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Jewish Columbia U professor says fearing for her life as terror rules campus

Russian-born Prof. Larisa Geskin won't remain silent in face of antisemitism threatening her and Jewish students on campus; 'People here shout 'death to the Jews' and no one cares,' she tells Ynet

Prof. Larisa Geskin, a senior dermatologist, believed she had left antisemitism behind approximately 35 years ago when she emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States. Today, she faces blatant and ugly forms of Jewish hatred at her professional home, Columbia University. Geskin is feeling angry, disappointed and anxious. These recent months have been particularly tough, and she is deeply troubled by the surrounding wave of hatred and the scandalous behavior of the university's president, Minouche Shafik.
"I'm surprised. Apparently, I was naive until now," says the 56-year-old specialist in dermatology and internal medicine at Columbia University and the director of the Skin Cancer Center. "Back in the Soviet Union, we knew our identities and where antisemitism lurked. We kept our heads down. But now, antisemitism has found its way to America too."
Geskin footage of university protests
She recalls her initial days in the U.S.: "I remember when I first arrived in the United States, on my very first day in New York, I walked down Broadway. A gentleman approached us and asked if we were Jewish, and I was so scared, because why would someone want to know if I was Jewish? But my husband was brave and answered affirmatively. It was Friday, October 27, 1989, and that man simply wanted to invite us to join them for Kiddush, brought us candlesticks, and helped us say blessings. I remember thinking, 'What a blessed country this is where Jews can walk in the street and say prayers, and no one can harm them.'"
However, things have shifted. Our conversation takes place while extremist students and Hamas supporters had barricaded themselves in Hamilton Hall at the university, before police intervention and while the administration stood by. Geskin finds it hard to mask her anger, sadness and anxiety. The daily challenges are taxing, and she struggles to hold back tears as she speaks.
"It's terrible," she says in a choked voice. "I've just received a very disturbing email about students who were attacked by a mob of demonstrators. They are using the tactics they were taught by terrorists, pushing a young student who tried to stop the pro-Hamas demonstrators from breaking into Hamilton Hall, the Columbia building where the president’s office is. I'm not even sure he was Jewish. He is a very young and small boy against the mob – there is no college security and no one to stop these thugs. It's very hard for me with my background."
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פרופ' לריסה גשקין אוניברסיטת קולומביה
פרופ' לריסה גשקין אוניברסיטת קולומביה
Prof. Larisa Geskin
But none of that is to imply Geskin is throwing in the towel. Since the onset of the wave of antisemitism through the university corridors, she resolved to respond, definitely not to stay silent. She is ready to go the distance if necessary.
"It began the day after October 7," she recounts, "one of the professors at the university said how proud he was of Hamas and how this terrorist attack was an act of the resistance. Hamas has many tentacles here. Since October 7, there have been hundreds of Hamas-supporting meetings, three to four events every day. I attended some of them. It appears that what is happening on our campus was not spontaneous, but a long-term plan of a terrorist organization."
"The protesters already recognize me because I have been there many times, and I am not hiding – I wear the Israeli flag on my coat and my father’s Star of David around my neck. My father liberated Auschwitz. When I come to these pro-Hamas rallies people push me"
These seemingly innocuous movements are a key instrument in Hamas' strategy of consciousness engineering against Israel – and they are quite successful. Just a few days ago, the New York Post reported that Khaled Barakat, a senior leader in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, participated via Zoom in a seminar organized by an anti-apartheid group named "Resistance 101," weeks before the riots at Columbia University began. There, he and his wife stated, "there's nothing wrong with being a Hamas fighter, they are the people who are on the battlefield working for the liberation of Palestine."
"He's an extremist Islamist who instructs the students on what to do, that they have long-term plans, that they need to be patient. He spoke about his brothers and sisters in Hamas," Geskin continues. "These people run student organizations to spread their ideology. Everything is orchestrated through the teaching staff. They are actually in charge."
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חאלד ברכאת
חאלד ברכאת
Inciting Jewish hatred, Khaled Barakat
(Photo: YouTube/Samidoun Network)
Another example of Hamas' extensive influence is seen in Jewish students who voluntarily adopt this ideology and sometimes display outright antisemitic views. "They don't care," Geskin says, struggling to hold back tears. "They claim there is no antisemitism on campus, they deny it. They are part of the whole scenario. For them, 'From the river to the sea' is merely a phrase demanding equal rights. These individuals could have been very helpful: to explain, to engage in dialogues, to talk with the students."
How do you explain it? "They are leftist radicals. What's interesting is that the far right and the far left are now united. You look and ask yourself – who is talking? Are they white supremacists or are they far leftists? They are saying exactly the same things: calling for the death of Jews, shouting that Hitler didn't finish his job. They are currently united in their desire to kill the Jews.
"There is already real violence. They are breaking windows, barricading buildings, destroying property, pushing and hurting students. This is violence, this is war. This is what Hamas wants. Many of the students have been indoctrinated by the terrorists. They are doing exactly what they want. They don't want Jews. They don't want a two-state solution, they want only one state. It's very simple."
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מתפרעים מפגינים התפרעות מחאה פרו פלסטינים תומכי חמאס אוניברסיטת קולומביה ניו יורק
מתפרעים מפגינים התפרעות מחאה פרו פלסטינים תומכי חמאס אוניברסיטת קולומביה ניו יורק
Pro-Hamas rioters vandalizing campus
(Photo: Alex Kent/Getty Images)
So you're saying being a student at Columbia in no longer safe. "They walk around campus clearly declaring, chanting in hundreds of voices that they do not want Zionists. Jewish students say, 'I am a Zionist and I am Jewish. I think Israel has the right to exist. It's a country that has existed for many years and it's not going anywhere,' and the pro-Hamas side replies that all Zionists should be killed. So the students ask, 'Do you want to kill me?' and they answer, 'Maybe not you, but others, yes.' Some of these things are documented by video and audio."

