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Rabbi associated with Columbia University recommends Jewish students ‘return home’ amid tense protests on campus

Student activists have spent multiple days occupying the lawns at Columbia University, calling for the university to end its financial ties to Israel. (Provided Photo/Adam Gray/Reuters via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — A rabbi associated with Columbia University’s Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus recommended that Jewish students “return home as soon as possible and remain home” amid ongoing protests denouncing the war in Gaza and demanding the university divest from Israel.

Rabbi Elie Buechler, the learning initiative’s rabbi at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, confirmed to CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that he sent a WhatsApp message to a group of about 300 mostly Orthodox Jewish students “strongly” recommending they return home and remain there. His message came ahead of Passover, a major Jewish holiday set to begin Monday evening.

Recent events at the university “have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety,” Buechler wrote in the message.

“It deeply pains me to say that I would strongly recommend you return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved,” the message reads.

By contrast, the campus Hillel said in a Sunday post on X that they “do not believe that Jewish students should leave” the campus.

“This is a time of genuine discomfort and even fear for many of us on campus,” the Hillel said in a statement. “Columbia University and the City of New York must do more to protect students. We call on the University Administration to act immediately in restoring calm to campus. The City must ensure that students can walk up and down Broadway and Amsterdam without fear of harassment.”

The rabbi sent the message after videos circulated showing a man outside the university saying, “Never forget the seventh of October,” and “that will happen not one more time, not five more times, not 10 more times, not 100 more times, not 1,000 more times, but 10,000 times!”

In addition to the student protests on campus, groups of protesters have also gathered outside the campus gates. It’s unclear from the video whether the person yelling is affiliated with the university.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest addressed the “unassociated incidents” in an Instagram story, writing that their “priority is the safety of all,” which “includes not antagonizing counter protestors or escalating situations unnecessarily.”

In a Sunday statement to CNN, a university spokesperson said the safety of Columbia’s community is “our number one priority.”

The statement added, “We are acting on concerns we are hearing from our Jewish students and are providing additional support and resources to ensure that our community remains safe.”

Speaking with CNN, one Jewish Columbia student highlighted the hazards risked by the students protesting as well as interfaith prayers and a Seder service at the encampment.

“Columbia students organizing in solidarity with Palestine – including Jewish students – have faced harassment, doxxing, and now arrest by the NYPD. These are the main threats to the safety of Jewish Columbia students,” Jonathan Ben-Menachem, a PhD student, told CNN.

“On the other hand, student protesters have led interfaith joint prayers for several days now, and Passover Seder will be held at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment tomorrow,” he went on. “Saying that student protesters are a threat to Jewish students is a dangerous smear.”

‘Gaza Solidarity Encampment’ enters its fourth day

Saturday marked a fourth day of demonstrations at the prestigious school, with students camping out overnight on the school’s lawns.

Columbia’s Campus Rabbi Yonah Hain, shared a statement with CNN saying the university’s Center for Jewish Student Life is and will remain open and is welcoming students.

On Thursday, the university’s president requested the NYPD remove student protestors, leading to the arrest of over 100 people. “The students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner,” said NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell.

CNN has reached out to Columbia University and the university’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing for more information on their investments and for comment on the protest organizers’ allegations.

The encampment was jointly organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest – a student-led coalition of more than 100 organizations – Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace, to protest what they describe as the university’s “continued financial investment in corporations that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and military occupation of Palestine,” according to a news release from Columbia University Apartheid Divest.

The protests come as the death toll of Israel’s war in Gaza has continued to rise. At least 34,097 Palestinians have been killed and 76,980 injured since October, according to the enclave’s health ministry. Israel launched ongoing attacks after a Hamas attack on October 7 killed more than 1,200 people.

The demonstrations – and the suspension and arrests of students involved – have inspired solidarity rallies at other universities, including Yale, Harvard, the University of North Carolina, and Boston University.

In January, the International Court of Justice found that Israel was “plausibly” violating laws on genocide in its war on Gaza and ordered Israel to take “all measures” to prevent genocide.

In response, Israel rejected what it called the “grossly distorted” accusation of genocide leveled against it by South Africa over its military action in Gaza, telling the United Nations’ top court the case was an attempt to “pervert the meaning” of the term.