Before the war broke out, Shai Davidai was already protesting on campus against Israel’s proposed judicial reforms. Now, he has turned his attention to what he deems to be a much more pressing issue: the moral failure of his own university’s leadership in its inability to strongly condemn Hamas or pro-Palestinian groups that seem to support it.
Davidai grew up in Kiryat Ono and moved to the United States in 2010 to attend Cornell University for graduate school. In 2019, he joined the Columbia Business School in New York City, where he teaches business management.
With two young children, Davidai was moved to speak out at the October 19 vigil of Columbia Jewish students as a father. His words implicated not just Columbia University, but many of its elite peer institutions, which have seen large pro-Palestinian protests as well as a dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents since the start of the war.
“To every parent in America who sends their child to NYU, to Harvard, to Stanford, to Berkeley, I want you to know…we cannot protect your children from pro-terror student organizations,” he said at the vigil. “To the pro-terror student organizations on [these campuses], my two-year-old daughter is a legitimate target of resistance. That is what they are saying, you’re allowed to murder and kidnap my two-year-old daughter in the name of resistance, and none of the presidents of universities all around the country are willing to take a stand.
“We would never allow the KKK to march on our campus. We would never allow a pro-ISIS demonstration on our campus,” he added. “Can you imagine in the city that had to endure 9/11, the worst attack on American soil, can you imagine that here we have pro-terror student organizations?”
Davar spoke with Davidai about the campus atmosphere, the university leadership whom he has called “cowards,” and how the student body should move forward from here.
Davar: October 7th has become this 9/11 moment of remembering where you were when you found out. Where were you when you found out? How did you react, what did you do?
Davidai: For us, it was Friday night. My wife and I had just finished Shabbat dinner. We were just about to get into bed and were scrolling aimlessly on our phone and realized wait, something’s happening. I ended up staying up all night experiencing it live while everyone in Israel was experiencing it Saturday morning. Just like everyone else, we were shocked and immediately went into grieving, because we understood how horrible it was. And we never expected what would come next and the reaction here in New York. We were under the assumption that the whole world was watching with us and the whole world was grieving with us. And boy were we wrong.
Davar: What was the timeline of the reaction? In the beginning it seemed like there was a wave of support, and then other waves.
Davidai: There wasn’t really a wave of support. The news broke out on Saturday. Extremely quickly, I don’t remember exactly but it was a matter of days, several student organizations here at Columbia University, as well as at other universities, put out an announcement supporting what they called a successful act of resistance. We had a professor here at Columbia who immediately wrote an article calling the massacre “awesome,” which was just horrific.
On that Wednesday, four days after, they were already rallying – a huge pro-Hamas, pro-terror rally on campus. This was at a moment where most of the dead hadn’t been identified yet. This was before funerals, before everything, they were already celebrating it on campus here. What I thought was just a problem for Columbia ended up as a problem for many many universities throughout the US.
Davar: Was there any kind of support for Israel on campus? Statements that were made?
Davidai: There was no official statement. The only official statement came 11 days after the massacre. It was a very feeble statement that did not name Hamas, did not condemn its actions and was basically taking this “both sides” kind of approach. When there was a pro-Hamas protest, there was also, I wouldn’t even call it a counter-protest, but a meeting of Jewish American students standing on the other side of campus, 20 or 30 meters away, in silence, holding the pictures of the kidnapped, in mourning. They were in complete silence, hugging each other, a lot of students were crying, while on the other side of campus, you could see celebrations, chanting for an intifada, chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which we all know what that means.
Davar: The statement from the university president came out only on October 18th. That’s a long time after the actual incident.
Davidai: It’s extremely late, and you would assume given they had so much time to wordsmith and think about what they’re going to say, they would come out and condemn Hamas. At that time we already had footage that Hamas took and released of the atrocities they did. And yet, the university did not see at any point, and still has not seen any reason to say this is wrong, we condemn this.
Davar: Was there a follow up statement after that initial one?
Davidai: There was a statement that came out last Friday – another weak statement not mentioning terror or Hamas, just saying that we won’t accept antisemitism on campus. For all intents and purposes they do accept it, since we’ve seen an extreme rise in antisemitic behavior on campus, including swastikas drawn in one of the buildings on campus and Jewish and Israeli students receiving direct threats. We had a student physically attacked when he was giving out the posters for the kidnapped. The university has nothing to say other than to send their condolences.
