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Demonstrators protest in solidarity with Pro-Palestinian organizers on the Columbia University campus, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in New York City on April 18.Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

This time of year, Grade 12 students are making big decisions about what comes next. Parents’ Facebook feeds feature proud announcements about where their child will attend university in the fall. It’s lovely.

But for Jewish parents, a new factor has entered into the mix: Where can we send our kids that will be safe?

Universities have become a flashpoint in the fallout from the Israel-Hamas war. The tension has been palpable on some campuses, including York University, Toronto Metropolitan University and Concordia University. Jewish university students have been sworn at and told to “go back to Poland.” They have read social-media posts by fellow students and faculty that have poisoned the atmosphere. An independent investigator was brought in to deal with a controversial open letter at TMU’s law school that declared support for “all forms of Palestinian resistance.”

In a high-profile hearing in Washington this week, the House committee on education and the work force grilled four Columbia University officials, including its president, Minouche Shafik, about antisemitism on campus.

“It’s impossible to exist as a Jewish student at Columbia without running face-first into antisemitism every single day,” read one statement by a student, delivered at the hearing by Republican Representative Burgess Owens. “Jew hatred is so deeply embedded into the campus culture, it’s become casual among students, faculty and neglected by administrators.”

Allegations of antisemitism at Columbia include the beating of an Israeli student with a stick. Students say they have been verbally attacked for being Jewish. The committee heard about a School of Social Work orientation guidebook that defines “Ashkenormativity” as “a system of oppression that favors white Jewish folx.”

There was also a lot of attention on Joseph Massad, who teaches modern Arab politics at Columbia. Dr. Massad, of Christian Palestinian descent, published an article on Oct. 8, 2023 – the day after Hamas killed more than 1,100 people and took more than 240 hostage – describing the paraglider incursion as “an innovative Palestinian resistance” and using language including “awesome” and “stunning.” This was before Israel retaliated with its brutal, deadly war in Gaza.

Mr. Owens, who is Black, suggested there was a double standard at the university, saying that if anyone called an attack on Black people “awesome” and “stunning,” it would not be tolerated.

Also on Wednesday, Columbia students set up a Gaza-solidarity encampment on the lawn outside the campus library; protesters’ chants included calls for an intifada and support for the Houthis. The university was on lockdown, with barricades and a strong police presence. On Thursday, police moved in and made arrests.

Protest is essential in a democracy, and is often an important, meaningful part of the university experience. But what happens when the tenor and pervasiveness of the protests make others feel unsafe?

Dr. Shafik said that when she first started at Columbia – she became its president last July – its policies and enforcement mechanisms were “not up to the scale of this challenge.” “They were designed for a very different world,” she testified.

The hearing may have been well intentioned, and the explosion of antisemitism on university campuses is certainly worthy of scrutiny. But this was lost at times in the clamour by members of Congress to score political points. They were trying to elicit a gotcha moment, similar to when Harvard’s then-president was grilled at a December hearing with other academic leaders. On whether calling for the genocide of Jews is in violation of campus policies, she said, “It can be depending on the context.”

Politicking is not going to fix this. And neither is clamping down on freedoms – which is also happening on campus, and largely affecting pro-Palestinian students.

At the University of Southern California, Asna Tabassum, a biomedical engineering student who is Muslim, lost the honour of speaking as valedictorian this week after pressure from pro-Israeli groups, which complained she has posted anti-Zionist statements. USC cited safety concerns in its decision, saying it had received warnings that the commencement would be disrupted – and that Ms. Tabassum was herself a target.

Silencing her is unacceptable. Why are we letting the mob rule?

The chill is reaching far beyond universities, too. How did we get to a place where the Speaker of the Ontario Legislature would ban the keffiyeh – a traditional Palestinian scarf? It’s absurd, offensive.

University administrators have a responsibility for student safety, but also student freedoms. They are in a terrible bind, dealing with an out-of-hand situation.

As Dr. Shafik testified: “Trying to reconcile the free-speech rights of those who wanted to protest and the rights of Jewish students to be in an environment free of discrimination and harassment has been the central challenge at our campus and numerous others across the country.”

In this country, too.

Jews are a tiny minority in Canada. But it will be interesting to see how these experiences affect enrolment numbers at certain places of higher learning.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Asna Tabassum lost the honour of being valedictorian. She lost the honour of speaking before her fellow graduates, but remains valedictorian. This version has been updated.

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