On Israel, Columbia University, New York City, and Complexity

David Friedlander
6 min readApr 29, 2024


The protest occupation at Columbia University. Image via Wikimedia.

For several personal reasons, I am keenly interested in the pro-Palestine protests at Columbia University and in New York City. I have written about my family’s history with Israel in previous posts. As luck has it, I am also a Columbia University alum and longtime New Yorker. My family ties to Columbia and the city go even deeper. NYC is where my grandfather, also a Columbia grad, was born on the 4th of July, 1910, and his father, Israel, helped found the Jewish Theological Seminary, whose campus borders Columbia’s. NYC is also where Israel had his memorial service — at Carnegie Hall, no less — in 1920 after he was murdered bringing relief to Jewish Ukrainians fleeing pograms. NYC is where my German-born grandma lived as a young girl, and where her Jewish father Isak was arrested and sent to an internment camp on suspicion of being a German spy. NYC was where my grandparents met years later, grandma landing there after fleeing Germany in 1933 and hopping around from country to country in the ensuing years. NYC is where I spent almost two decades, where I grew up, got schooled (literally and figuratively), built companies, communities, a family, and more.

Both of my great-grandfathers died as the result of industrialized, militarized nationalism — directly like Israel and indirectly like Isak, who, in the Spring of 1933, died of a heart attack while settling affairs in Berlin. In response to this violence, my grandparents became vocal members of the Communist Party at a time when it was profoundly unpopular to do so. And they raised my father and my aunt to be indefatigable activists, during their respective college careers and after. As both an undergraduate and postgraduate — at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and later at the University of Chicago’s School of Economics — my dad was a leader of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). For his anti-war activity and previous communist associations, my dad was dubbed “the second most dangerous man in America” by J. Edgar Hoover.

My dad and grandfather had the dubious distinction of capturing J Edgar Hoover’s eye for their communist and anti-war activities.

I write all of this to establish some credentials for commenting on the protests at Columbia and other schools and in NYC.

First off, I’ll say that what’s happening in NYC — at Columbia, at NYU, at last week’s protest seder in Brooklyn — is the first time I’ve been proud of the city since I left in late 2020 (why I left is a story for another day).

My pride in my alma mater is not undiluted however. Many pro-Palestine protesters seem more motivated by fashion and groupthink than outrage. The fashionable nature of the protest have created such quizzical activist concoctions as “queers for Palestine” [someone get these people a tutorial on orthodox jihadis, stat!]. I’m not there interacting with the protesters, so I won’t claim I know exactly what’s happening at these protests or in the hearts and minds of the protesters, but some snapshots suggest that for all the tumult, there’s not a ton of understanding of what’s happening in Israel. The video below of a Columbia student participating in an anti-Israel NYU protest — for reasons she didn’t know — is one such troubling snapshot.

What the protests are calling for, and what Miss Columbia should have known, is for the schools to divest their ties to companies and institutions supporting Israel’s militarism. This is a big deal and not just for Israel, as many universities are secretive centers for military research and geopolitical meddling. A friend of mine, a noted roboticist who studied at MIT, told me he left the school and his research because everything he did ended up at DARPA.

Did it matter Miss Columbia didn’t know why she was protesting? Did it matter that many anti-Vietnam War protesters in the 60s and 70s were there for the music, sex, and drugs? Tough to say. Perception of protest is protest, and universities, because of their large political and technological influence on maintaining the status quo, are good places to voice and direct dissent. I just wish that dissent was more coherent. For example, I wish students knew it’s possible to be pro-peace without being pro-religious extremism.

But not every protest of Israel at Columbia or in NYC is incoherent.

One of my favorite pastimes at Columbia was attending lectures from the Earth Institute, a sustainability-focused economic and political think-tank headed by noted economist, Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs left his position at the Earth Institute, but he is still at Columbia as the Director of the Center for Sustainable Development; he’s also the President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

I lost track of Sachs after graduating, which is probably what the mainstream media would prefer. I assumed Sachs was holding the party-line of other mainstream, institutionarian, liberal-leaning economists like Paul Krugman and Larry Summers: cheering more debt, more vaccines, more wars, more of the same. Boy, was I wrong. With laser precision and unimpeachable authority, Sachs has been dismantling lies about the origins of COVID and the motivations behind the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel. But you have to look for him.

For all the political vacillation coming from Columbia’s new president Minouche Shafik, Sachs’ political stridency shows the college ain’t quite dead as a force of intellectual and political good.

This woman is teaching a master class on how to Jew. Via The Guardian.

Another coherent protest took place last week at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza (GAP), where hundreds congregated for a protest seder on the first day of Passover. Three hundred protesters were arrested. This all happened spitting distance from neoliberal stalwart/war-hawk/senior congressman Chuck Schumer’s home — and where I lived my last several years in the city. I was there in 2012 at the Park Slope Food Co-op when some members attempted to ban Israeli products from the store. This part of Brooklyn — near the Park Slope and Crown Heights neighborhoods — is a global epicenter of liberal and orthodox Judaism. Outside of Israel, I can think of no better place to see Jews publicly decouple their culture and religion from the political and military actions of Israel — what one protester dubbed a “76-year-old colonial apartheid state.”

I’ve been writing about Israel and Palestine to flesh out, substantiate, and articulate how I see the situation. The situation is complicated and doesn’t lend itself to the hashtag-activism that’s become de rigueur in the era of social media. Sometimes, someone else articulates the situation for me, which is what happened when I read the words of author-activist Noami Klein, who attended the protest seder (she and Sachs are Jewish, if that wasn’t obvious). She told The Guardian:

Our Judaism cannot be contained by an ethnostate, for our Judaism is internationalist by its very nature. Our Judaism cannot be protected by the rampaging military of that ethnostate, for all that military does is sow sorrow and reap hatred, including hatred against us as Jews.

I couldn’t have said, or thought, it better.

The implications of this view require a fundamental rethinking of governance and identity to the area now called Israel. This may sound like an impossible feat, but keep in mind Israel did not exist a mere 76 years ago, and consider the untenable nature of another 76 years of what’s been happening the last 76 years in the area.

Something must change and I suspect the likely agents of change will be Americans generally and American Jewry specifically. As I outlined before, Israel would not and could not exist without American military aid. These protests and the U.S. government’s increasingly fragmented or qualified support of Israel is testament that the former country’s longstanding and unquestioning support of the latter one is facing some overdue scrutiny and backlash. This is a good thing in an awful situation.



David Friedlander

Pondering the future, today. Housing, health, and lots of other stuff.