On October 25th, 2019, the American Studies Program in the New York University Department of Social & Cultural Analysis (SCA) hosted anti-Zionist speaker Noura Erakat in a public event titled “Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine.” The stated goal of the lecture was to “show how the strategic deployment of law has shaped current conditions” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This may not seem problematic, but for Erakat, that was code for explaining how Israel has allegedly twisted laws to perpetuate Palestinian suffering, which is certainly problematic. Rather than propose solutions to bridge gaps between Israelis and Palestinians, she accused Israel of all wrong-doing and suggested that Israel’s actions have been carefully crafted as a ploy to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian population and colonize the land.
Academic departments at public and private universities alike have a moral responsibility to host speakers with diverse viewpoints in order to expose students to a breadth of opinions. Certainly, they should not only host a speaker like Erakat, who questions Jewish self-determination – an idea that the UN deems integral to basic human rights of all minority groups. Debating the morality of self-determination only when it relates to Jews, as Erakat does, directly targets Jewish students on campus. It is unethical for a university department to push a specific narrative or rhetoric to further their own political goals at the expense of its students.
Days before the event, I voiced my concerns to the lead professors of SCA and urged them to host a speaker who would have provided a different perspective on the conflict. I was clear in my support for freedom of speech, and the right of everyone, including Erakat, to express his or her own point of view. Rather, my request was simple: more diverse viewpoints.
I proposed the department invite one of the following speakers for an event later in the year: Michael Oren, Alex Safian, and Alan Dershowitz. The suggestions are all Zionists from diverse backgrounds and professions, including historians, lawyers and legal scholars. These individuals are pro-Israel experts, self-identified Zionists, and come from both sides of the political aisle, liberal and conservative, who could have countered the research and rhetoric of Erakat. I know they would offer NYU students the diversity lacking in the one-sided events SCA hosts.
Not surprisingly, the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis flat-out rejected my proposal.
“Academic departments at public and private universities alike have a moral responsibility to host speakers with diverse viewpoints in order to expose students to a breadth of opinions.”
Their ignorance didn’t stop me. In an effort to bring a Zionist speaker to campus, I organized an event with Yoseph Haddad, an Israeli-Arab Christian who volunteered to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Following his service, he founded the NGO Together – Vouch For Each Other which works to connect the Israeli-Arab sector to larger Israeli society.
On November 14th, 2019, Haddad passionately spoke to NYU undergraduates about the importance of countering BDS. “Does racism exist in Israeli society?” Haddad asked. “Sure. But it also exists in every other country around the globe. We can work to fix these problems, but a boycott hurts everyone.”
He also disproved the idea that Israel is an apartheid state, listing key Arab figures in Israeli society, such as the captain of the national soccer team and chairman of Bank Leumi, the largest bank in Israel.
“You can not become all this in an apartheid country,” Haddad said, bringing much-needed balance and truth to the one-sided event hosted by SCA.
Unlike Erakat, the speaker I brought to campus respected various points of view and did not shut down dissenting voices. Also contrary to Erakat, Haddad acknowledged the complexity behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something critical in an academic setting.
“Extremists don’t want Jews and Arabs to bridge between the gaps because it serves their mission to keep us separate.” These extremists include “academics” such as Erakat.
The university administration has a clear policy on speech, speakers, and dissent – “the free exchange of ideas and open inquiry are the bedrock principles at NYU” – yet SCA did not abide by these guidelines. NYU’s criterion is common throughout many universities across the nation, yet academic departments continue to defy these rules time and time again.
Erakat’s views, including her repeated questioning of Jewish self-determination, are certainly problematic. But the larger problem is the refusal of the academic department promoting her views to welcome additional perspectives to the student body.
I am concerned for pro-Israel students who might now think twice about registering for courses in this department out of fear that they will be unwelcome due to their pro-Israel viewpoints. And if SCA is biased in their teaching of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, certainly they display bias in countless other issues that can isolate hundreds of additional students.
This is not the first time the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis has come under fire for isolating and silencing pro-Israel students. Last semester, this same NYU department voted to boycott NYU’s campus in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Academic departments within universities have a moral responsibility to provide students a balanced approach to all issues by showcasing various perspectives and speakers and allowing students to make their own decisions. The NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis has repeatedly done the opposite, and it is up to students, faculty and alumni to remind them that pushing a one-sided narrative is not ethical and will not be tolerated.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.
Contributed by 2019-2020 New York University CAMERA Fellow Ben Newhouse.