I studied at NYU Tel Aviv

Here’s why the university’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis got it wrong.

By JAVIER R. COHEN
May 22, 2019 21:57
4 minute read.
Abu Dhabi, UAE

Abu Dhabi. UAE. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

 
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Disappointment would be an understatement. I was outright embarrassed when I learned that New York University’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis (DSCA) had voted in favor of non-cooperation with NYU Tel Aviv. This department does not share academic ties with NYU Tel Aviv, therefore the decision demonstrated that its real mission was demonize the State of Israel, and to do it loudly. Antisemitism is unquestionably rising again, and on college campuses it tends to lurk in the form of anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionist groups on campuses love to criticize the ease with which pro-Israel students “pull the antisemitism card.” But the obsession I’ve seen on my campus is targeting the one and only Jewish state while defending just about any other.

In the fall of 2018, I decided to study abroad at NYU Tel Aviv, mainly because I wanted to build deeper connection with Israel beyond what any Birthright trip could offer. The opportunity to spend four months without a guide to craft the narrative of my experience was very exciting for me. As convenient as it was that the academic opportunities available at NYU Tel Aviv would accelerate my completion of my business major, I really was there to experience the complexities, as well as the riches, of Israeli life. Traveling within Israel was very appealing to me. Within the span of five hours, you can go from skiing in the Golan to scuba diving in the Red Sea. And let’s not forget, Tel Aviv is a beach town with rich nightlife, beautiful people and fantastic food. I don’t think this can be said of many of the other NYU global sites.

My experience at NYU Tel Aviv surpassed all expectations. The learning opportunities provided by NYU were incredible. The faculty is filled with Israeli statesmen and highly influential professionals. Site director Dr. Benjamin Hary once sued the Israeli government, forcing them to include Arabic translations on all public road signs. We were taken on eye-opening excursions to experience and learn from the different communities in Israel. We visited Ethiopian Jews in Gedera, Palestinians in Bethlehem, ultra-Orthodox communities in Jerusalem, and even flew to Cyprus to gain a different angle on binational conflict control. Given the rich experience provided by NYU Tel Aviv, the DSCA’s decision really took me by surprise.

The statement issued by DSCA mentions the decision not to take action against NYU Abu Dhabi because, unlike Israel, the United Arab Emirates engaged in similar border policy for “national security” purposes. Does the DSCA faculty really believe that Israel bars certain people for fun, or out of sheer racism? Even more alarming, the department ignored the fact that the United Arab Emirates does not admit holders of Israeli passports. In taking this course of action, the DSCA showed a commitment to half-truths. It worries me that this behavior is now coming from high-level academia.

FURTHERMORE, THE decision was announced on Holocaust Remembrance Day. How am I as a Jewish student expected to feel when an academic boycott of the Jewish state is declared by my university on the day in which I’m meant to reflect on the tragedy and crimes committed against my people by Nazi Germany? The Nazis also engaged in academic boycotts against the Jewish people and burned books by Jewish authors. In my opinion, declaring non-cooperation with NYU Tel Aviv is no better than that, and the timing was either highly insensitive or just painfully ignorant.


If the DSCA is truly the objective voice for social justice it claims to be, where is its action against NYU’s other global sites? China has placed more than one million of its Muslim citizens into “vocation camps” with the aim of erasing their cultural and ethnic identities. Where’s the boycott against NYU Shanghai? The Roma population of the Czech Republic routinely faces institutional discrimination. Where’s the boycott against NYU Prague? Great Britain made an arguably xenophobic decision to leave the European Union. Where’s the boycott of NYU London? For that matter, why doesn’t NYU just boycott itself for operating in a country that separates immigrant parents from their children and places them in cages on the Mexican border? Seems absurd, doesn’t it?

The whole point of having academic programs in other countries, even those we don’t agree with, is to learn from them. NYU’s academics have pushed me to see narratives that made me uncomfortable, and I’m a bigger person for it. You will never expand as a person if you don’t engage with those things with which you are not comfortable. Israel is not perfect. In fact, I share many of the criticisms of the Israeli government expressed by the DSCA, but there are more influential and thoughtful ways of expressing those criticisms than what the DSCA did.

I may not like what the DSCA is doing, but I would fight to the death for their right to do it. Therefore, I would not support the NYU administration hindering the DSCA’s decision. They’re lucky to have the liberty to do it. However, I would expect the NYU administration to condemn the decision, and many have done so already, including university president Andrew Hamilton. Nonetheless, I stand strongly behind my belief that in the free market of ideas that is New York University, wrong ideas will inevitably fail while the right ones will prevail. The record will reflect that the DSCA was on the wrong side of history, and its reputation will suffer because of it, perhaps not in the short term but definitely in the long run.

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