No Holds Barred: The ferocious battle for Israel at New York University

Over the last few years NYU has emerged as one of the most hostile campuses to Israel in the United States.

Anti-Israel demonstrators stage a rally outside New York City Hall (photo credit: LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERS)
Anti-Israel demonstrators stage a rally outside New York City Hall
(photo credit: LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERS)
I was happy to see a piece in the New York Observer by members of TorchPAC, New York University’s pro-Israel advocacy group, attacking me and claiming enough is being done to defend and promote Israel at the school, which has more Jewish students than any other American university.
We got their attention.
I wish it were true that Israel is faring well, but I fear they are in denial.
Here are the facts.
Over the last few years NYU has emerged as one of the most hostile campuses to Israel in the United States. Israeli scholars are absent from the department of American Studies because the American Studies Association joined BDS and boycotted Israel.
The head of the ASA is NYU Prof. Lisa Duggan and a quarter of all ASA national board members who voted for the boycott are based at NYU.
One of the most active groups on campus is Students for Justice in Palestine. It is well-known for trying to boycott Israeli products, even food, and hosts a weekly vigil against victims of “Israeli aggression.”
Its members became notorious last summer at the NYU campus when they hosted a diein, pretending to be corpses killed by the IDF. Their annual big event, of course, is Israel Apartheid Week, with the malicious allegation that Israel is pre-Mandela South Africa.
Last year the SJP slipped eviction notices under the doors of students in a dormitory that was largely Jewish, trying to show them what it’s like to be evicted by the Israeli military. Such intimidation of students is growing at an alarming rate.
In September, Mahmoud Abbas spoke at Cooper Union, also in Manhattan, where he was given repeated rousing and standing ovations by a largely NYU audience as he assailed the State of Israel. Much more serious, however, were his allegations of an Israeli genocide – a monstrous modern blood libel – which he repeated before the United Nations General Assembly three days later.
The reaction of the pro-Israel community at NYU was to attend the speech at Cooper Union. One Jewish student told me that his protest came in the form of not standing up for every ovation Abbas was given for condemning Israel. This is what passed for an effective demonstration against Abbas.
I was in Korea while this happened, speaking with fellow religious leaders at Seoul’s Olympic Stadium to 100,000 at a global peace summit. I was so proud to see that my son Mendy, an NYU undergraduate, had organized a protest against the demonization of Israel and the kleptocracy represented by Abbas. Mendy accurately pointed out in his banners that Abbas has dismantled Palestinian democracy in the West Bank, having abolished any semblance of elections over the past decade. He likewise pointed out that freedom of press and speech for Palestinians has been likewise suppressed and that a liberal arts university should not be rewarding a dictatorship.
To all this, TorchPAC responded that it decided to encourage students to go and hear Abbas’s diatribe against Israel rather than protest because otherwise they would have legitimized BDS, the attempt to boycott, divest and sanction Israel.
Few times in my life have I heard a sloppier argument.
BDS is a malicious attempt to destroy the State of Israel by cutting off its economic lifeline. Its charges of Israel apartheid and comparisons to South Africa would fraudulently elevate Yasser Arafat, the father of modern terrorism and a man who died a billionaire after stealing global aid from his people, into Nelson Mandela. Comparing that to holding a sign outside a venue where there is an anti-Israel speaker would be comical if it were not tragic.
That the pro-Israel groups of NYU gave Mahmoud Abbas a free pass – a man whom the prime minister of Israel accuses of being responsible for the deaths of dozens of Jews over the past few months through direct incitement of terrorism – is a stain on their legitimacy. That they would be so ludicrous as to argue that because Abbas praised J Street, his charges that Israel is a genocidal power were diluted, are absurd to the point of being nonsensical.
Elie Wiesel is 86. He is not as young and robust as he was. I approached him and asked him to be the one to respond to Abbas’s charges of genocide. Health and other challenges made him at first reluctant.
But when I told him that no one else had responded, he put on his coat on a night of extreme storm conditions and came out to defend the reputation and honor of his people.
It’s that kind of courage and conviction that makes him the world’s foremost Jewish personality and the prince of our people.
In my column I did not name any of the pro-Israel organizations that refused to work with us to promote the event. I was careful to leave them anonymous. But, for reasons best known to them, Laura and Zak identified themselves and the Bronfman Center as having done too little.
I knew Edgar Bronfman and I today call his son Matthew a dear friend. Edgar Bronfman was a fighter and lion for the Jewish people. As president of the World Jewish Congress he took on the Swiss government and banks to reclaim the lost property of millions of murdered Jews. It made him deeply unpopular. He received intimidation and threats. But nothing would cause him to bend and be cowed.
We pleaded with the Bronfman Center to co-host the foremost Jewish personality on earth, Elie Wiesel, who was being introduced by Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the UN. It refused. We asked for a dedicated email highlighting the event. It refused. We asked for volunteers to help man the doors. It refused. Still, we invited their student leaders to the VIP reception to meet Prof. Wiesel and made the event free for all NYU students.
It is true Bronfman partnered with us for our Elie Wiesel-Paul Kagame event last year, for which we are grateful. But that proves the point. That event was against global genocide. It eagerly joined us. This event was about responding to a blood libel against the Jewish people and Israel specifically.
And it would not join us.
Bronfman Hillel advocates for Israel. But it has to wake up to the seriousness of the battle.
We will continue to fight for Israel at NYU. We hope and trust that every Jewish organization will band together with us.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach founded the Oxford University L’Chaim Society which grew to be one of Oxford’s largest student organizations. He won the London Times Preacher of the Year Competition and the Millennium and has just published Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.