July 14, 2024

Antisemitism at NYU and Jewish Identity in Antisemitic Times

Do I need to have an opinion on Zionism because I’m Jewish?

Image Credit: New York University

In 2022, antisemitism spiked throughout the country; from Ye’s tweet-storm about “going death-con [sic]3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” to Trump’s dinner with white nationalist Nick Fuentes and Ye, 2022 was not kind to Jewish Americans. As the few remaining Holocaust survivors die, more people deny its existence and antisemitism spreads like a virus. Antisemitism in the US hit an “all-time high” and recent global data shows over one billion people have self-reported antisemitic views out of over four billion people surveyed. A study released by the ADL in January 2023, shows “widespread” antisemitic views and stereotypes amongst Americans, especially younger Americans (aged 18-30).

Source: Sept. & Oct. 2022, ADL/One8 Foundation/NORC survey of 4,007 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 2 percentage points. Credit: Scott Clement/The Washington Post

In December 2022, politicians, President Biden, and celebrities began to publicly condemn antisemitism. With NPR, CNN, and Fox News talking about antisemitism, I began to wonder if and where these hard and necessary conversations were occurring within NYU. While Jews are left out of the university’s demographic data entirely, Hillel estimates that Jews reflect approximately 11.8% of NYU’s undergraduate student body and 19.1% of the graduate student body (2023), each student carrying unique definitions of antisemitism, views on Zionism, and beliefs. But where are discussions of these subjects occurring? Mostly in their interior dialogues…until now. 

Based on my forty interviews with Jewish faculty, students, and professors at NYU in 2022, most agree that the conflation of Judaism with Zionism must be addressed; however, 80% of professors interviewed clearly state that the classroom is not the place to discuss individual beliefs or Jewish identity. But, if not on a university campus, where is the place to have these conversations? 

When asked, several students shared that “being Jewish has nothing to do with Israel,” and felt strongly that we should separate Judaism and Israel. Many students and faculty identified themselves as part of “a generation of people working to disconnect the two,” admitting it is hard to define where the line of separation exists, even if you are Jewish.

Many who criticize Israel and are not Jewish are quickly deemed “antisemitic,” while many who support Israel as a Jewish state and are Jewish are coined “Zionists” and advocates of the state’s military and imperialist actions towards Palestinians. And while there are instances where those labels accurately apply, tying identity with politics enables stereotypes, people are silenced, and the conversation is essentially buried before it can begin. Why is it that Jews must take a strong stance on Israel in particular? We don’t require Ukrainian Americans to voice strong opinions on the ongoing war with Russia unless they choose to do so, nor do we require the public airing of the political opinions of any other population. So, why are Jews being held to a higher standard? It may stem from internal issues within the Jewish community and the fusion of Judaism and Zionism. When I dug a little deeper, I discovered a series of antisemitic incidents at NYU that helped me to paint a better picture of why no one at NYU was talking about antisemitism, Jewish-related issues, and the topics:

Swastikas, lack of representation, and extremist articles (oh my!) 

The Washington Square News (WSN) is NYU’s most commonly known in-house newspaper publication. I reached out to them because I thought it was odd that there were virtually no articles in relation to Judaism, antisemitism, Israel, or Jews published by NYU’s school newspaper in recent years. At a school with one of the largest Jewish populations on a college campus, I was not surprised when WSN staff informed me that over 50% of the paper’s staff identify as Jewish. However, it was intriguing that there was a noticeable lack of stories related to Jews being published. Why? Fear of antisemitism and backlash from students with opposing views. 

The controversy surrounding Netanyahu’s new government has made it harder to write about Israeli politics and Jewish identity because it has polarized Zionists and anti-Zionists, leaving everyone sensitive to the discussion. Israel’s democracy is on the brink of extinction with its supreme court crumbling and an all-male and nearly all-Orthodox government. According to CNN, the current state of Israel’s government is causing many Israelis turmoil and fear.

While the WSN is not rejecting submissions on Jewish topics, it is strange they are not receiving any at all. The editor said there were “none for antisemitism this term (Fall 2022),” and in Spring 2022, in response to swastikas at NYU, a student wrote a letter to the editor, addressing NYU to “do better.” SWASTIKAS ON OUR UNIVERSITY CAMPUS and who talked about this outside of the article? No one. In all of my social circles, it was never even mentioned because no one knew about it. And when I asked Jewish students and faculty during our interviews, most were not aware of it, and those that were thought it was blown out of proportion. 

