Last Thursday afternoon, members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were taking down the mock apartheid wall their group had put up on the Columbia University campus as an educational tool during Israeli Apartheid Week.
As they were doing so they say they were assaulted by a fellow student, a former Israeli soldier, in an incident that has left them shaken and more concerned than ever over their ability to safely speak out on campus.
SJP had put up the wall, made of three wooden frames covered in fabric, on Low Plaza, a busy campus thoroughfare, from about 10am to 4pm each day that week. Their allies Jewish Voice for Peace also had a table nearby.
The group Students Supporting Israel put up its own display nearby for part of the week, showing what many students felt was bigoted propaganda, though it was not there on Thursday.
As The Electronic Intifada reported last Wednesday, student leaders feared that the imagery and rhetoric Students Supporting Israel was displaying created an unsafe environment for Arab and Muslim students, or those who are vocal in supporting Palestinian rights.
“I was terrified”
The day after The Electronic Intifada published the report airing student concerns about the atmosphere on campus, members of SJP say they found themselves being assaulted for no other reason than their advocacy for Palestinian rights.
At around 4:20pm on Thursday, N. and Y., two undergraduate members of SJP, had just taken down the first panel of the mock wall and were getting ready to bring it to the building where it is stored overnight, a short walk away.
“Y. and I were carrying the first panel and someone came up from behind and grabbed my arm and asked snarkily if we needed help,” N. told The Electronic Intifada. “We said no thank you, we’re fine.”
But the alleged assailant – who has been identified as Columbia general studies student Gal Raif – did not back off, according to students’ accounts. “He continued to ask us aggressively if we needed help and then grabbed the panel and tried to flip it,” N. said.
The Electronic Intifada has decided to use only initials to identify the victims of the assault.
Y. told The Electronic Intifada that before physically assaulting them, Raif had been verbally abusive toward students. At first, Y. says, Raif came up as if he wanted to have a discussion.
But he quickly lost his temper and started yelling when students tried to explain their views.
“Why are you lying? Why are you insulting the six million of my brothers and sisters?” Y. recalls Raif saying, in an apparent reference to the victims of the European genocide of Jews during the Second World War.
The SJP wall makes no mention of Jews or the Nazi holocaust, and focuses on Israel’s occupation and well-documented denial of Palestinian human rights.
“Why don’t you just fuck off,” Y. recalls Raif saying.
“At that point I decided to disengage,” Y. said, and he and N. went on with dismantling the wall. It was after this that Raif grabbed N.’s arm.
But that was not the end of the incident. After touching N. and trying to wrestle the panel, Raif charged over to a third student, D., who was about to take down another panel of the wall.
“He came up to the panel I was standing behind and he pushed it over,” D. told The Electronic Intifada.
“He was really aggressive,” D. said, “I was terrified, honestly.”
N. also says she saw Raif push the panel D. was standing by “very aggressively.”
As Raif’s behavior attracted attention, other students and members of SJP began to gather around their peers who were under apparent assault.
A witness who is also a member of SJP told The Electronic Intifada she saw Raif approach D.
“It looked like their chests were touching and he was stooping down yelling at her,” the witness said. At that point the witness became so concerned she called the campus police.
The witness also said that more people became involved to separate Raif from D.
One woman who tried to calm him had been seen earlier by several witnesses arriving on the scene of the incident with Raif and appeared to be a friend of his.
Witnesses began to take out their phones to take pictures or video. This video, recorded, witnesses say, after Raif had assaulted the students dismantling the wall, shows Raif denying he touched anyone:
Campus police came to the scene and took Raif back to their office for questioning, according to witnesses. They also took statements from the victims of the assault.
Raif did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Raif’s aggressive behavior on Thursday was not his first encounter with the students.
On Monday afternoon, D. was standing near the apartheid wall display. She was wearing a keffiyeh – a traditional checkered scarf – and a T-shirt with the word “Gaza” on it.
Raif came up to D. and began asking her questions. “Why do you sit here telling all these lies? Why do you have Gaza on your shirt as if it’s some kind of paradise?” D. recalls him saying.
“I asked him if he was recording me,” D. recalled, “and he said, ‘yes of course, because all you do is spew bullshit.’”
“I was a little nervous but wasn’t thinking too much of it until he started putting his hand very close to my chest and then I felt very uncomfortable,” D. told The Electronic Intifada. “Then I saw him again Thursday and knew not to engage.”
Gal Raif is a former Israeli soldier who, according to social media postings, began his military service in 2011.
On his Instagram account, he identifies himself with Shlomo Group.
This is a major Israeli holding company founded by his grandfather, Shlomo Shmeltzer, with interests in numerous industries including real estate, telecoms and shipping. It also runs Shlomo Sixt, Israel’s largest car rental and leasing company and a franchise of Germany’s Sixt Group.
The Israeli military leases thousands of vehicles from Shlomo Sixt.
Israel Raif is also chair of Afcon, another Shlomo Group company that manufactures electronic equipment, including for the Israeli army.
According to Afcon’s website, “the world’s most advanced perimeter security system,” made by one of its divisions, “has successfully completed testing by the IDF’s [Israeli army] technology unit” and has now “been installed along Israel’s southern border.”
Who Profits, the research group that monitors corporate complicity in Israeli occupation and human rights abuses, states that Afcon supplies the Israeli military with equipment for its checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and the Erez crossing with Gaza.
The company also supplies other services to the Israeli army, Israeli prison service and the Israeli police.
In a direct sense, the occupation and violence the mock wall put up by SJP represents are the family firm’s bread and butter.
On Monday, campus police gave D. a redacted copy of their report into Thursday’s incident, but neither D. nor any of the other students involved say they have been given a clear indication by university officials of what actions will follow or how they will be protected.
The report, seen by The Electronic Intifada, lists Gal Raif as “Suspect/Arrested” and describes the complaint as “harassment” and “physical contact.”
The report also describes the status of the case as “closed” and “referred to dean.”
In response to a query from The Electronic Intifada, the university indicated it is treating the case as a disciplinary matter and declined to provide any details.
“Although we cannot comment on any specific investigation, we take very seriously any complaints of student behavior that may violate our rules of conduct,” the university said.
“The safety of all our students, regardless of their political views, ethnic or religious identity, is always our first priority,” the statement added.
D. also reported the incident to the Columbia University Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. She received an acknowledgment email informing her that “the appropriate follow-up will be determined.”
Students say this low-key reaction contrasts with the university’s speedy and proactive response to alleged incidents of anti-Semitism or criticism of Israel.
Last week, for instance, the Barnard-Columbia Socialists found themselves under a secret police-style investigation because they had posted the slogan “Long live the Intifada” on the group’s Facebook page.
Barnard-Columbia Socialists see the investigation as the result of complaints by Zionist groups whose goal is to “marginalize and intimidate anyone standing in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.”
They term it another example of what Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights have called the Palestine Exception to Free Speech on campuses across the country.
Columbia University did not respond to a request from The Electronic Intifada for comment about the investigation into the socialist group.
While failing to protect students who speak out for Palestinian rights, some universities have colluded in aggressive police prosecutions of students or members of the public accused of “disrupting” speeches by Israeli officials.
Jews critical of Israel are another group who say they experience harassment on campus. As The Electronic Intifada reported, a member of Students Supporting Israel has referred to Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights as as “kapos,” the word used to describe Jews who collaborated in the Nazi genocide.
This prompted even several pro-Israel groups at Columbia, including Hillel, J Street and Aryeh, to jointly condemn the use of the word.
Students have also noted an increase in anti-Palestinian rhetoric since a campaign calling for the university to divest from companies complicit in Israeli occupation was launched earlier this year. Despite this, the number of Columbia faculty endorsing the campaign has risen to nearly 70.
Some students feel the Columbia University administration does not take seriously the safety of Arab and Muslim students, or those who speak out about Palestinian rights.
“I see an institutional silence,” one of the witnesses to Thursday’s incident told The Electronic Intifada about the university’s lacklustre response.
“When it comes to an actual act of violence committed against SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace, I’m not really convinced there’s going to be much movement,” the student said.
That means that students speaking out about the abuses by Israeli soldiers in occupied Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip, have found themselves under assault from a former Israeli soldier on a US campus, and they have no clear idea what the university plans to do about it.
Dena Shunra contributed research.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated that Rudy Rochman participated in Israel’s summer 2014 assault on Gaza, in which numerous war crimes and other serious violations have been alleged by human rights investigators. In fact, according to Rochman’s own social media postings, he participated in Israel’s November 2012 assault on Gaza, in which numerous war crimes and other serious violations were also alleged by human rights investigators.
- Columbia University
- Students for Justice in Palestine
- Columbia SJP
- Students Supporting Israel
- Israeli Apartheid Week
- Gal Raif
- Rudy Rochman
- free speech
- Jewish Voice for Peace
- Shlomo Group
- Shlomo Shmeltzer
- Israel Raif
- Who Profits
- Barnard-Columbia Socialists
- Palestine Legal
- Palestine exception to free speech
- Center for Constitutional Rights