Davar: Could you back up a bit and paint a picture of what the dynamics on campus are around this issue, even before the war broke out? What is the Jewish community like? How many Israeli students are there, are they organized? Is there a strong pro-Palestinian faction?
Davidai: I’ll be honest with you, I was not aware of any of this before October 7. That’s not to say it wasn’t there – the antisemitic vitriol was steeping beneath the surface. And then it’s as if they got the green light from the university by the university giving its tacit approval, and it just rose to the surface. I can’t tell you how many Jewish or Israeli people are in our community, but I can say it’s one of the biggest in all the US campuses.
I also don’t see [the rallies] as being pro-Palestine. This is clearly pro-Hamas, pro-terror. I consider myself to be pro-Palestine, because I’ve always in my life been active to support a Palestinian state. I think it’s good not just for Palestinian people but for Israeli people – I think it’s the moral and right thing to do. But celebrating what Hamas did has nothing to do with being pro-Palestine, it’s completely pro-terror. They use whitewashed words like [the name of the student group] Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). But there’s nothing about you that’s for justice when you celebrate rape and the murder of babies. You’ve taken an important construct and completely vacated it of meaning.
There’s always been tensions on campus whenever there has been what they call a flare-up in the Middle East and it’s always been very grayscale. It’s always unclear who’s at fault, who started it. But what we saw on October 7th is not grayscale at all. It’s a completely evil act. And the fact that the university can’t condemn it and the fact that the student organizations are celebrating it, is something that I never thought would be possible.
Davar: It’s very shocking. We had SJP at my university. There weren’t any flare-ups while I was there, but they did say those slogans. I don’t think I was able to recognize it as antisemitic at the time. Now it feels clearer.
Davidai: I see it in the same way as Germany in the 1930s [when] the slogan was “Germany for Germans.” It sounds very sensical, there’s nothing explicit about it that’s antisemitic. But the important thing is what the Nazis meant by it. [The Jews] knew that they meant Germany for non-Jews. And here it’s the same thing. These pro-Hamas organizations shout “from the river to the sea,” they know exactly what they mean and we know exactly what they mean. They’re using a dog whistle. And it’s very unfortunate, because these are people who in all other things would always take the side of humanity, would always believe the victim, and for some reason when it comes to Jewish lives, to Israeli lives, they couldn’t care less.
What struck me the most was their blase reactions to rape. These are students that would never, ever go against the victims of rape. Yet when the victims of rape are Israeli women, they don’t care.
What they were saying at the protest is that it’s a legitimate act of resistance. The abstraction here is the enemy. Because what do they mean by resistance? Raping of teenagers, beheading babies, kidnapping elderly women – that’s what they mean by resistance. You can use the word resistance however you want, but that’s what’s hiding behind that word. That’s what was so painful and shocking.
Davar: Does it feel different to be Israeli on campus after October 7?
Davidai: One hundred percent. It feels different to be Israeli all over the city, especially on campus but all over the city. Whenever I go into a taxi, I don’t speak Hebrew, I speak English if I’m with someone. People are hiding their Jewish symbols. My son, seven years old, has a shirt with Hebrew lettering on it, and I feel uncomfortable for him to wear it right now. It feels completely different – it feels scary.
Davar: The video of you speaking at the vigil – how did you come to be speaking there? Was it a group of students you were organizing with before?
Davidai: It was a vigil, an anti-terror vigil that some students organized very impromptu. There were about thirty of us, give or take. People were talking about their experiences. There’s a woman that’s working to help release the kidnapped civilians and she told stories about some families of kidnapped individuals she spoke with. The student who was attacked on campus for giving out the flyers for the kidnapped talked, and after a while, I felt like I had to say something as well.
Davar: What was the reaction to what you said?
Davidai: You know, when I spoke, I think that I was speaking out of sheer pain, and I think it just resonated with a lot of people’s pain. And that’s why the video went viral – it’s now been seen more than 10 million times. I’ve been getting thousands of supportive messages. People are feeling this pain. It has nothing to do with me or who I am – I was just able to express the pain that hundreds of thousands of people are feeling all over the country and all over the world.