In March 2022, the former Editor-at-Large at WSN, Trace Miller, published a “house piece,” representing the views of the WSN and NYU’s student body, which many students deemed to be of a “highly problematic” nature. According to multiple anonymous sources, Miller’s piece had to be extensively edited due to the insensitivity of their discussion toward Israeli issues and Jewish politics and was re-published as an opinion piece

NYU has many Jewish students that are Zionist and many that are anti-Zionist, but the issue with Miller’s piece was the insensitivity surrounding the discussion of why they believe NYU should close the Tel Aviv campus. The opinion piece comes off as extremist, which was triggering for many Jewish students at NYU that support Israel as a state. Denouncing Israel and promoting Palestine without mentioning the cultural and historical significance of the occupied territories to Judaism is an overtly biased approach to writing about a sensitive and geopolitically complex topic. 

The state of Israel is guilty of apartheid, crimes against humanity and other violations of international law. TAU is complicit in war crimes. And yet, NYU maintains an academic center in Israel — thereby discriminating against Palestinians and supporters of BDS — in partnership with TAU, tacitly endorsing the violence of the nation’s colonial project. Such a situation begs the question: Would NYU have maintained a campus in South Africa in the 1980s as its students protested it?

Trace Miller for Washington Square News, 2022

After Miller’s anti-Zionist piece urging NYU to close the NYU Tel Aviv campus entirely, there was an alleged restructuring of the staff and increased antisemitic awareness. A WSN source also mentioned that Miller is not Jewish and was “kicked out” after the incident. On its website, Miller is still listed as its Editor-at-Large and the piece is still posted, but they haven’t written anything since April 2022. Since this mishap, even Jewish writers haven’t pitched much on Jewish life to the paper. Contrary to Miller, WSN sources stated that they “would like to see more” discussions across the spectrum of Jewish and Israeli topics, beliefs, and opinions in their newspaper. Interestingly, shortly after I interviewed people at the WSN, Jewish-related articles written by Jewish staff writers slowly began popping up.

What does “Millergate” say about the current climate around discussing Israel and Jewish identity? It is hard to talk about anything and not be criticized, but when it comes to this specific topic, people are rightfully sensitive. People react strongly when they feel their Jewish identity is being attacked or taken away, even though Zionism and anti-Zionism are not connected to Jewish identity. It is important for people to voice their opinions on Israel while showing respect for Judaism, the Jewish culture, and Jewish history. 

NYU’S Title VI Lawsuit and the Repercussions of Over-Correction 

The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, and Title VI applies that to “any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” including universities. In 2019, there was an Executive Order mandating stating that “discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation.” 

In 2020, the issue began with an NYU student tweeting that he wanted “all Zionists to die” in conjunction with a physical attack on a pro-Israel group at Washington Square Park. NYU took “all necessary actions, including pursuant to its student discipline process,” to ensure antisemitism did not persist on campus. Ultimately, the decision was left to Biden administration officials in the Department of Education “to decide if NYU has shown itself to be on the road to recovery,” according to a statement from The Brandeis Center. The Title VI complaint alleged a “hostile environment for Jewish students on campus” and “two years of extreme antisemitism on the NYU campus which has created an intolerable and unlawful hostile atmosphere for Jewish students.” The Brandeis Center is the only journalistic report of this lawsuit since NYU’s article in 2020. This case was severely underreported and was given no attention in the NYU community or mainstream news. 

Most people still don’t know about the Title VI lawsuit regarding antisemitism on campus at NYU. I learned of it during my interview with Beckie Hamroff, Manager of Student Impact at the Bronfman Center (NYU’s Center for Jewish Life), who informed me of the lawsuit (2018-2020) in which NYU wasn’t supporting Jewish students or protecting them from hate crimes; after this lawsuit, NYU actively increased its vocal response to antisemitism, improved university accommodations, and their overall support for the Jewish community. In my experience as a Jewish student at NYU at the time, the lawsuit was not discussed at NYU, and when I mentioned the lawsuit in my interviews nearly every student had no knowledge of its existence. 

