Last Wednesday night, members of Students for Justice in Palestine at NYU (NYU SJP) slipped mock “eviction notices” under the doors of 2,000 Jewish and non-Jewish students in their residence halls — a violation of several of NYU residence hall policies — to protest Israeli “ethnic cleansing.” Some Jewish residents, upset by the intrusion and the content of the notice, assumed that they had been specifically targeted by the fliers and claimed that the act was anti-Semitic. To my mind, the content was highly inflammatory and I identify with their instinct to respond. They then called for judicial action towards NYU SJP, which the student group and some faculty then countered, impinged on SJP’s right to freedom of speech.
I’ve been calling this episode “Fliergate.” We’ve seen it before. The plot is completely foreseeable. There is an exchange of labels that spirals downwards: ethnic-cleanser, anti-Semite, freedom-of-speech-quasher, terrorist-supporter-who-should-be-banned. The sequel can be prompted by, for example, giving an honorary doctorate to a controversial anti-Islamist, in which case the likewise foreseeable plot runs: Islamophobe, freedom-of-speech-quasher, hypocrite. Judging by the pathetic outcomes of ensuing online petitions or Twitter insults, no one wins. It’s time to change the channel.
Truth be told, on most university campuses there’s only one channel to watch. Individuals concerned about Israel’s future tune in to campus life “on demand” and find themselves trapped with two undesirable options: to counter stunt with stunt and label with label, or to sit by passively and let the radical anti-Israel provocation pass. Neither, to my mind, is effective.
The key to finding a different channel is recognizing that students’ political, ethnic, and religious identities are “intersectional,” meaning that these component parts relate to each other but are not the same. When one can only see a political opponent’s religious identity through a political lens, one sees an enemy religion. Though SJP@NYU is not an Islamic organization, the intersection, for some members, between their Muslim identity and the opposition to Israeli policies is clear. It is possible, however, for Jewish and Muslim students to connect religiously or culturally, and for this understanding, in turn, to contextualize political differences.
At NYU, we’ve learned the power of this perspective. For the past eight years, Imam Khalid Latif and I, both orthodox in our religious practice and beliefs, have developed and modeled a friendship rooted in our genuine respect for each other’s spirituality and our commitment to listening. This friendship has survived the test of time — the Danish cartoons, Park 51, two wars in the Middle East, and the NYPD surveillance of Muslim students have only strengthened our resolve that a new path is possible. We now speak together with audiences across the city, we lead Jewish and Muslim students on community service missions around the country and we live in the same building working together with students committed to multifaith dialogue and action. We even share a nanny.
More critically, we have nurtured a Muslim-Jewish student dialogue group called “Bridges,” which offers joint programs on a monthly basis. We have moved our largest services into the same space on Washington Square Park. We have created the first academic minor in multifaith leadership, a model for other universities looking to do the same. We are teaching a 21st century skill set that heads off a clash of civilizations not by muting identity but by learning how to understand it better. As opposed to many well-intentioned but low-impact interfaith initiatives, the model we are building is not a series of panel discussions or photo-ops; it is a sophisticated educational battery composed of intellectual, spiritual and leadership experiences.
Rather than being whipsawed by the predictable choreography of an incident like Flyergate, we should try to convert a potential disaster into a teachable moment. First, this episode should be seen as an opportunity to bring the campus together, rather than tearing the NYU community further apart. Employing a process called “Restorative Justice” — in which all the parties to agree on how best to “restore” what was lost through the offense — enables all parties to hear each other, and is a much better path than the blunt and often ineffective instruments usually available through university disciplinary processes.
A second step involves convening the student leadership of each faith community to analyze the rapid downward spiral. Most soberly, we will admit that vibrant multifaith leadership does not preclude the possibility of protest, insensitivity or conflict; it does, however, provide a path forward.
Third, we should make use of the existing structures for dialogues, such as Bridges. This Friday, Bridges will sponsor the Third Annual “Jummah-Shabbat”, where students can comfortably witness the weekly service of the other, culminating in a community dinner. These kinds of events on the NYU campus strengthens our ability to engage with others in a way that celebrates dialogue across differences and provides a backbone for building a stronger cross-cultural community when conflicts arise.
Universities are charged with many missions — to create new knowledge, to explore ideas, to educate young people, to prepare men and women for the workforce and a life of higher inquiry. Certainly among those missions must be the training of the next generation of leadership. Campuses will always be a battleground between political adversaries in a zero-sum game. But for those who want to see a gentler century than the one just past, isn’t it time to train the leaders who offer us a different channel to which we may turn?
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna is Skirball executive director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU.