On 23 April, in a protest action calling attention to Israel’s illegal demolitions of Palestinian homes, New York University Students for Justice in Palestine slipped more than 2,000 mock eviction notices under every door on every floor of two of NYU’s largest dormitories, Palladium and Lafayette. The flyers, which were clearly marked as fake, made explicit reference to the 160,000 Palestinians who have been left homeless by Israel’s policy of building Jewish-only settlements on land captured illegally in 1967.
Neither NYU SJP nor any of its members had been charged with a violation — or even contacted directly — by the NYU administration when university spokesperson John Beckman told a news site that the school’s student affairs division was “ looking into this as a judicial matter.”
Our action was an act of peaceful protest protected by NYU’s rules of conduct.
So why punish us at all?
The colonization of Palestine is not a religious conflict. NYU SJP is not a religious group, and our protest action was not a religious act. So why did NYU’s spokesperson tell a journalist our punishment for peaceful political protest would involve “restorative justice” in which “we will bring together the parties to work together under the direction of our Muslim and Jewish chaplains?”
NYU abandoned this framework of interfaith dialogue following pressure from NYU faculty and students. Perhaps the administration wanted to avoid the sort of backlash Northeastern University faced when it suspended its SJP chapter for carrying out a mock eviction notice action of their own (Northeastern University SJP has since been reinstated). These episodes demonstrate two related trends: growing efforts to suppress Palestine solidarity on US campuses, and the failure of those efforts to significantly deter activists.
But while the NYU affair was resolved by a meeting between SJP’s leadership and NYU housing officials, this alternative was premised on the threat of punishment should we refuse. We call on NYU to publicly take back its earlier statements, as they implied not only guilt on our part, but also wrongly suggested relevance of religion to our protest.
The fact is that painting Israel’s policies of ethnic cleansing, discrimination and segregation as a millennia-old “conflict” between Jews and Muslims is a distraction from the issue we raised by carrying out this action.
The morning after the action, Laura Adkins, vice-president of the Israel lobby group on campus TorchPAC, published a blog post on The Times of Israel website accusing NYU SJP of distributing anti-Semitic flyers, targeting Jewish students and being funded by Hamas. Her baseless, incoherent accusations were parroted by the Anti-Defamation League and the mainstream media, after which individual SJP members began receiving harrasing phone calls and online messages.
The intimidation only intensified after Adkins reiterated her allegation of financial ties to Hamas in an interview on FOX News. Although several articles (including one I wrote for Mondoweiss) were published refuting each of Adkins’ claims about us and our action, the NYU administration nonetheless caved in to pressure to take disciplinary action.
The pressure came not only from TorchPAC, but also Brooklyn Assembly member Dov Hikind, a local politician with a history of involvement in the extremist Jewish Defense League, who last year led the charge to censor a pro-Palestinian event at Brooklyn College.
Knee jerk reaction
The knee-jerk reaction on the part of Israel’s apologists is revealing.
Unable or unwilling to debate the Zionist project of an ethnically-exclusive state, they deliberately conflate support for Israel’s policies with Judaism and Jewish identity. They deliberately conflate SJP, a non-religious political student group — whose members are not predominantly Muslim — with Islam and an Islamist movement. Although Beckman has stated that claims of anti-Semitism and targeting Jewish students were unfounded, his “restorative justice” comment indicates that NYU accepts this framing of our action and the response to it.
NYU SJP rejected any disciplinary action, including “restorative justice,” on the basis that we simply didn’t do anything wrong. Our protest didn’t harm TorchPAC or its members, and it didn’t shut down dialogue on Israel-Palestine. On the contrary, it has led to more discussion of the Palestinian perspective on campus than ever before.
But what made Beckman’s proposal particularly offensive — besides the fact that we learned about it from a news article — is the notion that it is at all appropriate for an exchange between SJP and a right-wing student group to be facilitated by two campus religious leaders.
The so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t a conflict between two equal parties, and it certainly isn’t a age-old war between Jews and Muslims. It’s about the policies of a state that receives $3.1 billion a year in military aid from our own government, a state that turns 66 on 15 May (the date Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, as the vicious ethnic cleansing at the time of Israel’s establishment is known). When even the US Secretary of State admits that preserving Israel as a haven of ethnic privilege is incompatible with democracy and equality, it’s time to stop talking about religion and inferring that “both sides” enjoy equality.
Illegal home demolitions have nothing to do with Judaism or Islam, and everything to do with the Israeli government’s accelerating settlement policy, which involves ethnically cleansing Palestinians from the most valuable land in the occupied West Bank and claiming it for Israeli settlers. Our media don’t show us the Palestinians whose houses are destroyed, whose olive trees and livelihoods are uprooted, whose loved ones are terrorized and killed by Israeli soldiers and vigilante settlers.
But the Palestinians are calling out for freedom. An ocean away, our action amplified their voices. So why would NYU try to silence them?
Kumars Salehi is a master’s student in Cinema Studies and a member of New York University Students for Justice in Palestine. His blog is theredfury.wordpress.com.