History repeats itself

Geskin has been hard at work documenting this pro-Palestinian uprisings in colleges for quite a while, and though no one is taking it as seriously as they should at the moment, she vows to continue shining a light on it until someone does.
"We have hundreds of Jews on the medical campus. It's a very Jewish campus, with buildings donated by Jewish families or supporters of Israel, like the Milstein family or Herbert Irving. I can tell you that on the main campus there are many Jewish students and faculty who document events. On the medical campus it is not like that. I felt like I was the only one documenting for a while. It is understandable. There are a few people trying, but it's scary. They hang anti-Israel slogans around the medical campus, making the atmosphere feel very frightening.
"I went to document antisemitic activities, but this time the demonstrators approached me, called me by name, told me to stop filming and that they know who I am and where I work. It was a personal and tangible threat"
"But the administration denies it, saying that ‘this is not antisemitic and not threatening.' If a person of color were to say that they feel threatened on campus, the reaction would be immediate, and here people yell 'death to Jews' and no one cares. The Columbia Senate says this is not antisemitism. That these people need to have a voice. It seeps from the faculty to the students, and the students pick it up and carry on, multiplied hundreds of times. There are pro-Hamas groups in the medical schools, future doctors who are part of these antisemitic activities and if someone raises their voice against them, they completely destroy them.
"The protesters already recognize me because I have been there many times, and I am not hiding – I wear the Israeli flag pin on my coat and my father’s Star of David around my neck. My father liberated Auschwitz; he was telling me about all the horrifying things he saw since I was little. I wear his Star of David on my chest. When I come to these pro-Hamas rallies people push me," she says, her voice cracking. "It's threatening and terrible. It's so tragic that Americans, Jews and non-Jews, don't understand the threat which is in front of them."
Were meaningful actions taken to address this? "I filed the complaint. Nothing. I didn't even get a single response after I filed numerous complaints about it."
Following recent events, Geskin also doesn't hold back her criticism of the university president, Minouche Shafik. "She lacks backbone," Geskin says, "She doesn't know what to do. I don't think she's a bad or good person, she just acts like a little girl backed in a corner, covering her head with her hands. She does not know what to do, she takes one step forward, two steps back.
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מתפרעים מפגינים התפרעות מחאה פרו פלסטינים תומכי חמאס אוניברסיטת קולומביה ניו יורק
מתפרעים מפגינים התפרעות מחאה פרו פלסטינים תומכי חמאס אוניברסיטת קולומביה ניו יורק
Setting up tents on campus
(Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
"Her uncertainty hurts Columbia. She is trying to be impartial, but you cannot be impartial to a monster – the more you feed it, the more aggressive the monster will become until it kills you." Tonight, the pro-Hamas mob gathered near Columbia President Shafik’s house and was screaming and burning torches. We live in medieval times.”
Why is there such a persistent rise in antisemitism in the world? "They follow the herd. I think Israel has made a lot of mistakes. Netanyahu is a part of the problem, and Jews know it, Israelis know it. Netanyahu will go. There’s no question about that. He is a part of a problem but not the main problem. Opportunists have taken advantage of Israel’s mistakes to turn the world against Israel.
"Israel has made many mistakes lately. Some countries have some room for mistakes, but Israel has to be perfect. It's like us, Russian Jews; we had to be 500% better than everyone else to gain admissions to higher education or get a good job in the Soviet Union. We cannot afford anything less. Israel must do the right things because the whole world is watching.
"There are pro-Hamas groups in the medical schools, future doctors who are part of these antisemitic activities and if someone raises their voice against them, they completely destroy them"
"The most important thing is that we are fighting a very sophisticated and organized enemy. An enemy that does not sleep and does not eat, does not rest while trying to take over the world. I know it sounds crazy when I tell people, and they think it's insane, but it is true, the terrorists are not hiding their long term plans and I think they are doing a good job at advancing their agenda of world domination.
"Look at our campus – the girls who just days ago were fighting for women’s rights are wearing burkas, the people who were with John Lennon’s 'Imagine' – now sprawl on the ground praying in Arabic. They are using our thoughts, our words, just turning them around. They even use Jewish phrases in their language but in completely different contexts. We need to respect our enemy and learn from them."
Anything else that needs to be done? "I really don't know what to do to change people's minds in America. I am afraid it's too late. Antisemitism is spreading like a virus. I just want you to know what's happening so that you can be aware, and we can all do the right thing. I want Israelis to know that there are people here who love Israel and will do everything necessary to protect it. I'm very sorry, but I am very worried abut history repeating itself."
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