Death Threats, Increased Security and BDS Wars – All Part of Campus Life at New York University

A Jewish center was temporarily shuttered last week after a student expressed a ‘desire for Zionists to die,’ while the administration tells student body it will not be passing a resolution calling for divestment from businesses dealing with Israeli army

Taly Krupkin
Cameron Taylor Oakes
New York
New York University.
New York University.Credit: BLOOMBERG NEWS
Taly Krupkin
Cameron Taylor Oakes
New York

NEW YORK – New York University continues to be at the center of a storm after its student government passed a resolution earlier this month supporting divestment from businesses with financial ties to the Israeli military.

The institution rejected the student body’s move last week, declaring, “The university will not move forward with these measures” – despite over 60 organizations and 30 faculty members expressing support for the December 6 resolution.

That resolution called on the university to divest from companies that “play an active role in funding and perpetuating Israel’s illegal occupation and its violation of human rights, making NYU complicit in these crimes.”

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Last Wednesday, the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at NYU was temporarily closed due to “several public online postings by an NYU student which were anti-Semitic in nature and potentially threatening,” it explained in an email.

The student, Alejandro Villa Vásquez, then posted on Twitter that his account had been suspended “just because i [sic] expressed my desire for zionists to die.” He had apparently posted other anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic posts as well.

His statements were condemned by the student newspaper where he had worked as an editor, as well as by Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, who had penned the resolution. They said he was not a member of either organization.

After the incident, Vasquez wrote that his tweets were against “Zionists“ because they “believe in the genocide of ethnic and religious minorities.” However, he also added an apology, writing: “To anyone that genuinely feels scared, I’m sorry – I would have done things differently had I known it would actually instill fear in innocent people.” His Twitter account has since been deleted.

The Bronfman Center reopened Thursday following consultations with the New York police and security experts. The university then informed NYU students it had reviewed its security practices, stating: “In October, we tightened our security protocol. We will be pursuing additional measures, including modifications to our building and active shooter trainings. Better safe than sorry.”

The administration also announced its intention to establish a special task force to combat “hateful comments, micro-aggressions, and many forms of harassment [that] continue to intimidate students of many backgrounds.”

Rose Asaf, the Israeli-American Jewish student who co-authored the student resolution, denounced Vásquez’s statements. “An individual who is not affiliated with the BDS movement at NYU in any capacity had been tweeting unacceptable wishes for ‘zionists to die’ and disturbing messages that carry clear anti-Semitic undertones,” the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement activist tweeted.

She added, “This type of behavior hurts all of us and puts us all in danger. We in the general BDS movement at NYU unequivocally condemn this. As many of us are Jewish, we, too, are directly targeted by this individual’s hateful conduct.”

The student resolution will next be reviewed by the University Senate, which will then provide its recommendation to the university’s administration and board of trustees. However, the administration has told the student body its resolution is dead on arrival, saying it is “at odds” with the board of trustees’ “well-understood position that the endowment should not be used for making political statements.”

The resolution is still expected to be voted on in the Senate next semester.

Boycotting NYU’s Tel Aviv campus?

The dispute has also reached Tel Aviv. Last October, over 30 NYU student groups – including Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace – pledged not to participate in or apply to “study abroad” programs hosted at NYU’s Tel Aviv campus (one of the university’s 12 overseas campuses). Michael Bearman, a spokesperson for JVP, told Haaretz via email that the student groups wanted to “encourage the university to rethink their investment in an apartheid state with their Tel Aviv campus.”

But some students who spoke with Haaretz at the Tel Aviv campus don’t agree with the stance. Sussan Garcia, a third-year NYU student who considers herself “very pro-Palestinian” and is involved with SJP on the university’s Abu Dhabi campus, said she spent every weekend in the West Bank last semester.

However, Garcia, who is finishing her second semester at NYU’s Tel Aviv campus, said she was pleased the BDS resolution passed by the student government. “It’s a great direction for NYU and the rest of our generation to recognize and condemn Israel’s violations of human rights,” she said.

Another NYU student studying in Tel Aviv, Krista Burton, concurred. “A person can support a divestment from the occupation in the West Bank and still support Israel’s existence,” the third-year student said. “It is an outdated and radical view to force an individual to choose one side or another.”

Burton added that she spent a lot of time mulling whether to study at the Tel Aviv campus because of the conflict, but ultimately decided to attend because “you can’t have a discussion about the politics of this region without being on the ground.”

Ann Arbor native Mia Hamermesh, meanwhile, said students can support the resolution without supporting a boycott of the Israel campus. She said that unlike the Jewish gap year programs she considered participating in, the university’s Tel Aviv campus offered her a diversity of community and opinion.

Leen Dweik, the president of NYU New York’s SJP chapter, disagrees. A Palestinian born in Jordan, she deplored the fact that having lived in America for 20 years, she doesn’t believe she would be allowed into Israel to study there.

Benjamin Zinevich, an NYU student in New York and a member of SJP, said, “I think I can trust the voices of Palestinians on the internet, on campus, people that I meet at the SJP conference. I trust those Palestinian voices for saying that this is not something ... that is worth discussing in Israel with Israelis.”

In an emailed statement to Haaretz last October, university spokesman John Beckman said, “NYU disagrees with the declaration by student groups about NYU Tel Aviv. The university has a clear, long-standing policy opposing an academic boycott of Israel.”

Cameron Taylor Oakes contributed additional reporting from Tel Aviv.

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