Many Jewish NYU students I spoke to claim to be informed and “knowledgeable about being Jewish,” sharing the sentiment that they are open and proud to be Jewish at NYU. Students also collectively agreed that NYU is accommodating their needs to take off from school and work for holidays, honoring their religion, and offering kosher food choices (the Kosher Cafe). It is clear that since the Title VI lawsuit, NYU has stepped up its game and is effectively accommodating and supporting Jewish students. But, what about Palestinians and anti-Zionists? How are they being treated at NYU? 

In a few interviews, anonymous sources revealed information exposing the alleged over-correction after the Title VI lawsuit. While NYU had good intentions in response to antisemitism on campus, they may have just moved some of the pressure to a different group of people on campus. 

Professor Kaplan (Professor of Jewish Studies at NYU) told me a story about a table that was set up by Palestine supporters passing out flyers in the Kimmel Center on campus in 2019. Professor Kaplan felt that the response to the table was “excessive on the part of the Jewish students,” explaining that many of the students were “very agitated” and “quite defensive” by the presence of the “Free Palestine” table on campus. 

There is also an “ongoing and delicate” situation occurring in NYU Jewish spaces to bring justice to anti-Zionists at NYU who may have been wronged by the university. Allegedly, NYU has threatened disciplinary action, violating policies intended to protect students. Some students who express Palestinian support have reported that they have been denied study abroad, banned from dorms, and suffered other material consequences. While this information has not yet been confirmed or denied by the university’s press office, it is evident that many anti-Zionist students feel that Bronfman and NYU are “politically right, Zionist,” and not welcoming of opposing opinions, with one student stating, “Free Palestine has been essentially banned at NYU.” Another student found it “disturbing” to see how people who show solidarity with Palestine are accused of antisemitism at NYU. People experience “discomfort” around their opinions on Israel and face “backlash” for supporting Palestine, a conceptual “conflation of Zionism and Judaism” regardless of whom or what you support. They mentioned having a “hard time engaging in conversations with Zionists.” Some students felt that many Zionists at NYU are elite, privileged, upper-class Jews, stating you can’t change people’s minds; it is a “lost cause if someone supports Israel now…because it is an Apartheid state.” 

It is disheartening to see the hopelessness in communicating with people of different opinions on Israel. It seems that most anti-Zionists at NYU have given up trying to have these discussions outside of their own bubble. One student suggested that college may not be the space to confront these issues; but, where should this discourse occur and where is it happening now? Don’t give up hope just yet! 

(Lack of) Conversations and Unraveling Conflation 

Places like the Bronfman Center are working hard to make the distinction clear; Israel and Jews are two separate entities and American Jews are not obligated to have any opinion on Israel. One student said, “Palestinians deserve equal rights, but it’s not (the) Jewish people’s fault,” highlighting the fusion of Israel and Jewish identity. While students feel they are knowledgeable, Hasia Diner, Professor of Modern Jewish History and a widely respected and outspoken anti-Zionist, believes that NYU students enter the class “highly propagandized” or “apolitical.” Among scholars, they said, it is “popular and possible to criticize Israel,” but some professors, including Professor Kaplan, feel it may not be possible to discuss Israel through a critical lens with students. 

Through my interviews, I found that over 65% of people aligned with Zionism felt that they were in a minority group, while over 75% of people associated with anti-Zionism felt that they were a part of the majority. Additionally, more than 65% of Jewish students expressed that their friends share the same politics and beliefs as them. This reflects the clear division between Jews at NYU, but defusing the conflation of Judaism and Zionism may forge the path to unity within the Jewish community.

Beckie Hamroff spoke very carefully to distinguish Jewish identity from Israeli politics. Since Israel is such a controversial topic and can cause divides among Jews, many avoid the conversation entirely, but Beckie says while she feels comfortable talking to her colleagues about Israeli politics (also noting that most of the Bronfman faculty have aligning views) the Bronfman faculty don’t talk about their views with students out of fear of influencing their beliefs. Bronfman also offers “optional spaces” where Zionism is discussed at NYU, including Kol Yisrael, Israel clubs, Hillel’s Leadership Council, and the “Jewish Ally Zone.” Though each optional space varies in their interpretations of “Zionism,” their religious beliefs, and their views on Israel, Hamroff believes “we all love sharing the Bronfman Center space,” and that our Jewish identity is what unites us. 

