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OPINION

At Columbia Law, a club formed to combat antisemitism gets shot down

The only student group rejected this year was one organized to oppose anti-Jewish bigotry.

Protesters demonstrated near Columbia University on Feb. 2 in New York.Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty

Long before antisemitism erupted on college campuses last fall, Marie-Alice Legrand knew what hostility to Jews could lead to.

As a young girl growing up in Hamburg, Germany, Legrand could look from her bedroom window onto the bare expanse of the Bornplatz, the site of what was once the city’s largest synagogue. The great Jewish house of worship was torched on Kristallnacht by antisemitic mobs; a few months later the Nazis ordered the Jewish community to demolish what remained of the building and turn over the land to the city. The deportation of Hamburg’s Jews to the death camps began in 1941. In the summer of 1942, the Jewish family that owned what would later become Legrand’s childhood home was murdered in Auschwitz.

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Like all schoolchildren in modern Germany, Legrand was taught from an early age about the Holocaust. “I always thought about what those individuals must have gone through,” she told me in a phone conversation Monday. “When we learned about the hatred of the Jews, about the mass murder, I tried hard to relate to the people who were involved.”

A Black German of French Caribbean descent, Legrand went to Paris to study history and management, then moved to New York to earn a law degree at Columbia University. She said she hadn’t expected to become an activist in her final year, but everything changed after Israel was savagely attacked on Oct. 7.

Legrand was shocked when the Columbia campus erupted in “blatant antisemitism and hate,” as she wrote on LinkedIn. Anti-Israel throngs publicly cheered the Hamas atrocities and marched behind banners bearing Palestinian flags and the words “By Any Means Necessary.” A tenured Columbia professor waxed ecstatic over the murders, rapes, and abductions of Israelis, which he called “astounding,” “awesome,” and “victories of the resistance.” More than 140 other faculty members signed a letter defending the barbaric assault as a legitimate “military action” against the Jewish state.

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The callousness of what she was seeing scandalized Legrand. She knew students at Columbia who had lost friends or relatives in the Oct. 7 pogrom, she told me, but “there was not one ounce of sympathy or compassion extended to my Jewish and Israeli friends.” She reached out on social media. “You are not alone,” she posted. “I unequivocally support and stand with you.”

She decided to offer more than comfort. Over the next few months, Legrand assembled a group of students, Jews and non-Jews alike, to create a new campus club, Law Students Against Antisemitism. They drafted a charter laying out their objectives: to raise awareness of historical and contemporary antisemitism, to foster dialogue, and to provide support for students targeted by antisemitism.

Student groups are ubiquitous at Columbia — the university boasts that there are more than 500 clubs and organizations, at least 85 in the law school alone. Given the surge of venomous anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bigotry, especially among young Americans and in academia, the need for groups like Law Students Against Antisemitism is self-evident.

On Jan. 23, Legrand and the group’s other officers appeared before the law school student senate to request official recognition for their club. Such recognition, which is needed to reserve space on campus and be assigned a Columbia email address, is normally a routine formality. Eight other clubs requested approval last month; all eight were rubber-stamped in a few minutes.

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But not Law Students Against Antisemitism.

Before the vote was held, a delegation of progressive students showed up to demand that Legrand’s group be rejected on the grounds that it would “silence pro-Palestine activists on campus and brand their political speech as antisemitic.” It would do so, they claimed, by adopting the standard definition of antisemitism drafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The accusation was ridiculous on multiple grounds. First and most obviously, no voluntary student group has the power to silence anyone, on campus or off. Second, as recent months have made plain, there has been no shortage of pro-Palestine expression on Columbia’s campus.

Above all, it is beyond surreal to denounce an organization opposed to antisemitism for adopting the most widely used definition of the term. The IHRA formulation has been accepted by 42 countries — including the United States — and by well over 1,000 states, provinces, cities, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations. In fact, it is the definition relied on by the federal government in its enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

In the end, the absurdity of the attack made no difference. For an hour, Legrand and her colleagues were grilled by the student senate. Then, by an anonymous vote, Law Students Against Antisemitism was rejected.

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Legrand knows only too well how tenacious antisemitism can be. She said she was “heartbroken” by the student senate vote and by the moral perversity of those who would mobilize to kill an organization like hers. But she is not giving up. She hasn’t forgotten the view from her childhood bedroom window. And she knows that in the fight against antisemitism, surrender is dangerous.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on X @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit globe.com/arguable.