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. That’s not to say I haven’t gotten some very nasty emails – I have. I’ve gotten some very nasty comments online. But I try to focus on the positive. Most people are good people.
Davar: Was there a reaction at Columbia? Either an official one or on social media?
Davidai: I’ve been getting a lot of positive comments from students, from staff, people I don’t know reaching out and introducing themselves. I have not received any comment from the leadership of the university – the president, the board of trustees, the provost – the people you’d assume would be taking charge to make sure this is a safe space for everyone. Honestly I just think they don’t care.
It’s extremely complicated. I don’t know what the future holds because the present is very dire.
Davar: What is your demand of the university leadership at this time? What do they need to do to make campus feel like a safe space for Jewish students?
Davidai: I think it’s clear that there’s three things they must do. One, condemn Hamas and what they did, period, not take some false equivalence argument. You can express concern about what’s happening in Gaza, and I actually think you should express concern. But before you do that, you must condemn Hamas for the terror organization that it is, and for their acts against humanity.
Number two, they must remove any student organization that supports terrorism from campus. You can say whatever you want as a free individual, but as an organization you cannot exist, just as we would not allow pro-ISIS or al-Qaeda organizations to roam free on campus.
And number three, they must protect Jewish students as the marginalized minority that we are. Antisemitism must be a fundamental part of “diversity, equity and inclusion.” It’s not enough to be reactive, they need to be proactive. Unfortunately, they can’t even bring themselves to condemn Hamas, so I’m not optimistic, I don’t have my hopes up.
Davar: Is there something that the Jewish community should be doing about the situation? What do they need?
Davidai: I think it’s time for the Jewish community to act as the minority that we are. We have our differences – religious differences, cultural differences – which is fine and important, but we should start acting as a cohesive group, putting our differences aside, and taking a stand that we will not stand for the devaluation of Jewish lives. Jewish lives are not worth [any less] than non-Jewish lives, they’re worth exactly the same, not more or less, than anyone else’s lives.We will not stand for institutions that don’t value our lives, or student organizations that explicitly and blatantly celebrate our deaths.
Davar: Has Jewish student life spoken out so far on that?
Davidai: It’s very hard, because we’re being accosted on all sides. We haven’t even grieved for what’s happening in Israel, and we’re already fighting for our lives on campus and off campus. So I think everyone is doing their best, and I think you’re seeing some amazing grassroots initiatives of Jewish members of the community, not just at Columbia but all over the US that are saying enough is enough. I’m really hoping that in six months from now we will see actual real change, not just vacuous emails, but real change in how universities treat their Jewish members.
Davar: In the vigil, you said you wouldn’t send your children to Columbia in the state it is now. What would need to happen at the university for you to send your children there, years down the line?
Davidai: I already mentioned what should be done in the short term, but in the long term it’s very simple. When you send your kids to any institution, you want your kids to be safe, you want them to be healthy and you want them to be happy. But the first and most important thing is safe. If universities can’t guarantee that, I can’t in full conscious send my kid there. Because it would make no sense. I would never send my kid to a university that has a student organization that’s called ISIS. It’s very simple – even if it was the best university in the world, even if they got a full scholarship, even if I got paid to send them, I would never. Because childrens’ safety comes first. All universities should prove that they value Jewish childrens’ lives. Until they do that, and they’re not doing that right now, students are walking around afraid. Why would anyone in their right mind send their kids to a place like that?
Some universities are taking action, and hopefully we see some good news there. But why would you send someone to a place where they’re told you’re not welcome?
Davar: When it comes to freedom of speech – I’ve heard Palestinian protesters also say they’re being silenced and being forced out of the conversation. It brings up a question that’s on campus all the time of what can you say and not say? Where are the red lines?
Davidai: It’s very ironic that the people who are screaming the loudest are screaming, we’re being silenced. Clearly you’re not being silenced. Clearly you’re the ones being the most vocal. But the question of freedom of speech is not something we should answer – it’s something the university should answer. And the question is this: Would you have allowed students to celebrate the murder of George Floyd? Would you have allowed students to celebrate the shooting at the Pulse club in 2016 where 49 LGBTQ individuals were murdered? If the university says yes we would allow it, they’re basically saying we’re completely morally reprehensible – or they would say we wouldn’t allow that, so we won’t allow it now.