However, at the Taub Center (host of NYU’s Israeli Studies), people “stay away from controversial political things” and avoid conflict according to Judaic Studies professor Jeff Rubenstein, who also approximated that about 80% of the students in the Jewish Studies department are Jewish, stating, “You can generally figure out who is who.” Jewish students have a connection to Judaism and Hebrew that leads them to study it, the same way that all of the professors I have interviewed found their way to careers in Jewish academia, yet teachers aren’t connecting with their students on a personal level to avoid risking breaking the barrier of professionalism. 

My interviews spread across every corner of the political and religious belief spectrum; from Orthodox to secular and Zionist to anti-Zionist; it is our Jewish identity that brings us together. While some people hold strong opinions, NYU Jews with no outspoken opinions are the real majority. It seems that most Jews at NYU keep their thoughts to themselves, even when prompted with questions about their personal beliefs in our interviews. Ironically, I believe this is one of the major reasons antisemitism is returning: the silence and disregard for antisemitism’s ominous return in the US serve as acceptance.

The Bottom Line

The fight against antisemitism and the effort to raise awareness is not contained to NYU; this is a growing movement that deserves more recognition and attention at all college campuses. There is no “correct” space to have conversations about Jewish identity, Zionism, anti-Zionism, and Israel, but these conversations need to happen. It is important to create space within the Jewish community to discuss all religious and political views in a respectful manner that does not silence any perspective. Antisemitism must be condemned, but it also needs to be discussed in NYU classrooms and in conversations with our friends; otherwise, we open the door to social acceptance of antisemitism. The few incidents I’ve covered at NYU are only the tip of the iceberg and cannot continue to be swept under the rug, minimized, and left undiscussed. 

Whether you are Jewish or not, stand up for the Jewish people and create safe spaces for people to explore and discuss all perspectives on Judaism and Zionism. Educate others on the dangers of the conflation of Judaism and Zionism, and talk to people about Jewish issues even if they feel complex or overwhelming. Understanding our Jewish identity is complicated, but you don’t need to have an opinion on Israel because you are Jewish; however, you do need to speak out when Jewish people are in danger and defend yourself and your mishpachah (your family).

Jewish identity in America is inherently paradoxical and contradictory…What you have is a group that was historically considered, and considered itself, an outsider group, a persecuted minority. In the space of two generations, they’ve become one of the most successful, integrated groups in American society—by many accounts, part of the establishment. And there’s a lot of dissonance between those two positions.

Eric Goldstein, Professor of History, Emory University, 2022

1 thought on “Antisemitism at NYU and Jewish Identity in Antisemitic Times

  1. While the author may have had good intentions when writing this piece, they perpetuated a fallacy similar to racial “colorblindness” that Zionism and Judaism have no connection. All that Zionism is is the belief in the Jewish right to revive self-determination in [at least part of] the indigenous, ancestral homeland of the Jewish people (Israel-Palestine). Zionism is an inherent element of Jewish heritage, not only because half of the world’s Jews live in and rely on the State of Israel for refuge and freedom, but because there would be no Jewish people without the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, over 3,000 years ago. Out of 613 laws in Judaism, only around 270 can be practiced today outside the land of Israel and observant Jews worldwide have prayed for return (some even attempting return) to Israel from forced exile by many empires for centuries (secular and religious alike). Thus, Zionism is intrinsic to Judaism. Criticizing controversial and reactionary Israeli policies, including de facto expansion in the West Bank is not antisemitic, but claiming that all Zionists (over 90% of the Jewish people, according to Gallup and many polls) simply endorse all of the Israeli government’s decisions or have no right to defend themselves is antisemitic. Palestinians deserve independence and this has been an accepted norm of Zionist leaders from the start, however, the Palestinian refusal to end ethnic violence and civilian murder and finally accept a Jewish state in any borders is what accounts for an enduring occupation of their areas (since the 1967 war to destroy Israel).

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