In response to the distribution of fake eviction notices at two NYU dorms last week, school officials have prescribed both an internal judicial investigation and a mandatory dialogue process known as “restorative justice.”
Now dubbed “Flier-Gate,” the middle-of-the-night stealth action on April 23 consisted of members of the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine slipping more than 2,000 fliers under students’ doors at Palladium and Lafayette halls to draw attention to “one of the many horrific aspects of the occupation that Palestinians face daily.”
“We regret to inform you that your suite is scheduled for demolition in three days,” the flyer reads. “If you do not vacate the premise by midnight on 25 April, 2014 we reserve the right to destroy all remaining belongings. … Charges for demolition will be applied to your student accounts.
“Eviction notices are routinely given to Palestinian families living under Israeli occupation for no other reason than their ethnicity. … Palestinian homes are destroyed as part of the state of Israel’s ongoing attempts to ethnically cleanse the region of its Arab inhabitants and maintain an exclusively ‘Jewish’ character of the state. By destroying Palestinian homes, the state makes room for illegal Israeli settlements. The Israeli government itself describes the process as ‘Judaization,’ it continues.
It concludes, “This is not a real eviction notice. This is intended to draw attention to the reality that Palestinians confront on a regular basis.”
NYU SJP did not put its name on the fliers, but posted a statement on its website the following day accepting responsibility and calling the action a protest that “addresses only one of the many horrific aspects of the occupation that Palestinians face daily.
In response TorchPAC, NYU’s pro-Israel advocacy group, started a Charge.org petition asking NYU President John Sexton to “take firm action” to the school’s chapter of SJP for “incitement on campus.” As of Tuesday morning, the petition had 361 signatures.
In parallel, SJP started two petitions of its own. One, on Change.org asks for support of the group’s mission. As of 3:20 Wednesday it had 1,046 signatures.
The second asks NYU faculty to support SJP’s distribution of mock eviction notices as an act of free speech and says there’s no evidence of “hate speech” or that the group targeted “a specific religious group.” It asks the NYU administration not to take “disciplinary action” and to “respond vigorously to the tendentious allegations” that the action targeted Jewish students.
An SJP member said the group collected these signatures via e-mail and a post on SJP’s website lists 91 professors as signing on.
Asked what action the university planned to take, NYU spokesman John Beckman told The Jewish Week via email that the action violated the school’s rules and would be investigated.
“NYU encourages free speech and the free exchange of ideas, but our hope is that the discourse — including debate on controversial issues — will be conducted maturely and in a way meant to elicit thoughtful discussion rather than simply provoke,” the email said.
“Leafleting of the type that took place last week — anonymously slipping a flyer titled ‘eviction notice’ under doors at night — is against our rules, is an intrusion into privacy of students’ rooms, and is inconsistent with our expectations for how discourse should be conducted here, as it does not allow for any real exchange of ideas.”
Beckman said that the school’s “Student Affairs Division is looking into this as a judicial matter — determining whether the focus should be on individuals, on the student organization, or both — and will be following up appropriately.
“Additionally, NYU is unusual, we believe, in recognizing years ago that a culture of meaningful dialogue on Middle East politics cannot simply be expected, but it can be fostered. Therefore, among other steps, through the process known as ‘restorative justice,’ we will bring together the parties to work together under the direction of our Muslim and Jewish chaplains, as well as trained moderators, to reverse the cycle from negative to affirmative exchanges.”
Originally the media, including this publication, erroneously reported that the flyering took place only at Palladium Hall and that the dorm was known for having a large Jewish population. But NYU officials refuted the claim, saying in a statement that they “don’t believe there is perception of this dorm as having an a high percentage of Jewish students.” They said Palladium Hall’s Shabbat elevator was there not because of a large concentration of Jewish students, but because there is no stairway accessible on Shabbat for the observant students who do live there. NYU’s kosher cafeteria is located in Weinstein Hall.
Jewish students responded to the flyering with a wide range of emotions that included “afraid, outraged and mildly annoyed,” said Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, executive director of the Bronfman Center, NYU’s Hillel.
A Jewish student who fell into the mildly annoyed category, texted a Jewish Week reporter that he had “heard of things like this happening at other schools, but I guess I never imagined seeing it under my own door. I was more surprised than anything. Although I was also irritated because I feel like what is being stated is dramatically generalized and mostly erroneous.”
An NYU alumna, whose daughter is planning to live in Palladium Hall in the fall, said the action had made her and other parents both angry and afraid.
“We are scared for our children’s safety. … I’m livid. This was done in the middle of the night, the cowards. This is NYU, NYU. It’s unbelievable,” she told The Jewish Week, asking to remain anonymous to protect her daughter’s privacy.
Rabbi Sarna fell into the outraged group “I was very upset by the content of the flier,” he told the Jewish Week in an interview this week. “Three days before Yom HaShoah, to accuse the only Jewish state in the world of ethnic cleaning is an outrage.”
He also contested SJP’s tactics, saying the group shouldn’t “take it out on students in their own living space, but to find a substantive way to address it.
“In order for a university to function there must be spaces that are nonpoliticized and that includes where students live and where they eat. … To take something important and reduce it to a move like this, I think it does the issue injustice,” he said.
Rabbi Sarna will be helping to bring student leaders together for the restorative justice process. He has a long history of building bridges between Jews and Muslims and founded the Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership with Imam Khalid Latif, NYU’s Muslim chaplain (and Chelsea Clinton).
He remembers the 2002 “Netanyahu riot,” at Concordia University, which happened while his brother was president of the campus Hillel there. A protest against a speech by the Israeli leader disintegrated into melee that included a Holocaust survivor being kicked in the groin and a rabbi being spat and riot police dousing the crowd with pepper spray.
“I know what it’s like for a campus to descend to total chaos,” he said.
“Anytime there is a conflict like this there can either be a spiral up or a spiral downwards,” he said. “What we want students to do is rather than resorting to stunts and slogans is to be able to hear each other out and hear each other’s views substantively. To me it’s about controlling the spiral.”
Neither SJP’s national organization or local chapter responded to requests for interviews.
This story was updated April 30 to include SJP's two petitions.