With NYU’s Israel Apartheid Week and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, colliding this week on the Greenwich Village campus, student activists are gearing up for some tense times. Especially Adela Cojab and Rose Asaf, who have worked together since last fall as the only two Jews representing NYU’s Jewish community in student government.
But things have soured this semester for the two junior student government senators, and the two sides in the testy Israel debate they are stand-ins for: the larger pro-Israel side and the pro-BDS one, which favors boycotts, sanctions and divestment against Israel. The emerging debate, which some are now describing as a “campus war,” is touching on fraught issues that weigh on Jewish college students these days: Zionism, racism, anti-Semitism, intersectionality and even Jewish identity. And it doesn’t show signs of a truce anytime soon.
On April 9, 51 student groups at NYU endorsed a BDS resolution against Israeli products, academic institutions and advocacy groups; it was led by Asaf. But in an unprecedented move, the student groups extended the boycott effort to include two pro-Israel clubs, TorchPAC and Cojab’s Realize Israel. The signatories committed to refrain from co-sponsoring or otherwise collaborating with the pro-Israel groups. Such collaboration, they wrote in a NYU Students For Justice in Palestine post on Medium, would amount to “an effective endorsement of Zionism.”
Cojab, 21, who is from Mexico City and is studying the Sephardic diaspora, sounded an alarm. “This is creating an unsafe space on our campus,” she told The Jewish Week. “Being for dialogue and community as long as it excludes Zionist students is hypocritical, and it is hurtful.”
Asaf countered that the move wasn’t meant to be personal, but political. “This is not a boycott of individual Jewish students or Jewish clubs,” said Asaf, 21, a junior from Israel concentrating in American studies and comparative politics, in an email interview with The Jewish Week. “Realize Israel and TorchPAC are both political organizations that we have decided not to work with for political reasons.”
“Being for dialogue and community as long as it excludes Zionist students is hypocritical, and it is hurtful.”
Last week’s BDS move was just the latest incident in what has been a charged year for Zionist Jewish students at NYU. In late February, an open letter written by a leader of the Governance Council of Minority and Marginalized Students (GCOMMS), a new student organization meant to unite minority groups on campus, sent the organized Jewish community reeling.
“In the last week, our community has gone through hell and back,” he wrote. “From swastikas, to Kool-Aid, to Zionism, to the brink of a black diaspora war.” (Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water were served in the NYU dining hall in honor of Black History Month; both are thought to be racial stereotypes.)
The grouping of Zionism with racist and anti-Semitic incidents on campus — and what many saw as an equating of the two — raised the Jewish community’s ire.
“They are essentially telling people who support the State of Israel that they are equivalent to the same people who sent their families to concentration camps,” said Cojab.
A meeting was set up between Jewish student leaders and the Jewish student senators to discuss a plan of action. But a few days before the meeting, Asaf, the author of the GCOMMS statement, and two other students introduced a resolution before student government that surprised Jewish student leaders.
Using NYU’s Tel Aviv campus as a case study, the resolution called for greater accessibility at NYU’s study-abroad sites, citing a recent Israeli law that bars leaders of the BDS movement from entering the country. Asaf argued that the Jewish community should support the resolution, as it called for greater accessibility to the Israel campus. But concerned about the use of Tel Aviv as the primary example and subject of the resolution, Jewish student leaders felt attacked. The fact that the resolution was co-authored by the author of the earlier GCOMMS letter further raised the Jewish community leaders’ suspicions about the resolution.
In light of the resolution, Jewish student leaders decided not to respond to the GCOMMS statement. “If we in any way want to be able to get people on our side, we can’t start a campus war,” said Cojab.
“They are essentially telling people who support the State of Israel that they are equivalent to the same people who sent their families to concentration camps.”
The vote was scheduled for March 29. Asaf, along with the other authors of the resolution, took questions on the resolution from the senators, and Cojab was allowed to speak prior to the vote.
“Our community is deeply concerned about the current resolution that willfully distorts publicly available facts to single out the State of Israel under false pretenses,” she told the student government.
The resolution passed — 24-11, with 3 abstentions — and many Jewish students left feeling defeated. But there was a sense of solidarity among those who opposed the resolution. Outside the room where the student government meeting continued, a student started singing “Am Yisrael Chai,” “the people of Israel live.”
‘This is creating an unsafe space on our campus’
At the heart of the disagreement between JVP and the pro-Israel groups is what constitutes Jewish identity.
For her constituency, Cojab said, “Zionism isn’t a political ideology; to them Zionism is a part of their identity. For the overwhelming majority of my community, Zionism is a part of who they are, and they see an attack on Israel as an attack on their Judaism.”
Several other students associated with Jewish club life agreed.
