An Open Letter to the President of Columbia University

Nelson Mandela once said that the Palestine issue is the greatest moral question of
our time.
13 October 2023

Dear President Minouche Shafik,

Thank you for your letter addressed to Columbia alumni and friends on 10 October. I
read it carefully, pondered over it and discussed it with other friends who respect
Columbia University, our alma mater.
These discussions did nothing to reduce a feeling of great disturbance at the core of
my being.
I always have the hope that a university will lead from the front and provide an
intellectual and academic framework that assists at times of great difficulty in this
troubled world of ours.
Instead, your letter mentions only the attack on Israel and the sensitivities of the
Jewish student organisation on campus.
By the time you had written the letter, Hamas had attacked Israel and Israel in turn
had retaliated with an attendant loss of life. I am devastated that women, children
and the elderly have not been spared.
I am sure you are aware that the current political dispensation is unjust and that the
Palestinians have paid heavily with their lives of over many years.
I would have liked you to be even-handed and recognise that Columbia University’s
alumni and students come from a wide range of communities and countries.
I may be incorrect but I do not recall any of Columbia’s former presidents being
devastated when Israelis massacred Palestinians.
I serve on the alumni board of the J-school of Columbia University and I trust that
your letter will not mean that journalists will be cautious in providing the public with
balanced and truthful information. I watch with alarm as only one international news
channel, Sky News, challenged the fake news that Hamas had decapitated babies.
The credibility of our profession is on the line. If it were not so tragic it is almost funny
how the story that dominates large sections of the media is devoid of context and
history. Now is the time that all those who work for peace must educate that false
narratives greatly disempower all of humanity.
I urge you to assure us as alumni and students that our alma mater does not support
the illegal notion that it is in order to treat Palestinians as animals and to impose a
collective punishment on them. To cut off food, water, fuel, electricity for over two
million people must register as an act of great inhumanity, a genocidal choice.

Then there is the bombing of airports of neighbouring countries reminding me how
the apartheid state unleashed terror in the Southern African countries when they
dared to support the anti-apartheid fighters.
Perhaps as a South African, this awful situation cuts very close to my heart. Nelson
Mandela described the Palestinian issue as the greatest moral question of our time
flowing from an injustice at the end of the Second World War.
A United Nations Resolution passed in 1982 when apartheid South Africa illegally
occupied Namibia provides a legal framework that is interesting. It read as follows:
Gravely concerned at the continuation of the illegal occupation of Namibia by South
Africa and the continued violations of the human rights of the peoples still under
colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation,

  1. Calls upon all States to implement fully and faithfully the resolutions of the United
    Nations regarding the exercise of the right to self-determination and independence
    by peoples under colonial and foreign domination;
  2. Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial
    integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and
    foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle;
  3. Reaffirms the inalienable right of the Namibian people, the Palestinian people and
    all peoples under foreign and colonial domination to self-determination, national
    independence, territorial integrity, national unity and sovereignty without outside
    This international injunction guided us then and continues to remind us of our
    obligations to struggling people across the world.
    A few years ago I was part of a human rights delegation that visited both Israel and
    Palestine . I had to accept that after witnessing the intense humiliation of South
    Africans by a minority government over many years and covering the genocide in
    Rwanda, I could no longer endure occupying a front seat as a journalist to an
    injustice of such great scale. Even when I visited the doctor, I was told the story of
    how the local authorities were bulldozing the homes of Palestinians in Tel Aviv. After
    10 years of waiting for his plans to be approved a local architect went ahead with the
    building of his family home. It was a double-storey home and near completion when
    the authorities arrived one morning and flattened the home to the ground. It was all
    just too much.
    Your letter forced me to share with you a different view held by millions protesting
    across the world and in your country.
    Now more than at any other time, all of us have a responsibility to assist in bringing
    all this suffering to an end.
    And it cannot be done by sending a message that only the pain and suffering of one
    side matters.
    Journalists will be tested greatly and partly the end to this war will depend on the
    extent to which they tell the story fully.

In South Africa, we were always taught not to turn against white people but to turn
against an unjust system that oppressed us. Similarly, I am not against the Israelis or
Jewish people but I am strongly opposed to Zionism that seeks to paint Palestinians
as less than human and traps Israelis in the role of oppressor. Surely all children,
both Israeli and Palestinian, deserve to live in a just and fair system.
There is no fairness or justice currently and it is sad that Columbia University
chooses to ignore that it had on its staff, Edward Said, the great Palestinian
intellectual whose writing had always placed in context the nature of the crisis the
world now faces. How too can the journalist fraternity forget that one of their own,
Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered by an Israeli sniper less than two years ago. She
was a renowned American Palestinian journalist who worked for Aljazeera for many
years. Those who killed her still elude prosecution as her family battles on for justice.
I would like your leadership to be an awesome example of what a woman can do
under difficult circumstances. It is for this reason that I have chosen to be forthright in
the hope that you will not ignore a substantial part of Columbia’s alumni and friends.


Dr Zubeida Jaffer
Class of ‘96
Journalist, Author, Activist


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