Student Leader of Columbia Protests: ‘Zionists Don’t Deserve to Live’

Video of incendiary comments by one of the leaders of the student protest encampment at Columbia University surfaced online Thursday evening, forcing the school to again confront an issue at the core of the conflict rippling across campuses nationwide: the tension between pro-Palestinian activism and antisemitism.

The student, Khymani James, said in the January video that “Zionists don’t deserve to live” and “Be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists.”

Mr. James made the comments during and after a disciplinary hearing with Columbia administrators that he recorded and then posted on Instagram.

The hearing, conducted by an associate director of the university’s Center for Student Success and Intervention, was focused on an earlier comment he shared on social media, in which he discussed fighting a Zionist. “I don’t fight to injure or for there to be a winner or a loser, I fight to kill,” he wrote.

A Columbia administrator asked, “Do you see why that is problematic in any way?”

Mr. James replied, “No.”

The remarks were widely shared on social media and go to the heart of a question that has been swirling around the protests: How much of the movement is driven by sincere concern for the suffering of Gazans, and how much is tainted by antisemitism?

College administrators have pledged to Congress that they will take swift action against hateful attacks on Jewish students and antisemitic threats. “I promise you, from the messages I’m hearing from students, they are getting the message that violations of our policies will have consequences,” Columbia’s president, Nemat Shafik, told congressional leaders last week.

On Friday, a school spokesman said, “Calls of violence and statements targeted at individuals based on their religious, ethnic or national identity are unacceptable and violate university policy.” He declined to say if Mr. James had been, or would be, disciplined for the remarks.

Early Friday morning, Mr. James posted a statement on social media addressing his comments. “What I said was wrong,” he wrote. “Every member of our community deserves to feel safe without qualification.” He noted that he made these comments in January before he become involved with the protest movement and added that the leaders of the student protests did not condone the comments. “I agree with their assessment,” he wrote.

Mr. James did not respond to a request for comment.

It is unclear how many students are directing the Columbia protest movement, but Mr. James, 20, emerged as a public face of the demonstrations earlier this week when he led a news conference to assert the demands the movement is making of the Columbia administration.

“This encampment — a peaceful, student-led demonstration — is part of the larger movement of Palestinian liberation,” Mr. James said at the conference.

In his biography on X, he calls himself an “anticapitalist” and “anti-imperialist.”

Mr. James was raised in Boston, and graduated from Boston Latin Academy, according to a 2021 interview with The Bay State Banner.

He told The Banner that at Columbia, he planned to study economics and political science. “The ultimate destination is Congress,” he said.

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