“I’m not talking about politics, I’m not talking about support of the government, I’m not talking about any of that,” said Ari Spitzer, a junior and vice president of Realize Israel. “I’m saying students at NYU that affiliate with Judaism in some way, through some institution or the like, view Israel as an integral part of their identity.”
The NYU JVP chapter’s visibility has caught some in the pro-Israel camp by surprise, especially for a small group that was founded in October 2017. In the fall it led an effort, with 29 student groups signing on, to boycott an Israel trip for student leaders run by the Bronfman Center, NYU’s Jewish student center; it argued that the trip was “propaganda” and it criticized one of the trip’s sponsors, the Maccabee Task Force, a pro-Israel organization funded in large part by Jewish mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, calling it “toxic and Islamophobic.” The group has since staged several sit-ins and rallies in the NYU student center calling on Jewish students to boycott Birthright Israel as part of JVP’s #returnthebirthright campaign. And group members were on hand this week protesting at Birthright’s annual gala dinner here.
Here's bourgeois asshole and massive NYU+Birthright donor Michael Steinhardt giving the middle finger to Jewish activists who #ReturnTheBirthright and reject free propaganda trips to Israel until Palestinians have the right to return to their homeland pic.twitter.com/akOWdvEFjc
— NYU JVP (@nyujvp) April 16, 2018
“I couldn’t have predicted Jewish Voice for Peace rising up, their students being the loudest voices on campus — the students that claim to represent the Jewish community on campus, when in actuality they don’t,” said Jake Steel, co-president of TorchPAC.
Due to its vocal support for BDS, JVP has largely alienated NYU’s organized Jewish community. Fifty-four leaders representing 19 Jewish organizations on campus, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Sephardic and Latino organizations as well as Jewish Greek life, signed a letter condemning the GCOMMS statement in February. They chose not to publish the letter after the Tel Aviv resolution was introduced. Nobody from JVP signed the letter.
For Asaf, who said she was once an active participant in the Bronfman Center’s programs, the embrace of Zionism by NYU’s organized Jewish community has made her feel unwelcome. “I lost connection with a big part of the Jewish community, and now, I’m essentially an exile,” she said. “I feel that my Judaism has been delegitimized by NYU’s institutional Jewish community.
“Supporting the Palestinian people is a matter of principle and can coexist with Judaism,” she said. “My Judaism inspires my work.”
Asaf said she founded JVP at NYU to make space for pro-Palestine Jews within the Jewish community.
“NYU has hundreds, maybe thousands, of Jewish students who do not affiliate with institutional Jewish spaces because of their blatant right-wing slant as it relates to Israel, and are uncomfortable with having interactions with the Bronfman Center constantly related back to going on Birthright or otherwise connected to Israel,” she said. “Jewish people have long been advocates for justice. We have long stood in solidarity with oppressed peoples, and I refuse to abandon that tradition.”
The effort by NYU’s JVP chapter is not the first time students have tried to pass BDS resolutions at the school, which has a Jewish population of about 6,000. In April 2016, NYU’s Graduate Student Union — one of the signatories on the current resolution – passed a BDS resolution that was later overturned by the group’s parent union, the United Auto Workers. At the time, NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton, expressed disapproval of the measure. About the new BDS resolution, NYU spokesman John Beckman said in a statement, “The University opposes any kind of boycott or official refusal by some student groups to interact with other student groups because of differing points of view. It is at odds with our traditions and values, especially our core belief in the free exchange of ideas.”
“Supporting the Palestinian people is a matter of principle and can coexist with Judaism… My Judaism inspires my work.”
Nor is NYU alone in seeing a BDS movement growing on its campus. Earlier this year, a BDS resolution was brought before the University of Maryland’s student government, which voted it down. Barnard College’s student government is currently administering — believed to be for the first time — a referendum on a BDS resolution that targets Israeli companies among others. Voting on the referendum closes next week.
All of the tension at NYU has taken its toll. In a statement to The Jewish Week, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, executive director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, called the boycott “a source of sorrow and disappointment to me. The university should be about people coming together, not about people refusing to speak to those with differing views.”
“When intersectionality doesn’t include you, it hurts.”
For her part, Adela Cojab understands the complexities of Jewish student life these days, especially when it comes to intersectional politics, the notion that the oppression of one minority group is tied to oppression of all others. NYU’s Jewish community, for instance, has a strong relationship with the Muslim student community, connected by a Muslim-Jewish student group called Bridges and modeled by the real-life friendship between university chaplains Imam Khalid Latif and Rabbi Sarna.
Asked if she believes in intersectional politics, Cojab said she did, stressing the past tense. “But when it starts excluding you, you start to have different opinions. When intersectionality doesn’t include you, it hurts.”