Business Titans privately Urged NYC Mayor to Use Police on Columbia Protesters, Chats Show

REUTERS/Mike Segar
New York City Mayor Eric Adams speaks at a press conference following a New York City Police Department (NYPD) operation to clear protestors from the Columbia University campus where a building occupation and protest encampment had been set up in support of Palestinians, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City, U.S., May 1, 2024.

A group of billionaires and business titans working to shape U.S. public opinion of the war in Gaza privately pressed New York City’s mayor last month to send police to disperse pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University, according to communications obtained by The Washington Post and people familiar with the group.

Business executives including Kind snack company founder Daniel Lubetzky, hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, billionaire Len Blavatnik and real estate investor Joseph Sitt held a Zoom video call on April 26 with Mayor Eric Adams (D), about a week after the mayor first sent New York police to Columbia’s campus, a log of chat messages shows. During the call, some attendees discussed making political donations to Adams, as well as how the chat group’s members could pressure Columbia’s president and trustees to permit the mayor to send police to the campus to handle protesters, according to chat messages summarizing the conversation.

One member of the WhatsApp chat group told The Post he donated $2,100, the maximum legal limit, to Adams that month. Some members also offered to pay for private investigators to assist New York police in handling the protests, the chat log shows – an offer a member of the group reported in the chat that Adams accepted. The New York Police Department is not using and has not used private investigators to help manage protests, a spokeswoman for City Hall said.

The messages describing the call with Adams were among thousands logged in a WhatsApp chat among some of the nation’s most prominent business leaders and financiers, including former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell, hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and Joshua Kushner, founder of Thrive Capital and brother of Jared Kushner, former president Donald Trump’s son-in-law.

People with direct access to the chat log’s contents supplied them to The Post. They shared the information on the condition of anonymity because the chat’s contents were meant to stay private. Members of the group verified the chat’s existence and their comments.

The chat was initiated by a staffer for billionaire and real estate magnate Barry Sternlicht – who never joined directly, instead communicating through the staffer, according to chat messages and a person close to Sternlicht. In an Oct. 12 message, one of the first sent in the group, the staffer posting on behalf of Sternlicht told the others the goal of the group was to “change the narrative” in favor of Israel, partly by conveying “the atrocities committed by Hamas … to all Americans.”

Israel estimates 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. In the months since the war began, the death toll in Gaza has risen above 35,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

The chat group formed shortly after the Oct. 7 attack, and its activism has stretched beyond New York, touching the highest levels of the Israeli government, the U.S. business world and elite universities. Titled “Israel Current Events,” the chat eventually expanded to about 100 members, the chat log shows. More than a dozen members of the group appear on Forbes’s annual list of billionaires; others work in real estate, finance and communications.

Overall, the messages offer a window into how some prominent individuals have wielded their money and power in an effort to shape American views of the Gaza war, as well as the actions of academic, business and political leaders – including New York’s mayor.

“He’s open to any ideas we have,” chat member Sitt, founder of the retail chain Ashley Stewart and the global real estate company Thor Equities, wrote April 27, the day after the group’s Zoom call with Adams. “As you saw he’s ok if we hire private investigators to then have his police force intel team work with them.”

Sitt declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

A half-dozen prominent members of the group confirmed on the record their participation in the chat. Multiple people familiar with the group confirmed the names of other members.

Cypriot Israeli real estate billionaire Yakir Gabay wrote in a statement shared by a spokesperson that he joined the group because he wanted to “share support at a difficult and painful time,” to aid the victims of Hamas attacks and to “try and correct the false and misleading information intentionally spread worldwide to deny or cover up the suffering caused by Hamas.”

Asked about the Zoom meeting with chat group members, the mayor’s office did not address it directly, instead sharing a statement from Deputy Mayor Fabien Levy noting that New York police entered Columbia’s campus twice in response to “specific written requests” from university leadership. “Any suggestion that other considerations were involved in the decision-making process is completely false,” Levy said. He added, “The insinuation that Jewish donors secretly plotted to influence government operations is an all too familiar antisemitic trope that the Washington Post should be ashamed to ask about, let alone normalize in print.”

Adams demonstrated a willingness to send law enforcement to deal with campus protesters from the beginning. He sent police to Columbia’s campus to disperse pro-Palestinian demonstrators on April 18, at the university’s request – about a day after protesters erected their Gaza solidarity encampment. Officers arrested more than 100 protesters. The mayor has subsequently alleged that student activists were affected by “outside influences” – and that police intervention was needed to prevent “children” from being “radicalized.”

Both he and Columbia’s president have since drawn criticism – but also support – for involving police, adding to a fraught stretch for Adams, who is up for reelection in 2025 and faces an FBI corruption investigation into whether his 2021 campaign received illegal donations from Turkey. Adams has defended that campaign, saying he held it to “the highest ethical standards.”

