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May 17, 2019 5:25 pm

NYU Tel Aviv Students Slam Department Over Boycott, Amid Criticism by Faculty, Administration

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NYU Stern School of Business. Photo: Wikipedia commons.

Multiple students who attended New York University’s study abroad program in Tel Aviv expressed dismay that it was boycotted by a department at the school, joining complaints shared by NYU’s administration and hundreds of faculty members against the move.

The Department of Social and Cultural Analysis (SCA) announced on May 2nd that it passed a resolution “by a majority vote” pledging non-cooperation with NYU-Tel Aviv, over objections to entry restrictions affecting Palestinians and “members of groups that are critical of government policies.”

A 2017 amendment to Israel’s entry law barred access to foreigners who are identified as key proponents of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, among them leaders of National Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, which maintain NYU chapters.

NYU’s administration pushed back against the SCA decision, reiterating that no students who sought to study in Israel were ever denied entry to the country, while noting that no SCA faculty were involved with the Tel Aviv program, meaning there was no “practical effect to the vote.”

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An institutional statement issued shortly after the SCA’s announcement reaffirmed the university’s commitment to the Tel Aviv program and opposition to academic boycotts targeting Israel. NYU President Andrew Hamilton and board chair William Berkley subsequently sent a private letter to SCA faculty urging them “to reconsider this regrettable vote,” calling it “at odds both with a key tenet of academic freedom — the free exchange of ideas.”

Objections were also raised by the head of NYU-Tel Aviv; some 260 NYU faculty members, including at least eight deans; and — in comments to and conversations with The Algemeiner — a number of NYU students who experienced the Tel Aviv program firsthand.

Ben Newhouse, a sophomore finance and accounting major, chose to attend NYU-Tel Aviv in the fall of 2018 after securing an internship opportunity at a fintech center located at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

Newhouse said he found the program to be “extremely valuable,” and particularly enjoyed a class on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was taught by two Israeli professors, one Arab and the other Jewish. It “provided students a space to voice their opinions about the conflict without feeling like the class was biased,” he said.

He recounted feeling “surprised and disturbed” by the SCA pledge of non-cooperation, especially suggestions that it was necessary as, according to resolution co-author Professor Andrew Ross, “some of our students and faculty can’t access [the] program” — a claim rejected by NYU’s own administration.

Ross, director of NYU’s American Studies program, sits on the advisory board of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). The resolution’s four other co-authors — Professor Dean Itsuji Saranillio, Tareq Radi, Ben Zinevich and Rose Asaf — are also supporters of BDS, though the resolution itself was not framed as an extension of the campaign.

Newhouse said that Ross failed to answer his emails questioning “who exactly was denied entry to NYU-Tel Aviv,” and why the department did not come out against NYU-Abu Dhabi, considering the United Arab Emirates’ publicly-stated, discriminatory stance against Israeli passport holders.

He applauded NYU’s efforts to distance the rest of the campus from the SCA pledge, but urged the administration to take stronger action against the department and professors involved in writing the resolution for their role in “preventing academic freedom.”

Like several other students, Newhouse expressed frustration with the resolution’s rationale, suggesting it aimed to punish NYU-Tel Aviv “because of the actions of the Israeli government.”

Javier Cohen, a sophomore who attended NYU-Tel Aviv this past fall semester alongside Newhouse, likewise listed concerns with policies pursued by authorities in China, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and the United States — which all host NYU campuses, but were not subject to an SCA non-cooperation pledge.

He said he was “outright embarrassed” to learn of the SCA vote, positing that “their real mission was to loudly demonize the State of Israel,” since the department “does not share academic ties with NYU-Tel Aviv as is.”

Cohen also took issue with the SCA’s decision to announce the vote on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s national Holocaust remembrance day. The criticism echoed that previously put forth by NYU chaplain Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the executive director of the university’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, who told the student-run Washington Square News, “Making public this sort of academic boycott on Holocaust Remembrance Day meant that the people around the table either are ignorant of the history that such restrictions played in Nazi Germany, or they don’t care for the Holocaust survivor community at NYU.”

“How am I as a Jewish student supposed to feel when an academic boycott of the Jewish state is declared … on the day in which we are meant to reflect on the tragedy and crimes committed against our people by the Nazis,” asked Cohen.

“Anti-Zionist groups on campus love to criticize the ease with which pro-Israel students ‘pull the antisemitism card,’ but the obsession that we see on campus in targeting the one and only Jewish state while defending just about any other can’t be explained otherwise,” he added. “The record will reflect that the SCA department was on the wrong side of history and their reputation will suffer because of it: perhaps not in the short run but definitely in the long run.”

Evan Berk, a senior concentrating in Middle Eastern studies, social theory, and Arabic, said in turn that his time at NYU-Tel Aviv last spring was “invaluable.”

“The school encouraged us to travel; most Arabic students spent ample time in the West Bank (especially Hebron), many traveled to Lebanon and Egypt, and many courses ran trips to Druze, Palestinian, and African Israelite enclaves,” he explained.

Attempts “to make parallels between the government of Israel and colleges” grossly misrepresent NYU-Tel Aviv’s mission and “unfairly penalizes” the program ” in light of problematic State laws,” Berk argued.

“Cutting ties with NYU-Tel Aviv simply perpetuates the problems; it obscures what we think or see as the problems within Israel and renders one to think all of it is bad,” he added. “Work within the system, work with NYU-Tel Aviv against this law, attempt something dialectical, that seeks true change. Don’t just abandon a place because the State passed a detestable law.”

Shai, a master’s student who also completed her undergraduate degree at NYU and asked to only be identified by her first name, said her time at NYU-Tel Aviv in 2017 “was undoubtedly one of the most valuable learning experiences of my life,” and similarly maintained that the SCA decision reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the Tel Aviv campus.

“The director of the program is a linguist who specializes in Arabic, many of the professors are Palestinians, and the staff make it a priority to expose students to as many narratives of the Israeli-Arab conflict as possible,” she said. “During my time at NYU-Tel Aviv, several of my classmates were from NYU-Abu Dhabi and a few others were pro-Palestinian activists. They came to NYU-Tel Aviv to see the complicated reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for themselves, and they were embraced for it.”

She called on the NYU administration to “respond with actions, not just with words.”

“The rising anti-Israel sentiment on campus has made Jewish students the targets of discrimination, and even harassment, regardless of their political affiliations,” Shai said. “This is a problem that the administration needs to tackle with more than just an ‘institutional statement.'”

Ilan Bassali, a senior studying real estate who attended NYU-Tel Aviv in spring 2017, said his program included “about 20-30 students” who had diverse views about Israel, Zionism, and the conflict.

“Jews, non-Jews, pro-Palestinian students — we were all able to go to Tel Aviv for a semester,” said Bassali, who recalled sitting down with a peer who had opposing views and having a civil, extended discussion where “we both opened each others eyes to the other side, which is very valuable and doesn’t happen enough.”

That a department at “the university I go to, pay tuition to, and spent four years of my life at is doing something like this” is pursuing non-cooperation with the Tel Aviv program is “offensive and sad,” he added.

Bassali said he had urged many of his peers to study abroad in Israel, and gave no indication that he would now be deterred.

Yoni Lean, a freshman studying biological science and global public health, likewise did not appear to be put off from his plans to study in Tel Aviv next spring, saying the SCA decision “in fact inspired me further.”

“However, I do know of students who are within SCA and have been incredibly discouraged by their decision, as they now fear that BDS, which to this point has been largely theoretical, may actually begin to affect our academic plans and pathways at NYU,” he added.

In a statement to The Algemeiner, university spokesperson John Beckman emphasized the distinction between the position assumed by the SCA and that of the administration, which “has unwaveringly supported NYU Tel Aviv and publicly criticized its opponents.”

The University will not allow the SCA vote to have any impact on NYU Tel Aviv, to prevent any students from studying there, or to disadvantage any student who chooses to study there,” Beckman asserted.

NYU has a firm, established track record of opposing BDS (herehereherehere and here), of opposing ostracism based on support of Israel, of rejecting calls to close NYU Tel Aviv, and of supporting its Jewish community; it’s unfortunate that there are those who choose to ignore that.”

Ross and Saranillio did not respond to The Algemeiner‘s request for comment by press time.

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