around campus and returned to the steps of Low Library. Out of nowhere, Askanase and others began to smell a putrid stench that burned their eyes and noses.

"It was unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before, like rotting carcasses and sewage," said Askanase, 21. "I left the protest with a headache. And at the time, I just thought maybe it was from stress or maybe it was from something else. And then I started to hear that a lot of people were experiencing this and a lot of people continue to smell it on their clothing and continue to wash their clothing and it wouldn't come off." 

Askanase told Hell Gate they continued to suffer lingering headaches days after the incident, but did not have to see a doctor. Others weren’t so lucky: At least one student sought medical attention immediately following the alleged attack, and others went to urgent care or local hospitals on Monday after apparently being re-exposed to the chemicals when presenting their clothing as evidence to campus public safety, according to L.S., a 19-year-old sophomore at Barnard College who requested that she be identified only by her initials for fear of retaliation.

L.S. told Hell Gate she felt sickened on Monday after she and others spent Sunday evening sitting in a room smelling the fumes from their contaminated clothing, and was forced to leave class and rush to Mount Sinai Morningside after her vision began to blur. According to L.S., doctors told her her symptoms were likely due to chemical irritation, although they could not identify what chemical was causing the injuries.

According to three students who spoke with Columbia’s student newspaper, the Spectator, protesters identified the chemical agent as being "skunk," a crowd-control weapon developed in Israel and used against Palestinians in the West Bank. Askanase told Hell Gate that she spoke with Palestinian students who had recognized the stench after having previously been exposed to the use of skunk. The concoction, which according to a 2012 report in Reuters consists of baking powder, yeast, and other undisclosed ingredients, can be dispersed by firehose or from spray cans and grenades.

In a series of social media posts, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) identified two men who organizers said had been harassing protesters Friday afternoon, singling out Jewish protesters in particular and taunting them as “self-hating Jews.” According to SJP, the men are Columbia University students and veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces. Online sources, including news stories and social media accounts, confirm that the men identified by SJP as the perpetrators did indeed serve in the IDF, but Hell Gate is not publicly identifying the two men, as they have not been charged with a crime.

A spokesperson for the NYPD confirmed to Hell Gate that it was investigating the incident, but said no arrests had been made as of Tuesday afternoon. 

In the wake of the alleged attack, Columbia University administrators took more than 48 hours to notify the community. In a brief message issued Sunday evening, the university notified the community of an incident, but did not go into detail about who was attacked.

"The Department of Public Safety is investigating incidents reported in connection with Friday’s protest that are of great concern," the note read. "Public Safety received an initial complaint on Friday night, with additional complaints filed on Sunday. The Department has been actively working with local and federal authorities in this investigation, with the NYPD taking a lead role."

Interim Provost Dennis A. Mitchell had much more to say in an email sent Monday morning—but not about the alleged attack, which went unmentioned. Instead, Mitchell referred vaguely to "disruptions," and listed a number of violations of the code of conduct that could lead to disciplinary proceedings, including shouting down speakers or threatening physical harm.

The university did not address the incident in detail until Monday evening, following the publication of a critical article in the Intercept. At 7:26 p.m., precisely an hour after the article went online, Mitchell sent out an email to the entire university, describing steps the administration and the NYPD were taking to investigate. Mitchell wrote that "the alleged perpetrators identified to the University were immediately banned from campus," but did not provide details on the identity or number of alleged perpetrators.

When Hell Gate sent a detailed list of questions to the university press team, a spokesperson referred to Mitchell’s statement and suggested we contact the NYPD, which the spokesperson said was leading the investigation. The spokesperson did not comment on the university’s delayed response, nor on the identities of the alleged perpetrators who have been banned from campus.

In the days following the October 7 attack by Hamas and the overwhelming violence that Israel has unleashed in response, Columbia—along with other elite schools—has found itself at the center of the resulting culture war stemming from divisions between those who support Israel and those who support Palestinians.

In October, the rightwing group Accuracy in Media parked a truck with a large display identifying students it accused of antisemitism, leading to a defamation lawsuit from at least one of those the group named.In response to the actions of Accuracy in Media, Columbia University established a "Doxxing Resource Group" and condemned the move as "a dangerous form of intimidation," according to Gothamist. At the time, at least one student told Gothamist that she felt the administration had been too slow in responding to attacks on its students by outside groups.

In November, the university suspended the campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, which it accused of violating the code of conduct for student groups. (Administrators, critics noted, had changed its policy for student events just days after large protests by SJP and JVP.)

But that didn’t mollify pro-Israel critics, who continued to hammer the administration virtually every time a pro-Palestine rally took place on or near campus. 

To Askanase, the administration’s focus on pro-Palestine activism points to a clear priority when it comes to student safety. "They're failing to protect their pro-Palestinian students," Askanase told Hell Gate. "The university talks a lot about the importance of Jewish safety. But it feels like that doesn't apply to Jewish anti-Zionist students."

Students like L.S. see the rhetoric of those who believe Columbia University has not done enough to restrict pro-Palestine activism as playing a direct role in the escalation of campus tension into outright violence.

"They characterize me and fellow organizers as terrorists, and as deserving of violence and ostracization," L.S. told Hell Gate. "So this doesn't come as a surprise at all."

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