Four days after chat members held the video call with Adams, student protesters occupied a campus building and Columbia’s president invited police back to campus to clear the building. Officers removed and arrested dozens of protesters, pushing, striking and dragging students in the process, The Post reported. One officer accidentally fired his gun.

Months before the protests at Columbia this spring, some chat members attended private briefings with former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett; Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli war cabinet; and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, according to chat records.

Members of the group also worked with the Israeli government to screen a roughly 40-minute film showing footage compiled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) – titled “Bearing Witness to the October 7 Massacre” – to audiences in New York City. The film portrays killings committed by Hamas. A chat member asked for help from other members to show the film at universities; it was later screened at Harvard, a showing chat member Ackman helped facilitate, attended and promoted publicly.

Sternlicht declined to comment on the record, although a person close to him – speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the chat group publicly – confirmed the real estate tycoon initiated the chat. Other members of the chat, including Ackman and Schultz, confirmed their membership.

A spokesman said that Ackman had not participated in the chat since Jan. 10, adding that Ackman never spoke to Adams about the Columbia protests or donated to Adams’s campaign, although Ackman “likes and is supportive of the Mayor.” Joshua Kushner declined to comment.

On Oct. 12, a staffer for Sternlicht relayed a message from his boss outlining the group’s mission: While Israel worked to “win the physical war,” the chat group’s members would “help win the war” of U.S. public opinion by funding an information campaign against Hamas. The campaign was referred to in the chat as “Facts for Peace.”

The news site Semafor reported in November that Sternlicht was launching a $50 million anti-Hamas media campaign with various Wall Street and Hollywood billionaires. The people involved, per Semafor’s reporting, include some members of the WhatsApp chat, a review by The Post found. The chat messages, the contents of which have never before been reported, appear to reveal the start of the campaign, as well as separate pro-Israel activities undertaken later by chat members. It is unclear to what extent the chat group and media campaign overlapped.

Some of the media campaign’s activities were public, including its website and Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and X accounts, which together attracted more than 170,000 followers.

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High-level contacts, private briefings

At a moment of rising antisemitism, the staffer for Sternlicht wrote in one of the first chat messages that his boss was proud of his Jewish heritage and wanted to support Israel, but was also concerned about security. Anonymity, the staffer wrote Oct. 12 on Sternlicht’s behalf, “is a practical need and concern for safety of my family in an increasingly complex world.”

The staffer wrote that Sternlicht understood if other members felt similarly and promised that all contributions to the media campaign would remain anonymous. “I’m sensitive to concerns about being less effective if it appears that this is a Jewish initiative,” the staffer wrote, speaking for Sternlicht.

From the start of the chat, members sought guidance and information from officials in the Israeli government.

Some of the WhatsApp chat members said in the chat they attended private briefings about the Gaza war with Israeli war cabinet member Gantz, former prime minister Bennett and Herzog, the ambassador. The chat log shows Zoom invites for these meetings.

“Most appreciative for the behind the scenes briefing by Naftali Bennett,” Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, wrote to the group on Oct. 16. “Quite extraordinary!”

Bennett did not respond to a request for comment. Gantz could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Washington said the briefing Herzog gave chat members was “one of dozens” the ambassador delivered that month, adding that “communities here in the U.S. understandably wanted to learn more about what was happening on the ground in Israel.”

A spokesperson for Schultz confirmed in a statement that he attended the briefing with Bennett, but said Schultz “did not participate in, or contribute financially to, any of the group’s work.” Schultz was neither involved in discussions about Adams and the Columbia protests nor screenings of the film, according to a spokesman.

In late October, the chat records show, chat members appear to have suggested to Israeli officials that they should hold a private New York City screening for media members of “Bearing Witness,” the IDF film featuring graphic footage recorded by Hamas gunmen on body cameras and cellphones as they attacked Israel. Sitt wrote in a message to the group on Oct. 27 that Israeli officials wanted to thank them “for coming up with the concept of the press event in NYC.”

The next month, the group showed the film in New York, records show. Sitt wrote on Nov. 10 that the Israeli government “arranged for us” to screen the film in Gotham Hall on Nov. 17, adding in a later message the showing “will be listed as a IDF event not affiliated to Facts for Peace to keep them separate.”

In ensuing months, group members wrote in the chat to flag news articles or social media posts about Israel, events in Gaza or, later, college campus protests.

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‘So NYPD can return’

Columbia students first set up an encampment April 17, eventually leading some Jewish students to allege the protests had forged a hostile and harassing atmosphere. Police stepped in to clear the encampment at the Columbia president’s request on April 18, arresting more than 100 demonstrators.

In the chat, discussion of how Adams was handling the Columbia protests – and how group members could help – took off the following day, after student protesters built a new encampment to replace the demolished one.

