It's not unusual these days for Israel to be denounced on college campuses as a racist state that should be boycotted for its mistreatment of Palestinians and other violations of human rights. But New York University's response last week to such a call is unusual, and hopeful.
Soon after an NYU department overwhelmingly approved a resolution urging "non-cooperation" with NYU's own satellite campus in Tel Aviv, NYU and 237 of its faculty, including the deans of the schools of business and engineering, signed an online petition denouncing the resolution as a violation of academic freedom. The university also publicly and privately lambasted its own department's action.
Given the epidemic of politically correct thinking and ideological conformity at US universities, NYU's response is particularly welcome.
The latest round in the Israeli-Palestinian wars at NYU began on May 2 when the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis voted overwhelmingly to shun the university's own satellite campus in Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians and restrictive entry laws. Never mind that the department has no faculty at the Tel Aviv campus or that Israel has never denied entry to an SCA student or professor.
In response, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, NYU's chaplain, and several other professors circulated a petition protesting the "non-cooperation" pledge as a "violation of academic freedom and an action that alienates both the Tel Aviv study-abroad program and the faculty who teach there." Neither they nor any NYU faculty operating around the world "should be held accountable for government policies or actions in the countries where they reside," the petition states.
Much to their surprise and delight, the petition, by academic standards, went viral. Within two days, Sarna said, some 4,000 people had signed on.
Though NYU President Andrew Hamilton made no public comment, university spokesman John Beckman posted a strong protest, deploring the "pointless effort to stigmatize the Tel Aviv program." NYU had long opposed academic boycotts of Israel as an action "at odds with the tenets of academic freedom and exchange."
In a private, unpublicized letter to SCA, Hamilton and NYU board chair William Berkley were even tougher, urging SCA to reconsider its "deplorable" resolution, which threatens the "free exchange of ideas," a "key tenet of academic freedom." The SCA vote, they asserted, could cause the "wholesale disruption of our academic community."
Andrew Ross, an SCA professor and promoter of the resolution, accused critics of misrepresenting the resolution by calling it a boycott. SCA, he said, had urged "non-cooperation" because Israel often bars entry to Palestinians and those who support the movement to boycott Israel.
Because NYU is supposed to grant equal access to all irrespective of race, gender, religion and ethnicity, he said, the resolution was aimed at "holding the university accountable for enforcing its own policies against discrimination."
Israel law since 2017 has permitted the government to bar those who publicly endorse the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. But as spokesman Beckman noted, no NYU student has ever been denied entry to Israel to study at the Tel Aviv campus.
Jonathan Haidt, an NYU business professor, called the SCA resolution "disingenuous" and hypocritical, noting that the department has not boycotted NYU's campuses in the United Arab Emirates and China, which are "much further away from our values." While he did not object to the department's criticism of Israel's law of entry, he wrote, "the very idea of academic boycotts — like open letters of denunciation — is contrary to the academic spirit."
Ross denies his department singled out Israel rather than NYU's campus at Abu Dhabi, which once denied him entry and recently prevented two other professors from teaching at the UAE campus. The SCA endorsed a similar "non-cooperation" resolution sponsored by NYU's journalism school, he said.
Both SCA and the petitioners are claiming victory. Ross said he hoped the SCA resolution would prompt a "broader reasoned discussion" of NYU's policies. Sarna said the petition has called attention to the growing threat to academic freedom posed by such initiatives. NYU's response seems to show that for now, the university sides with him.
The ideological wars at NYU are likely to continue. But now there are two armies on the field, and champions of academic freedom have backup troops and ammunition.