For 12 of the past 24 hours, Barnard College became a significantly less friendly place to a vast number of its students. From 10 p.m. Monday until 10 a.m. Tuesday, a banner hanging on the front of Barnard Hall—a space typically reserved for advertising campus experiences inclusive of all—conveyed a surprising message: a statement—“Stand for Justice. Stand for Palestine. C-SJP IAW”—adjacent to a map of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, without any internal borders, colored uniformly green. Taken together, this image and text lead to an alienating and hateful conclusion. By displaying only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and by ignoring internationally recognized borders, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine is arguing that the Jewish State of Israel has no right to exist. This message, which singles out Jews for criticism, does not merit the pride of place afforded Midnight Breakfast and the Athena Film Festival. That the banner flew alongside the official banner of the college, providing Barnard’s implicit endorsement of its message, compounded the issue.
C-SJP’s banner made students feel unsafe on campus. A number of Barnard students voiced their concerns to me, with attitudes that ranged from annoyed to distraught. As understood by many, the banner was an act of aggression against Jews, a majority of whom feel a deep sense of connection to Israel. For that reason alone, it deserves criticism. During the 12 hours that the banner hung outside of Barnard Hall, hundreds of students expressed their feelings of distress through posts on social media, emails to President Spar and other Barnard administrators, and numerous personal conversations.
Some have asked if Barnard is practicing censorship by removing the banner, likening it to Barnard’s ill-advised and short-lived decision last year to require content approval for all flyers being posted on Barnard bulletin boards. The banner space is inherently dissimilar from a bulletin board, however, because there is a limit of three banners, and its use is controlled by Barnard Student Life. As such, it is not appropriate to allow messages not officially endorsed by Barnard to be expressed in that forum.
That Barnard’s original policy of banner approval allowed for this to happen is disappointing. However, the school should be commended for swiftly removing the banner following students’ reactions, without violating C-SJP’s right to free expression. In her response to students’ concerns, President Spar wrote, “Barnard has been and will remain committed to free speech...but until we have had time as a community to discuss the banner placements on Barnard Hall and better define a policy we will not be hanging student banners on Barnard Hall.” Now it is the Barnard administration’s responsibility to invite students representing a diverse array of perspectives into the conversation to determine the most appropriate and respectful policies going forward for this public space. I would personally recommend that the space remain available for student groups to advertise their events, but that it remain free of alienating political statements. Regardless of the resolution, I look forward to a vibrant conversation about the establishment of guidelines for the use of the banner space.
I am proud of Barnard’s decision, choosing to value its students’ feelings of security and well-being above one group’s attempt to force a political statement into an area where it simply didn’t fit. But most of all, I am proud that through informed activism, students were once again able to set the wheels in motion to affect a University policy. Though this situation upset many students on all sides of the issue, its value lies in the conversation that will necessarily follow.
The author is a senior in the School of General Studies and Jewish Theological Seminary joint program majoring in history and Talmud and Rabbinics. He is the former president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel.
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