Lubetzky, of the snack company Kind, posted in the chat sharing a link to an Instagram video showing an Israeli Arab journalist getting hit by a man the video caption claims is an “anti-Israel protester.” Not long after, billionaire Blavatnik posted a picture of Adams and wrote, “He needs help.”

Sitt responded that he had already “been helping but can use more support.” He asked if others were “open to giving” to Adams.

Gabay, the Cypriot Israeli real estate billionaire, replied: “Pls send the info. Thanks.” Then Blavatnik posted an ActBlue link allowing donations to the Eric Adams 2025 committee.

Lubetzky messaged: “If there is a group to contribute through, or a way to ensure our contributions are known to be related to his efforts to fight antisemitism and hate, pls let us know and I will support meaningfully alongside you guys.” Sitt replied that he was arranging a “code” for such donations; asked about this message, Vito Pitta, counsel to Adams’s 2025 campaign, said “there is no ‘special code’ for contributions.”

A spokeswoman for Blavatnik said he contributed $2,100 to Adams’s reelection campaign in April. She said the donation was given “to endorse Mayor Adams’ stalwart support of Israel and firm stand against antisemitism.”

Spokespeople for Lubetzky, Sitt and Gabay said they did not donate to Adams. Loeb declined to comment.

In the chat, discussion turned to the fact that Columbia had to grant Adams permission before he could send city police to the campus.

One member asked if the group could do anything to pressure Columbia trustees to cooperate with the mayor. In reply, former congressman Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), CEO of the American Jewish Committee, shared a PDF of a letter his organization had sent that day to Columbia President Minouche Shafik calling on her to “shut these protests down.”

“Also in touch with the board,” Deutch wrote to the chat group. “So NYPD can return.”

Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Deutch wrote in an email to The Post that the American Jewish Committee “values all opportunities to engage with various individuals and institutions who support the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” Asked about the chat group and its activities, a Columbia spokesperson wrote, “We have no knowledge of this.”

A Zoom video call with chat group members and Adams took place a little after 11 a.m. April 26, according to chat records.

It is unclear how many members attended the meeting, which lasted roughly 45 minutes, chat records show. Those present included at least Blavatnik, Sitt, Loeb and Lubetzky, according to the chat logs.

Sitt wrote minutes after the call ended to summarize items “discussed today,” including donating to Adams, using group members’ “leverage” to help persuade Columbia’s president to let New York police back on campus and paying for “investigative efforts” to assist the city.

Lubetzky replied listing concrete actions group members should take. These included resharing a link to offer financial support to Adams, calling and writing to Columbia’s president and board of trustees, and “getting Black Leaders to condemn Anti-Semitism.” He named several people he would contact and asked if anyone in the group knew Jay-Z, LeBron James or Alicia Keys.

Asked about his comments, Lubetzky wrote in a statement to The Post that “building bridges between the Black and Jewish communities … is more important than ever.”

Blavatnik, through a spokeswoman, confirmed he attended the Zoom with Adams but said he did not “participate in a conversation about private investigators and is unaware of discussions related to that subject.” The spokeswoman noted other people on the Zoom said things Blavatnik “did not weigh in on or agree with.” She said the billionaire, a Columbia alumnus and donor, only joined the Zoom to understand how Adams “was thinking about the Columbia protests.”

The evening after the call, Sitt shared the ActBlue link for donations to Adams’s 2025 committee.

The chat does not record who donated money to Adams nor how much. The New York City Campaign Finance Board website shows donations sent only up to January of this year; more recent donations will not become public until July.

Pitta, the Adams campaign lawyer, said the campaign had not received donations from Lubetzky, Loeb, Sitt or Gabay. He confirmed Blavatnik had donated but did not respond to questions asking about the timing of Blavatnik’s donation.

A day after the April 26 Zoom with Adams, Loeb wrote the chat group to share reflections on what transpired during the call. He wrote that it was “a sad state that we feel the need to grovel to ask our elected officials to do their jobs.” He added, “I’ll be grateful when the perpetrators are dragged off campus.”

Police returned to Columbia on April 30, arresting dozens of demonstrators who had occupied a university building. Columbia President Shafik had requested law enforcement’s aid in a letter, writing that the takeover of Hamilton Hall raised “serious safety concerns.” She asked police to remain on campus at least through May 17.

The morning afterward, Adams gave a news conference summarizing the action. “We went in and conducted an operation,” he said, “to remove those who have turned the peaceful protests into a place where antisemitism and anti-Israel attitudes were pervasive.”

In early May, seven months since its inception, the chat was shut down. A person close to Sternlicht said he decided to shutter the group because the activities were moving beyond the initial objectives and the people who started it – including himself – were no longer actively participating, and hadn’t been for months.

“We are incredibly grateful for the dialogue and support that this group has provided over the past 7 months,” wrote a staffer for Sternlicht. The staffer wrote that members should not hesitate to reach out if they needed anything.

“We are stronger together,” the staffer wrote in closing.