"I am fighting for the present": An Interview with Columbia's Shai Davidai

"History will look at this as a dark chapter. I am fighting for the present." - Shai Davidai

By Howie Stier / Special to the BJV

The video begins unremarkably at nighttime on an urban plaza framed by neo-classical architecture. A group of college students stand silently, encircling an array of glowing yahrzeit candles that form a Magen David. A slight man who is clad in a hoodie and hipster cuffed jeans and looks not unlike the students, addresses the assembled. “I need your help” he begins, earnest and soft-spoken. “I need you to turn on your phones.“

That overture is immediately understood by students as a directive to record and post what is about to unfold on social media. The speaker is Shai Davidai, an Israeli-American assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School, and the scene is Columbia University’s Manhattan campus, which had just erupted in an astonishing campaign of Jew hate and violence. Davidai, motivated by the inaction of the school’s administration, speaks publicly and passionately about his employer for ten minutes.

The resulting video of Davidai’s speech was seen over 1.4 million times in the 30-day shloshim period following the October 7 pogrom in Israel, a testament to the power of his presentation. Sincere and desperate, his oration stands out in the overwhelming welter of online chatter reacting to the war in Israel.

“To every parent in America who sends their kids to Columbia,” Davidai begins, his right arm pumping rhythmically, “we cannot protect your child from pro-terrorist student organizations because the president of Columbia University will not speak out.” His voice rises into a panicked wail. “Fourteen US citizens were kidnapped into Gaza,” he continues, “and the president of this university is giving her support to pro-terror student organizations.”

Speaking by phone to the Berkshire Jewish Voice in early November, Davidai explained his inspiration and the viral reach of his video.

“My voice, my video was able to take a deep, complicated emotion and clarify it to a lot of people,” said Davidai, “and define this not just as a Jewish problem but as an American problem. It’s good versus evil. And decent Americans are realizing it doesn’t matter who the victims are. If they allow this campaign against Jews, then sometime – maybe soon, maybe next month –  [terrorists] will come for them.” 

Since the million-plus views of his speech, Davidai’s life is no longer business as usual. “I’m swamped with interview requests. Coming to campus is not comfortable. Two colleagues in the Business School signed [a petition in which over 100 Columbia faculty characterized Hamas actions as legitimate] and I worry about running into them when I go to my office.”

Solomon, King of Israel, wrote: “ Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Mishlei 18:21) and while Davidai makes a point in his speech to identify as a “Jewish Atheist,” he acts as if guided by this proverb, not shirking from activism following his speech. The acceptance of Hamas’s brutal attack has become so widespread its become difficult to battle,” he says. But he continues to battle. Davidai expressed his determination to fight the administration’s inaction while concurrently working on his Business School research project. (He is not teaching during this fall semester.)

The pity of it all is that the school has, since the Colonial era, been a vibrant part of the spirit of New York City. On this same campus – where an Israeli student was beaten on October 11 (and an arrest made), where Palestinian flags are waved, and where chants to destroy Israel ring out – a chazzan wrote the niggun (melody) for the Erev Shabbos song, “Shalom Aleichem.” Wikipedia notes: “The slow, well-known melody for the song was composed by the American composer and conductor Rabbi Israel Goldfarb on May 10, 1918, while sitting near the Alma Mater statue in front of Low Memorial Library at Columbia University. "

Shai Davidai is a product of elite schools but bemoans a change in the nature of an Ivy League education. “They are not giving students the morality, the character, the basic instincts of right and wrong,” he says. “When you send a student to classes, you should know there is something the university stands for – that (for example) murdering babies is wrong.” He has strong and concise guidance to parents and students choosing a future college. “Look at what the school’s administration did in the aftermath of the attacks, if they condemned terror. Dartmouth for one reacted very strongly. I couldn’t at this point recommend anyone send their kid to Columbia.” He agrees with the sentiments of far-left critic Chris Hedges, who has written that the elite universities of America ‘do a poor job educating students to think [and] focus instead on creating hordes of competent systems managers.’

