On the last Thursday in March, as Jewish students were busy getting ready for Passover the very next day, a coalition of anti-Israel activists at New York University shepherded a resolution through the Student Government Assembly and the Student Senators Council, demanding that the university call on the Jewish State to undo a recent law barring BDS activists from entering the country.
NYU currently has a program in Tel Aviv that allows students to spend a semester studying anything from Hebrew and Arabic to politics and biology by the Mediterranean. In January, Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs published a list of organizations that promote boycotting the country, and stated that members of those organizations will be barred from entry. The list includes National Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace, the two groups behind the recent resolution at NYU. The Israeli ban, the resolution argued, infringes on the principles of academic freedom and should therefore be strongly opposed by the university’s administration.
Like so many attempts to single out Israel for calumny, this one, too, falls apart the moment it meets with reality.
First of all, as Eugene Kontorovich, law professor at Northwestern and a noted scholar of the efforts to boycott Israel, noted, “a country has no obligation to admit members of hostile organizations or those seeking to inflict economic harm on it.” For much of the Twentieth Century, he added, the United States routinely denied visas “on a wide array of ideological and political grounds, such as membership in Communist organizations or espousing Communist views.” So even if you believe that a nation has an obligation to always let everyone in, including those who are actively engaged in a campaign to isolate and harm it, Israel is certainly not the first or most notable nation to take defensive measures by being judicious in its visa policies.
But while no actual real live NYU student or faculty member has ever asked and been denied permission to come to Tel Aviv and partake in the university’s global program there, three NYU faculty members were barred late last year from teaching in a similar university-sponsored program in Abu Dhabi. The professors—Lebanese-born Mohamad Bazzi, Arang Keshavarzian, and a third whose identity has not been disclosed, all Shiite Muslims—believe that they were denied a visa because the emirate is ruled by a Sunni royal family that is hostile to their religious beliefs. Writing in The New York Times, Professor Bazzi called on NYU to “admit that it has bought into a political system that actively discriminates against members of a religious minority because of an overwhelming fear of Iran and hatred of Shiites. This is far from the free movement of people and ideas to which N.Y.U.’s leaders claim to aspire.”
In response to the United Arab Emirates’ decision, NYU’s journalism faculty collectively refused to teach at the program. The student government, however, showed no such solidarity: In an open letter, the same body now attacking Israel called on the university to respect the decision.
“We must make a promise that we will respect the ideologies of the countries we are visitors in,” the letter read. “We must make a promise that we are not there to spread the ideologies of the institution, should we continue to insist to center ourselves on Western Enlightenment Liberalism as an institutional truth, but to learn to appreciate the countries that have allowed us to be guests in their space.”
If you’re wondering why the student government was so eager to support the UAE’s decision to ban Shiite professors while simultaneously attacking Israel for passing measures that have, as of yet, not resulted in any form of discrimination against any member of the NYU community, you have only to look at the government’s leadership.
Ismael Khoufaify, for example, Director of Advocacy of the Governance Council of Minority & Marginalized Students at NYU, recently compared pro-Israel activity to a series of Swastikas discovered in one of the university’s building, as if the Nazi symbol and Zionism were interchangeable. On March 23rd, the same day that Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll was found murdered in her Paris apartment, Khoufaify retweeted a lewd video of two revelers rubbing against one another through a chain-link fence at an outdoor gathering, with the caption “the boy in the striped pyjamas,” a reference to the 2008 film about two Jewish boys imprisoned in a Nazi death camp. Such expressions far transcend the acceptable boundaries of reasonable debate. They are expressions of anti-Semitism, pure and simple.
Anyone still inclined to write off the recent condemnation as just another quibble over Israel’s policies should go back and compare the student government’s resolution to its UAE letter, and ask why the Sunni state receives praise and support while the Jewish one is fiercely attacked.
This recent resolution joins a long line of odious and bigoted attempts to single out pro-Israeli and Jewish students on NYU’s campus, from a 2014 secret conference dedicated to attacking Israel to a recent handbook for students focusing on the evils of the Jewish state. This time, too, the university’s administration failed to make any significant statement that would assuage the legitimate concerns of its Jewish and pro-Israeli communities. And the impact, said Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the Executive Director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at the university, is showing.
“NYU students came into Passover with some tough questions of their own,” he said. “How do I honor my feelings of outrage while conducting myself in a disciplined and goal-oriented fashion? How do I work to have my voice heard when I feel shut out of a conversation? How do we as students pull our campus student leadership out of the muck of unproductive discourse and on track to actually solve some problems?”
“The freedom of speech,” he added, “comes with the responsibility to listen.”
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.