Why Columbia Professor Shai Davidai Protests Students


Professor Shai Davidai woke up on Sunday morning and asked Columbia University for backup. In an email to top administrators, he requested a police detail “of at least 10 cops” to accompany him to the edge of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on the Morningside Heights campus, where he intended to shout the names of the 133 hostages held by Hamas inside Gaza. Cas Holloway, the university’s chief operating officer, made a counteroffer: no police detail, and Davidai would be cordoned off on a small lawn far from the students, who had been demonstrating for five days. When his demands were not met, Davidai resorted to his standard tactic: posting. “Fuck you Cas,” he wrote on X on Monday.

Later that morning, Davidai was met by Columbia security when he arrived at a campus gate north of Broadway and 116th Street surrounded by media scrum and nonstudent protesters wearing Israeli flags. With a security guard between them, Holloway informed Davidai that he could not enter. “My card has been deactivated, why?” Davidai asked. He raised his voice to address the throng around him: “You cannot let people that support Hamas on campus and me, a professor, not go on campus. Let me in now.” He was not let in, though he continued his protest outside the gates and online. “This is 1938,” he tweeted.

It was a moment of high tension between Davidai and the administration he has battled for months — a fight he has extended far beyond campus. The Israeli-born assistant professor at the business school has demanded since October 7 that Columbia crack down on pro-Palestinian protesters whom he accuses of calling for violence against Jewish students on campus. Without much of a filter, Davidai’s claims on social media have become a magnet for attention, with support from Fox News hosts and the official social-media channel of Israel. During a House hearing on Columbia last week, Representative Ilhan Omar asked Columbia’s leader about Davidai by name, citing his social-media exchanges with student protesters. University president Minouche Shafik said that while she is used to critique, “attacking our students is unacceptable.”

Despite his ban from Columbia’s main campus, Davidai did not tone down his rhetoric against student demonstrations. Sitting on a bench on Tuesday in Riverside Park wearing a Star of David pendant, he repeated his call for the governor to activate the National Guard to forcibly remove the protesters from the Columbia lawn. “I believe in any peaceful solution, but the university is unwilling to do anything else,” says Davidai. “They’re negotiating with the terrorists.”

Davidai says that he is aware of the “fraught” nature of a professor calling for a military sweep inside his own university but that it is necessary after the NYPD arrested protesters last week only for the university to let most of them back inside. Troops, he says, are necessary to protect the campus from those he says are terrorizing Jewish students. “The opposite of Kent State is not anarchy,” he says.

Davidai on Monday, protesting his own university after Columbia banned him from its main campus.
Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

Until last year, Davidai kept a relatively low profile at Columbia. For five years, he has taught at the business school, half a mile north of the main campus, where he is still allowed access. This semester, his sole course was on managerial negotiations for M.B.A. students. “It’s been my paradise,” he says. His research focuses on how zero-sum thinking can get in the way of progress. A recent public panel he sat on was a discussion about how to find freedom from imposter syndrome.

Davidai comes from a prestigious Israeli family. His grandfather Benjamin was a founding executive of El Al, the national airline; last July, Benjamin Netanyahu was fitted for a pacemaker in a hospital wing named after Davidai’s parents. Prior to the Israel-Hamas war, the professor was part of the Israeli demonstrations against the Netanyahu government. Last July, he was punched in the face during a protest in Tel Aviv by someone he claims was an undercover police officer. As a medic in the IDF, Davidai says he joined the navy to avoid service in the occupied West Bank. Colleagues who have known him for years attest to his liberal beliefs. “You might not know this from everything roiling around him, but I know him as a peacenik,” said his thesis adviser, Thomas Gilovich. “He is a firm believer in a two-state solution.”

“I’m a lefty Israeli,” says Davidai. “I’m pro-Palestine. I’m pro-Israel. I’m anti-terror. But when you justify October 7th, that’s how it started.”

After Hamas attacked Israel, Davidai promptly called for Columbia president Shafik to ban Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine after the groups led unauthorized protests on campus. Last November, he said such groups “celebrate rape and murder” and “call for the eradication of an entire people from their country — referencing JVP’s opposition to Zionism and SJP’s distribution of materials that were accused of supporting Hamas following the attack. When I sat with Davidai on Tuesday, he repeatedly called students terrorists and Nazis, referencing a sign from an anonymous demonstrator that read “Al Qasam’s Next Target,” referring to the military wing of Hamas. The sign pointed to a group of people with Israeli flags on campus.

“When you actually call on Hamas to harm Jewish students on campus, that crosses the line from being pro-terror to actively engaging with terrorists,” says Davidai. “So you are a terrorist. You’re pushing the terrorist ideology. You’re not doing it with a gun, you’re not doing it with a suicide-bomb belt, but you are doing it with pushing the ideology. Goebbels was a Nazi. He never held a gun.”

Davidai also says the students in the encampment were a “pro-Hamas brainwashed mob,” referring to a video in which demonstrators denounced Davidai using the protest tactic of the people’s microphone — a call-and-response repetition of each sentence from a leader to a group to ensure everyone can hear. “They were being told to repeat lies about me,” he says. Later in the day, I heard students in the encampment use the method to announce that halal and vegetarian meals were ready.

Around 20 percent of Columbia’s undergraduate population is Jewish, and many of those students have told the administration they have been harassed since October 7. “If somebody is going around believing I’m the next target of Hamas’s military wing, then I no longer feel safe walking through campus, let alone the heart of campus,” said Nicholas Baum, a first-year student in a joint program of Columbia and the nearby Jewish Theological Seminary. Earlier this year, Baum said he emailed Davidai “telling him how much of a fan I was of his advocacy on behalf of Jewish pro-Israel students.” Security has been heightened for months at the seminary dorms he lives in. Still, he said there has been a “mass exodus” of students from the dorm this week. On Monday, when Baum left campus to go out of state, he said “the place was about a ghost town.”

Davidai has been keen to center stories of Jewish students who say they have experienced harassment. But he told me he has also been harassed over the past six months — including being emailed photos of Auschwitz. “It started with the student organizers,” he says. “Now because I’m a professor, I cannot name students, but you can go online and see the lies they have been spreading about me.”

“It’s just insane to me that he can go around claiming students are harassing him,” said Maryam Iqbal. Since October, Iqbal, a first-year Barnard student and an organizer of the Columbia chapter of SJP, says she has been reporting Davidai for his social-media account, on which he posts videos of student demonstrators. “I know without fail at every protest, if I’m going to chant, I’ll end up on his Twitter.”

In March, the university opened an investigation into the allegations of harassment. During her testimony last week in Congress, Shafik stated that the university has received “more than 50” complaints against Davidai. Students with Jewish Voice for Peace claimed this week that they did not feel safe with him on campus after a comment he made last week to the Columbia Daily Spectator. “Just like Israel accepted the kapos, like Israel accepted the Judenrat, they will accept the JVP,” Davidai told the school paper. “And I am sorry, but it is not a big achievement to be on the last train to Auschwitz.” Columbia did not respond to comments about the inquiry; in conversation, Davidai referred to it as “fake.”

Iqbal, who was suspended last week for participating in the encampment, said she is frustrated with the differences in Columbia’s response to the dissent. “I’m suspended,” she said. “I’ve been evicted. He’s still a professor; he’s under investigation. I didn’t get the privilege of having an investigation. I just got kicked out.”

“I’m 18 years old,” she added. “He’s a grown man.”

From left: Davidai at a coffee shop on the Upper West Side on Tuesday. Photo: Frankie AlduinoPhoto: Frankie Alduino

From top: Davidai at a coffee shop on the Upper West Side on Tuesday. Photo: Frankie AlduinoPhoto: Frankie Alduino

Davidai is fighting his colleagues, too, taking a stance against Columbia professors who have walked out to protest the arrest of student demonstrators as well as those professors who have not spoken up at all. Considering the universities that remained open in Nazi Germany, he asks, “Who do you think those professors were? Were they either Nazis, just like the pro-Hamas professors here, or just good people that were doing good jobs, just like most of my colleagues at the business school? It’s no different. So what do I think of them? Exactly what I think of the Nazi professors that kept teaching and the non-Nazi but very just good people that were doing their jobs. If you look the other way, you look the other way.”

As of Wednesday, with a 48-hour deadline given to demonstrators to disperse from campus, the future of the encampment remains unclear. So does Davidai’s employment. Even if tensions cool to a simmer over summer break, the untenured professor under investigation for allegedly harassing students does not intend to back down. (He does intend to sue.) Davidai, who was headed to Israel on Wednesday for a previously scheduled Passover trip, was still tweeting about the “pro-Hamas” faction on campus. Sitting in Riverside Park, I ask about the prospect of his getting fired, noting I would certainly be worried about my job security if I’d said “fuck you” to the COO of my company in a public forum.

“I was just on the phone with my parents, and they asked me about the legal aspects of it, and I said, ‘It doesn’t matter what the legal aspects are,’” he explains. “I’m doing everything legally, as I should. But if the university finds a way to fire me and the legal aspects are different from the moral aspects, I’d rather go with the moral. It’s very clear to me.”

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