‘Silence Speaks Volumes’ – Are Jewish Students Safe at NYU?

By Matis Glenn

A flag flies from a building at New York University, (Stan Honda/AFP/GettyImages)

Jewish students in New York University feel isolated, afraid, and unheard, as pro-Palestinian rhetoric and hostility towards Jews students from classmates and faculty are on the rise.

At many elite universities, administrations have refused to express support for Israel  after the horrific October 7 attack by Hamas, with vocal faculty members even voicing tolerance or “contextualization” for the attacks. Pro-Palestinian protests, often calling for intifada and genocide, have spread across campuses nationwide. NYU is no exception.

The day after Hamas’ brutal terror attack on Israel, NYU President Linda Mills, who is Jewish, did not condemn the attack, and instead mourned all lives lost in an email sent to students. She wrote that the “violence that is raging now will likely intensify the feelings of those on our campus who hold strong views on the conflict,” and that the university must “remain committed to dialogue and peaceful discourse.” That remains her only publicly stated response to the situation in Israel.

The deans of individual schools within the university — home to the second largest population of Jewish students among private universities nationwide, according to Hillel — have released statements that rely less on omission to express their view, according to a source familiar with staff and students who spoke with Hamodia.

Jack H. Knott, dean of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, wrote: “I know we are all shocked and saddened by the escalating violence, terror and loss of life in Israel and Gaza this weekend.”

NYU’s Interim Provost Georgina Dopico wrote that the university “condemns Islamophobia, antisemitism, racism, and any other form of bias.”

“The deans were more overtly equivocating, talking about the suffering on both sides,” according to an NYU administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity.

However, a spokesperson for NYU, the dean of NYU Law and the Chair of the Board of Trustees did condemn Hamas’ terror attack, following backlash over the publication of an article posted to a university-affiliated online newsletter by Student Bar Association President Ryna Workman, in which the student wrote on October 10 that “Israel bears full responsibility” for Hamas’ attacks. In a later interview with The Intercept, Workman said “What’s been driving me is the resilience of Palestinians in this moment,” after 1,400 Israelis were murdered by terrorists.

NYU Spokesperson John Beckman released a statement the same day that Workman’s article was posted, in which he says that the university condemns Hamas’ terror attacks and that Workman’s statements do not reflect the views of the university. “The statement issued by the president of the Student Bar Association does not in any way reflect the point of view of NYU, which condemns the terrorist attack on Israel,” Beckman said. “Acts of terrorism are immoral. The indiscriminate killing of civilians and hostage-taking, including children and the elderly, is reprehensible. Blaming victims of terrorism for their own deaths is wrong.”

Demonstrators participate in a pro-Palestinian protest in Washington Square Park, October 17, 2023. (Photo by Alex Kent/AFP via Getty Images)

Michael Orey, another spokesperson for the university, said that members of its community do not have the right “to misuse a Law School platform to express their personal opinion under the rubric of an organization without proper authorization.” Workman was removed from the position of president following the article’s publication, and the law firm Winston and Strawn, which had planned on hiring Workman, rescinded their offer.

Law school dean Troy McKenzie, said that the college is investigating whether Workman’s writings constitute a violation of the school’s policies against harassment and discrimination, and if Workman abused the SBA presidency by posting the message without discussing the matter with the organization’s executive board.

McKenzie released a statement together with David Tanner, the chair of NYU Law Board of Trustees, on October 11, condemning Hamas’ terror attack. “NYU Law unequivocally condemns the recent terrorist acts and the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas in Israel.  The murder and kidnapping of civilians…and the separation and torture of children, are all abominable and atrocious. We want to say, loud and clear, to our community: Any statement that does not recognize this brutality does not reflect the values of NYU Law.

“We are working 24/7 to protect the safety of all our students, while providing support for those most affected by the war, here and in Israel. Please do not hesitate to reach out.”

But following these statements, and Workman’s loss of the job opportunity and the SBA presidency, a growing number of faculty members — 206 as of October 25 — have joined a group called Faculty for Justice in Palestine. Their mission statement, while acknowledging what they call the brutal killings of civilians and Israel on October 7, “recognizes that Israeli state violence against the Palestinian subjects and its control has its roots in a well-documented history of colonization stretching back at least 75 years.” It also calls Israel an apartheid regime, and they write that “history did not begin in October 7, however horrific the massive killing of Israeli civilians on that day was.”

The source says that the group plays into antisemitic tropes of Jewish power and money.

“In multiple paragraphs, they talk about their concerns about how those at NYU who are voicing support for Palestinians are being intimidated. They say that they’re aware that the administration is under immense pressure from trustees, alumni and donors to be perceived as pro-Israel, which follows the trope of Jewish influence through money.” The source also says that news of the group appears to have spread through word of mouth, and that since its inception, it has garnered more and more signatories. “I imagine it will grow, but I hope I’m wrong,” the source said.

Following the formation of this organization, a Jewish student complained that he doesn’t feel safe wearing a yarmulke in classes led by professors who signed. He said he doesn’t know if he will be treated or graded differently because he’s identifiably Jewish. Other students have expressed the same sentiment.

On October 12, as the Jewish community was on high alert following calls from terror groups for a “day of rage,” Fountain Walker, vice president for Global Campus Safety, sent out an email stating that “members of the community have been expressing anxiety and concern,” that the college was in touch with police and that any students who did not feel safe could ask their professors for permission to join class remotely.

