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StandWithUs Letter to Columbia University re: Malaysian Prime Minister

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

September 27, 2019

Office of the President

202 Low Library

535 W. 116 St., MC 4309

New York, NY 10027

Dear President Bollinger,

We write on behalf of StandWithUs (SWU), an international, non-profit education organization supporting Israel and combating antisemitism, and Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a non-profit organization that brings together alumni to combat antisemitism on campus. We are aware that Columbia University invited the openly antisemitic Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Bin Mohamad, to speak on Wednesday afternoon, September 25, 2019, at the University’s World Leaders Forum and that, as he has done repeatedly in the past, he once again espoused many of his blatantly antisemitic views.

During the event, Prime Minister Mohamad displayed and attempted to normalize virulent antisemitism: "Why is it that I can’t say something against the Jews? You have to be willing to listen to views which are uncomfortable because of free speech. When you say no, you cannot say this, you cannot be anti-Semitic, then there is no more free speech.” Not only did Prime Minister Mohamad frame his antisemitism as acceptable since it’s allowed under free speech laws, but he then attempted to legitimize Holocaust denial, claiming, “You must remember that one English man was banned for three months for disputing the numbers of the Holocaust. While I have not disputed them, I can say I don’t know who came up with these numbers. If this is somebody who is in favor, you get one figure, somebody who is against, you get another figure.”

We appreciate your statement following the event that you “find the antisemitic statements of Prime Minister Mahathir to be abhorrent, contrary to what we stand for, and deserving of condemnation.” However, these words are not enough to ensure the wellbeing of Jewish students and not enough to fulfill Columbia’s responsibilities as an academic institution. Neither ensuring that Columbia, “remain[s] an open forum” nor “protect[ing] the freedoms essential to [the] university community” (from your own quote following the event) should have prevented you from using your own First Amendment rights and academic platform to actively combat the antisemitism Prime Minister Mahathir was allowed to spread on your campus.

While we agree with you that the antisemitic positions espoused by Prime Minister Mahathir are abhorrent and contrary to the values to which Columbia claims to aspire, the time and place of the communication of that message served to undermine the impact and value it could—and should—have had. The appropriate time for such statements was not after the event in a letter posted to the University’s website (after the audience had already been subjected to the prime minister’s bigotry). Your statement should have been made prior to the prime minister’s antisemitic rant, at the event itself. At the very least, your condemnation should have occurred immediately following the prime minister’s address, again, at the event itself. Either of these approaches would have afforded the hundreds of attendees, as well as the millions who read about the event afterward, the opportunity to contextualize the egregious statements. They also would have alleviated any confusion as to the University’s position concerning the acceptability of the prime minister’s views and made clear Columbia’s concern for the Jewish members of its own campus community.

In light of the missteps that occurred in the handling of this situation, we call on you and Columbia to:

  1. Work with the Jewish community to hold a series of university-sponsored events addressing antisemitism on campus during the Fall semester of 2019.

  2. Publicly pledge that you (or, in the event you are unavailable, a senior member of your administration) will personally attend all future campus events with prominent speakers who have a record of antisemitism, and explicitly state to the audience, either immediately before or immediately following such speaker’s remarks, that Columbia University unequivocally condemns the speaker’s bigotry, lies, misinformation and/or hateful rhetoric, citing specific examples.

  3. Invite a prominent Israeli leader to address the World Leaders Forum within the next calendar year and take all necessary measures to ensure a free exchange of ideas at the event.

We thank you for your time and attention to this important matter. It is our hope that you will begin implementing the foregoing action steps no later than October 31, 2019, and respond to this letter with assurances concerning such implementation. There can be no serious dispute that such measures are necessary to ensure that your campus community remains safe for Jewish students. Crucially, these steps will also ensure that the University’s reputation is not tarnished any further by allowing the spread of hatred on Columbia’s campus to go unchecked.

As you are no doubt aware, the University is in fact legally obligated to take action to correct a potentially hostile environment toward Jewish members of the campus community—an environment Columbia has not merely allowed to persist but has directly perpetuated by its repeated decisions to provide a platform to virulently antisemitic speakers (including former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Prime Minister Mohamad). Your administration’s failure to act here would indeed exhibit a deliberate indifference to the express concern that the University, in repeatedly inviting speakers who espouse blatant antisemitism, is intentionally acting to marginalize its Jewish population, risking violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, just this month, the U.S. Department of Education concluded that a joint program of Duke University and the University of North Carolina acted in violation of Title VI following concerns that were raised because of the program’s hosting of a conference featuring political indoctrination and antisemitic misinformation.

We anticipate hearing from you by October 31st concerning your corrective actions, including the steps identified herein. We have been contacted by Columbia alumni who have requested that we mobilize our resources and call for a withholding of contributions to the University. We expect your prompt attention to this matter will make such efforts unnecessary. Please be advised, however, that should we fail to receive the requested assurances, we are prepared to seek a remedy elsewhere, including by encouraging Columbia alumni to reconsider their financial contributions to the University until the administration implements the necessary measures to ensure the protection and equal treatment of members of its Jewish community.


Roz Rothstein

CEO and Co-Founder, StandWithUs

Avi D. Gordon

Executive Director

Alums for Campus Fairness

Yael Lerman

Director, StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department

Carly F. Gammill


StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism


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