A graduate student worker at New York University (NYU) is being investigated by the administration for the alleged “vandalism” of an Israeli mail services bag.
Items shipped to the library from an Israeli vendor were packed in an Israeli postal bag.
The bag was disposed of and left in a recycling bin in July.
Naye Idriss, who was one of three Arabic language translation workers at the Bobst Library in the New York college, saw the discarded mail bag that had been sitting in the bin for days, said Dylan Saba, staff attorney at the civil rights group Palestine Legal.
Saba told The Electronic Intifada that Idriss “picked up a pen and wrote ‘fuck’ over the word ‘Israel,’ and then maybe the next day, she wrote ‘Free Palestine’ on it.”
The university is now charging Idriss with writing “potentially anti-Semitic words” on the discarded bag – even though nothing she wrote expressed any anti-Jewish bigotry whatsoever.
Because of the years-long campaigns of repression and smears against NYU students who criticize Israel and its state ideology Zionism – like at other universities across the US and Canada – Idriss said she knew she could be targeted if she had expressed support for Palestinian rights on a legitimate piece of campus property.
“But the fact that it was in the trash and it was a trash bag, I didn’t think twice about it, really,” Idriss told The Electronic Intifada.
When alerted that the binned bag was scrawled on, the administration sent an internal email to library supervisors, threatening disciplinary action over what they called “anti-Israel sentiment” and referring the incident to the campus safety office.
Then, in November, the university informed Idriss that she was being investigated for violating student conduct.
At this point, Idriss reached out to her union representatives – who then contacted lawyers at the civil rights group Palestine Legal.
The administration initially classified the investigation and disciplinary charges against Idriss as a student conduct issue, therefore not allowing her any union representation – even though Idriss is a graduate student worker and the incident occurred while she was at work.
As a member of the union, she has rights to have a union representative present in any workplace disciplinary proceeding in which a punishment is in dispute or potentially applicable, Saba explained.
Along with her union representatives, Idriss warned the university that NYU would be violating her right to representation.
But the administration tried to continue pursuing the entire investigation as a student conduct issue, Idriss’ representative and a shop steward with the Union for Graduate Workers at NYU, Tova Benjamin, told The Electronic Intifada.
However, because they kept up the pressure, union representatives successfully intervened and were able to accompany Idriss in a hearing with the human resources department at the university in late December.
The only thing at issue during that hearing, Saba added, “was whether or not Naye committed vandalism or defacement of NYU property” – including a discussion of whether trash was property.
“But none of the substance of the message was at issue at all in the hearing,” he said.
Saba noted that during the hearing, the university admitted that it “had suspected it was Naye but didn’t know it was Naye” – confirming that the university singled out one of the only students of Arab descent as the culprit.
The other revealing admission, he said, “was that this vandalism charge would not have been an issue if it were not an anti-Israel message.”
Israel lobby pressure
In 2020, NYU adopted parts of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism, in a voluntary settlement with the US Department of Education.
Israel lobby groups had filed a federal complaint in an attempt to censor students’ political expression at NYU.
Promoted by Israel and its lobby, the IHRA definition conflates criticism of Israel, on the one hand, with anti-Jewish bigotry, on the other.
Notably, NYU explicitly removed the IHRA definition’s examples which smear Palestinian rights activism and criticism of Israel as anti-Jewish bigotry.
But lawfare organizations such as the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, led by career Israel lobbyist Kenneth Marcus, have been pressuring the NYU administration to add the Israel-related clauses back into their regulation.
Marcus headed the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under the Trump administration and has been a leading proponent of the IHRA definition and its Israel-related clauses.
“NYU is concerned about [Israel lobby pressure], and I do think that is part of the story here of why they’re so quick to flip this into an anti-Semitism conversation and allegation when there was no mention of Judaism,” Dylan Saba from Palestine Legal explained.
“It was an Arab student, a Palestine organizer, conveying a political message on a literal piece of trash,” he said.
Saba said that the university could still raise the bogus anti-Semitism charge as a student conduct violation.
Meanwhile, the university did not rehire Naye Idriss for a position – which is uncommon for student workers.
Her union says this is discriminatory and an unfair labor practice.
In early December, the three Arabic language student workers at Bobst Library heard – through word-of-mouth – that their positions were closing, Saba said. When they asked the administration about the rehiring process, they were directed to apply for other positions.
But Idriss “was the only one not rehired,” he said.
“So the effect is that after this incident goes down, Naye effectively loses her job going forward, obviously with no disciplinary process, and pretextual excuses from the administration. It’s very troubling.”
Anila Gill, a student workers’ union representative and organizer, told The Electronic Intifada that the university first violated Idriss’ right to union representation and then violated the union contract by deciding to eliminate the Arabic language workers’ positions.
“That’s discriminatory in nature, and that supersedes the employer’s right to hire and rehire at will,” she explained.
On 9 January, Idriss’ union filed a formal grievance against the university over its discriminatory hiring practice.
“Naye has been accused of bigotry and vandalism – two serious charges,” union representative Tova Benjamin said.
“We want to know if this will affect her ability to get hired in the future. This is on her record. So far, they have not fulfilled our information request [for Idriss’ personnel file] and have missed the deadline to respond to our grievance” – something she says is atypical.
“Everything about the way that her case has been handled has been exceptional,” she said.
From the union’s perspective, the administration’s refusal to rehire Idriss is clear retaliation for union activity, Benjamin explained, as well as political solidarity with Palestine.
Anila Gill said that along with pressure on the administration by Israel lobby groups to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry through adoption of the IHRA definition, the university is trying to break union ranks and solidarity.
But it is failing, she noted.
“Our union has various means available to us that we’ve leveraged in support of Naye,” she said, “and we’ll keep doing it. Solidarity forever.”
For Idriss, now unemployed in one of the most expensive cities in the country, she said that it is crucial to have a strong union behind student workers.
But it is just as crucial to tie in her case with the larger picture of how the IHRA definition is being implemented at other institutions, and how it is affecting other students.
“This makes it much stronger than just my individual story,” Idriss said.
The fight against the IHRA definition “can set a precedent for how unionized student workers can leverage unions for political solidarity and combat the IHRA at university campuses,” Idriss said.