“Nowhere in this email does it identify the ‘day of rage,’ nor does it name Jewish students as targets, nor any description of the potential threat — it was presented in the most general way possible,” the source explained. “It didn’t acknowledge that it’s the Jewish students who are feeling unsafe or unrecognized, especially if they’re dorming and have no one to turn to.”

But the Jewish students’ woes only began with the administration’s posturing.

“These statements have set the tone for what has been happening on campus,” the source said.

“It was after this (October 12) that there was a lot more of an overt Palestinian voice emerging from the university.

“One student approached a professor to request an extension for her assignments, because she is unable to eat or sleep and doesn’t feel safe at school. There was only one professor she felt comfortable asking for such a thing; she was scared to approach any of the others.

“Another student, a freshman from overseas, said there’s more antisemitism going on than the administration is made aware of….she said before the October 7 terror attacks, she was given an assignment, the premise of which was to describe how — not if — Israel is a colonial state. That’s the topic. She was crying and said she didn’t know what to do.”

Banners draped in main library

After the terror attacks, one student expressed concerns that she couldn’t concentrate on her work. Her professor responded by saying that there is nothing going on that should be affecting her performance. “This is in great contrast to previous incidents,” the source said. “Including the killing of George Floyd, when the messaging was to be understanding of our students, to give them extra time to do work etc…but now the Jewish students are met with silence, and that silence speaks volumes.”

The source reports an episode where a professor of an economics class ended his lecture with a statement about the war on Hamas, saying that he “neither condemns nor condones what is happening, because both sides are wrong.” A student in that class felt uncomfortable with him ending class on that note, concerned he would be required to interact with other students who might share that professor’s views.

Pro-Palestine demonstrations have been held frequently on campus, even inside of the main library, where large banners from the ceiling to the floor were displayed. “That must have taken quite some time to organize, because to get the banners to stay, they needed to be woven through gates,” NYU students shared.

Faculty members joined the protest, in which bullhorns were used and poetry about intifada was recited. Though it was held in violation of school rules, the protest was permitted to continue for a prolonged period of time. None of the faculty members or students faced disciplinary actions.

 A Jewish student at NYU who was in the library at the time told Hamodia that when the demonstration unfolded, Jewish students, including him, ran out in fear.

“It’s pretty scary to walk around,” one student said, “I’m always looking over my shoulder to see who’s around,” he said.

That student is aware of multiple instances of harassment, mostly involving female victims, including one incident where expletives were shouted at a group of Jewish students who were walking in Washington Square Park, which is adjacent to the university campus and is frequented by students.

On Oct 25, a planned “student walkout” took place at 1 p.m., where a large number of students left their classes to protest. That afternoon, a poster calling for the release of the hostages taken prisoner by Hamas was vandalized with the words “They will not return home alive.” The same day, protestors carried pictures of a Star of David in a trash bin, calling to “keep the world clean,” likely a reference to the antisemitic trope of “dirty Jews.”

At one demonstration, protestors – holding signs accusing Israel of genocide – chanted “We don’t want no Jew state, we want all of it.”

Additionally on the day of the walkout, a person riding on a bike reportedly threw hot coffee on a Jewish student who was putting on tefillin.

Protests have also been held in the park on a regular basis.

The number of faculty members who joined Faculty for Justice in Palestine increased from 190 to 206 on October 25, after the above incidents took place.

 Calls for intifada and the destruction of Israel, expressed in the refrain “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” were heard at these demonstrations. At the park, water in a fountain was dyed red, to symbolize blood, with the words “Free Palestine” written on it.

“I’ve heard from Jewish students that when they’ve tried to explain to their peers that these expressions are genocidal, the response is either denial, or ‘How was I supposed to know?’” the source said.

Students say they have heard protestors making comments when they pass by the demonstrations, sometimes including antisemitic slurs.

Students have organized pro-Israel demonstrations as well.

NYU has a hotline for students to report bias incidents.

“Some students have called the bias hotline, others aren’t bothering to report it because of the general stance NYU is taking,” the source said. “They feel like they’re wasting their time, or they think they’ll be told that they’re reading into what was said or done to them. For a university that places great emphasis on calling out ‘micro-aggressions,’ this is glaring.

“Any time there’s been a movement against a particular group, it’s not been tolerated; you’re responsible for being mindful about what you’re saying, but when its for Jews, excuses such as these are acceptable.

 “The war has been discussed at various administrative meetings, and the tenor has made them very uncomfortable for my Jewish colleagues.

“Jewish staff members were shocked, even those who are very liberal. When other groups have been targeted, including members of the Asian or black communities, the university reached out to give them support, but Jewish staff members are not being reached out to…there’s no solidarity or support from outside the Jewish community.”

One positive development, according to those on campus, is that the hostile climate in the university has led to a greater sense of unity among Jewish students.

“While the messaging of the university-affiliated Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life has largely been in line with NYU’s public stance on the war, they have been supportive of Jewish students’ concerns,” a faculty member told Hamodia. “The local Chabad has been active in reaching out to Jewish students, and has held events, including a recent kumzitz attended by around 80 students.”

mglenn@hamodia.com

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