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Passover arrives at a tense time on Columbia's campus amid pro-Palestine protests

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Passover begins tonight at sundown, and at Columbia University in New York City, the holiday arrives at a tense time. Pro-Palestinian protesters have set up tents on campus lawns since last week, spurring similar protests at other campuses across the country. Reports of antisemitic or threatening incidents directed at Jewish students and faculty have increased amid the protests. Tensions over antisemitism at Columbia have already been high since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, and Israel responded by occupying Gaza. The university moved to virtual classes today in a move to de-escalate. Let's hear now from an organization for Jewish students at Columbia. Rabbi Yuda Drizin is the director of Chabad at Columbia University. Welcome.

YUDA DRIZIN: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. Another Jewish leader on campus, Rabbi Elie Buechler, sent a message to Jewish students Sunday morning saying that they should leave campus during Passover for their own safety. And as I understand, you have a different message - to stay here at Columbia to celebrate Passover together. Tell us why.

DRIZIN: Yes, absolutely. For the Jewish students here, my wife, Naomi, and I see firsthand, like, what they're all going through. But at the same time, the response cannot and should never be fear or to care away. And we have extra security. We have heightened security. There is - we have walking escorts to get to the Chabad house, to get back. But there is never a time to turn away and especially not at Passover, when we have to stand strong and remember our redemption and celebrate together as a family.

SUMMERS: You mentioned that you and your wife, Naomi, have seen firsthand what students have experienced there. You've said that you're horrified by what you witnessed during protests on Saturday on and near campus. Can you just give us a snapshot of what you have seen there?

DRIZIN: Yeah. To be honest, I don't like to amplify those elements of what's happening on campus. It's all out there. But, you know, I'm seeing students being told, go back to Poland. You know, you are just colonizers. You have no place. You know, it's really horrendous stuff. And this is to Jewish American students. And my message, I mean, to the students - and we know there is - there are many eyes at Columbia now, and there's a lot of fear within the student body and with people - alumni parents looking at Columbia and understandably, but just take lesson from the students here. We're having our largest seder yet. There are more students showing up than ever before. You know, this is a very formative moment, and people are making choices. They're saying, you know, we don't want to stand on the side. We want to be with our family. We want to be with our friends. So, you know, if I can share just one thing for everyone, you know, find someone that doesn't have a seder. Find someone that doesn't have matzah, and be - you know, sit together with family.

SUMMERS: I have to ask you. How do you separate the concern over safety for Jewish students from the rights of all students - and, I should say, including Jewish students - to peacefully protest the state of Israel?

DRIZIN: Yeah, that's a good question. I'm not a school administrator or a lawyer.

SUMMERS: Sure.

DRIZIN: As a rabbi, you know, - and our job is - my wife, Naomi, and I - our one focus is the hearts and minds of the Jewish students here. You want to make sure that they have the mental, emotional and spiritual strength to, you know, get through this proudly and strongly. So, you know, that's my goal. That's my mission.

SUMMERS: In your role on campus, though, have you heard from Jewish students who are part of these protests who also say that they have a right to protest peacefully?

DRIZIN: Yes. Again, you know, I don't - I can't speak to the legalities of protests and to the school policies of protests. I'm here to support the Jewish students through whatever comes their way, legal or illegal.

SUMMERS: Your organization has hired additional security to chaperone students. What do you think that Columbia University should do now to ensure that those students - those Jewish students are safe there?

DRIZIN: Again, that's a good question. I'm not part of the school administration, and I understand the students that want to leave or classes to go virtual. You know, I fully understand it, and I've spoken to, you know, dozens of students that feel that way. And there are many others that feel like, you know, we have to be here in person, and there's no reason to leave. And I refrain from calling on the school to do something because I think the situation calls for itself for something to be done. And I'm here to make sure the students are confident, proud and happy.

SUMMERS: OK. Rabbi Yuda Drizin is the director of Chabad at Columbia University. Thank you so much for your time.

DRIZIN: Thank you. Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARUOMI HOSONO'S "SHOTA AND YURI 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.