You cannot play both cards at the same time. You cannot say we aren’t allowing people to celebrate terror – unless it’s terror against Jews. Because it doesn’t matter who is the victim. We’re either allowing students to celebrate terrorism, or we don’t allow it, that’s it. It’s not about freedom of speech, it’s about being consistent. And right now they’re not being consistent.
Davar: What does the connection between American Jews and Israeli Jews need to look like right now? Being in the warzone, we always jump to what American Jews can do to support Israel. But I actually think when you look at the things you’ve described, what’s going on on campus is extremely challenging. I want to know what the American Jewish community needs – for itself, from Israel in terms of partnership and support?
Davidai: I think now is an exaggerated version of challenges we’ve faced in the past. When you think about diaspora Jews, it’s an extremely unique situation. The Jewish diaspora is the only diaspora in the world where the diaspora preceded the state. I think this complicates a lot of the relationship.
I think the morning after, once the fighting ends, we have to completely reevaluate our relationship and remember that even though we have our differences, they, meaning the antisemites, don’t see those differences. They don’t care if you’re a rabbi or Modern Orthodox or secular or Reform or Conservative, they do not care. For them, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. Period. So we have to start thinking like that. And at the same time, Israel should be way more supportive of any Jew no matter where they are, regardless of their religious views. And the Jewish diaspora should get more involved in what’s happening in Israel, which is still the international home for the Jewish people.
We should see more unity. Maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m being too idealistic. But Israel is seeing now that it has a responsibility for Jews worldwide, and Jews worldwide are seeing that they have a responsibility for Israel, if only because we don’t have another place to go. When the shit hits the fan here or in France or in Argentina, we don’t have anywhere to go.
Davar: I don’t know if American Jews have that consciousness.
Davidai: I don’t think I necessarily had that consciousness a month or two ago. At the same time, I didn’t think that people I considered my friends would turn against me and refuse to condemn the raping of Israeli Jewish women. Everyone’s experiencing this change. There’s always been Jews that tried to downplay antisemitism throughout history. Unfortunately they’ve always been wrong.
I would add one thing I want to make clear about my own personal views. I’m not asking people to stand with Israel. I’m asking people to stand against terror. I consider myself pro Israel and pro Palestinian. I think both Israel and Palestinians have been taken hostage by an internationally recognized terror organization. I would hate if people distort my message as being about Israel versus Palestine or Jews versus Muslims or Israelis versus Arabs. It’s not. It’s about humanity versus terror. On the humanity side we have the vast majority of Israelis, the vast majority of Americans, the vast majority of Palestinians, the vast majority of anyone in the Middle East, who should stand together against Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Putin who is a ruthless dictator who is aligning himself with them and North Korea, which has explicitly aligned itself with these factions of terror. It’s very easy to know which side to be on. The fact that people think that it’s complicated just shows their moral bankruptcy.
Davar: There’s a lot of debate about language and semantics. People call the IDF a terrorist organization or say that it’s committing a genocide or ethnic cleansing. What do you think about that?
Davidai: We live in a world where you can say what you want. There’s freedom of speech which means you can say what you want. Genocide has a clear definition: it’s targeting civilians for their extermination. If you look at the facts, that’s not what the IDF does. If they did want to do that, they would not warn civilians before bombing to give them time to evacuate. It’s not that I think the IDF is extremely moral in any way. They’re acting like any other armed forces – they’re trying to minimize casualties, with the understanding that when you fight terrorists who hide inside civilian populations and don’t allow civilian populations to evacuate, there will be casualties. Painful casualties, I feel empathy for each one. But we have to be clear – you can use whatever words you want, but that doesn’t make you right.
The other thing that’s stupid about calling the IDF a terrorist organization is looking at how each side deals with its wrongdoings. Let’s not be naive. There have been Jewish terrorists in the past. What do we do with Jewish terrorists? We Israelis put them in jail, we put them on trial, we do our best to make sure it never happens again. What does Hamas do with their terrorists? They celebrate them, they give them a salary, they call them shahids [martyrs]. It’s a false equivalency where people are trying to take this complexity and put it into a simple narrative that is just plain false.
Update: Since the interview with Professor Davidai, Columbia University has suspended two anti-Israel student organizations, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).