“This is a training ground for really smart people,” Davidai says. “I love Columbia and this really pains me. Within less than a month, this administration single-handedly ruined 200 years of reputation. They’ve just given up on morality.”

Davidai adds that “I only want two things: one, that the University condemn Hamas for what was done. And two, remove the student organizations that are actively celebrating rape and murder (of Jews).” By university, Davidai is referencing Columbia’s president Egyptian-born Nemat Talaat Shafik, also known as Baroness Minouche Shafik after she was introduced to the British House of Lords in 2020. An expert in Middle East economics and formerly the president of the London School of Economics, Shafik is the first woman to lead Columbia since the school’s founding in 1754. As the New York Jewish Week reported on November 1, the Columbia “administration has released several statements since Oct. 7, but none has mentioned the terror group,” Hamas, leading Jewish student groups to hold that sufficient action was not taken and that perpetrators of antisemitic acts have not been held accountable. The same report notes that Shafik issued a statement that held, “Some are using this moment to spread antisemitism, Islamophobia, bigotry against Palestinians and Israelis…I have been disheartened that some of this abhorrent rhetoric is coming from members of our community, including members of our faculty and staff.”

On November 9, a day of ‘Shut It Down for Palestine’ protests, a pro-Palestinian rally and a pro-Israel counterprotest took over the Columbia campus. On his X feed, Davidai tweeted “For the second time in a month (and, to the best of my understanding, the first time since the Vietnam War), @ColumbiaUniversity has to CLOSE ITS GATES TO THE PUBLIC because of a pro-Hamas rally.”

Recently House Resolution 798 was introduced to the United States House of Representatives to denounce antisemitism on college campuses. Its language emulated Davidai’s points nearly verbatim.

“These hate-filled college students have no shame and no fear,” said Congressman Burgess Owens of Utah, sponsor of the bill, which passed on a 396-23 vote on November 2. The bill outlined a litany of recent anti-Jewish campus actions, specifically citing the projection of antisemitic phrases in a manner emulating contemporary art on the George Washington University library; the enthusiastic support of Hamas’s actions by faculty at Stanford University and Cornell University; and “the glorification of violence and usage of antisemitic rhetoric [that] creates a hostile learning and working environment for Jewish students, faculty, and staff.”

When asked if he had a hand in the legislation, Davidai remains vague. “There’s a Jewish saying: ‘The cook can’t discuss his broth,’” he said. “I would be narcissistic to say this is what I did.” But his influence can’t be dismissed.

I have a cherished photo of my father and me near the spot on the Columbia campus where Davidai spoke. We are dressed for shul Erev Shabbos. Would I feel safe wearing a kipah on campus?

“There are police and they are aware of the situation,” Davidai responded, referring to the New York Police Department deployment now on the Columbia campus. “You won’t be harmed. But will you feel safe? No. There is no safety. That’s why police are here.”

Professor Davidai’s campus speech was no rabbinic Shabbat sermon. He offered no uplifting ending to send congregants away happy and satisfied. Rather, he concludes in desperation and with a sense that it will be a long time before things will again be made right. But in the Jewish tradition of teshuvah, he believes President Shafik can be redeemed. “I hope they wake up from their slumber and change course,” he says. “I will be at their disposal to make Columbia a better place and a safer place [e for Israeli and Jewish students, staff, and faculty who are being targeted.”

Summing up, he states: “History will look at this as a dark chapter. I am fighting for the present. I can easily pack up and go, but I care too much about my home. The leadership thinks they can wait us out, that this is something that will go away. My message is that this is not something that is going away by the next news cycle, and we will hold you accountable for your lack of action.”

The son of a survivor of the Lvov Ghetto and Janowska concentration camp, Howie Stier is a longtime journalist who reported on crime and mayhem in the five boroughs for the New York Times, covered celebrity news from the red carpet and back alleys of Hollywood Boulevard for Entertainment Tonight, and has relocated to the Berkshires where he’s focused on two considerations: literature and learning Torah – as havel havalim hakol havel (breath, breath, all is breath).