This is a moment in our lives — and in the history of the planet —when we are supposed to be pulling together to confront a dangerous and unseen enemy. Yet, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there are still some diehards who have time to engage in spreading another persistent virus: antisemitism.
Such was the case last week when Leen Dweik, the former head of New York University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), tweeted the following in response to the death of 88-year-old Aryeh Even, a survivor of the Holocaust and Israel’s first Coronavirus fatality: “Anyway, should I paint my nails green or red today?”
The response from NYU was quick and unequivocal. Spokesman John Beckham said that “the reported Twitter post by a former NYU student about the first Israeli death from COVID-19 was shameful and callous....NYU denounces such insensitivity; it is at odds with our campus values.”
Jewish groups, including B’nai B’rith, praised the NYU statement, but the dictum “you reap what you sow” comes immediately to mind in looking back at the activities of Dweik and her BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) fellow travelers who made life impossible for pro-Israel Jewish students during their time on campus.
Though colleges have shifted to virtual campuses, the ability for SJP to spread its hate online is perhaps more of a threat.
SJP is an organization with branches on campuses around the country. It exists only to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. Its stock vernacular compares Israel to Nazi Germany and says that Israelis are war criminals. Those who support Israel, including Jewish organizations on campus, are considered to be in the same category. Its members bully other students and create an environment of fear for Jewish students and others who have the temerity to support the State of Israel and the Zionist movement which created it.
Last April, SJP at NYU was actually awarded the President’s Service Award, which is “given to students or student organizations that have had an extraordinary and positive impact on the University community, including achievements within schools and departments, the University at large, local neighborhoods, and NYU’s presence in the world.”
Responding to the announcement of its selection for the accolade, SJP noted on its Facebook page that “We are thrilled to announce that we have been selected to receive a presidential service award at NYU...we agree that we have made significant contributions to the University community in areas of learning, leadership, and quality of student life.”
Like, making other students feel threatened and unwelcome.
University President Andrew Hamilton, who has spoken out against the BDS movement, was not present for the ceremony. But the award was bestowed anyway.
A year ago, a complaint was filed with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights by an NYU student who charged that the university tolerated “extreme antisemitism” to fester on campus, and looked the other way at the “hostile atmosphere” for Jewish students. The complaint asked whether the university had “responded appropriately” to the incidents in question.
The student who brought the complaint said in an interview with Fox News that Jewish students felt “threatened and targeted...the Administration essentially told me that they were supportive of the Jewish community, but that no concrete actions could be taken against SJP.”
She went on to describe incidents in which pro-Israel students were manhandled by other students at a celebration of Israel’s independence in Washington Square Park. In response to a call for disciplining the students, “NYU told me not to post on social media and to lower my own presence and the presence of my community instead of addressing a group that has harassed a minority population.”
Dweik’s Students for Justice in Palestine had been at the forefront of this reign of intimidation. It was Dweik who confronted Chelsea Clinton at an NYU event held in response to the killing of 49 people in a terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. Clinton had called out Rep. Ilhan Omar for anti-Semitic comments made earlier.
“This right here is the result of a massacre stoked by people like you....Forty-nine people died because of the rhetoric you put out there, ” Dweik said.
The egregious NYU example is only one of many involving SJP and similar organizations on campuses around the country. The list is a long one and includes both state universities and prestigious private colleges. Oftentimes, like-minded faculty members aid and abet the student organizations in inciting against Israel and its supporters.
College administrators, too willing to tolerate intimidation of segments of the campus community and leery of charges of not protecting academic freedom, have too often ignored, neglected or looked the other way in confronting this atmosphere of hate. Too many are willing to parse what constitutes antisemitism, leaning instead on the protestations of campus groups that they are only engaging in “legitimate criticism of Israel.”
Meanwhile, the problem of indulging such behavior has not only festered, it has grown apace.
Seeing this snowball into a critical mass of antisemitism, the US Justice Department convened a conference on antisemitism in July of 2019. Among others, its program featured Attorney General William Barr, as well as a group of experts who focused on antisemitism on campus. It gave the issue a national focus that heretofore was sorely lacking.
And in December of last year, President Donald Trump issued an executive order bringing protection from discrimination — and antiemitism — to Jewish students under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The umbrella of protection had, until that point, covered students based on race, national origin and ethnicity — but not Jews.
The order not only rectified a glaring omission in the law, but put the full force of the federal government behind efforts to combat campus antisemitism and in the process, offer some measure of reassurance to Jewish students and their families that, even if college administrators were failing to act, there was not only a mechanism to bring complaints, but a law in place to impose penalties for those institutions that allowed this activity to occur.
Leen Dweik’s repulsive tweet on Aryeh Even’s tragic death from COVID-19 speaks for itself. Her hatred of Israelis, Israel and its supporters knows no bounds, even to the point of making a sarcastic comment about the passing of a survivor of the Holocaust in the midst of a raging pandemic.
But Dweik, and those on campuses just like her, have engaged in this kind of hate speech under the gaze of university administrators everywhere for years. Hate speech is not free speech, especially that which intimidates, threatens or incites against students for supporting and advocating what they believe in.
It is relatively easy to connect the dots from the hate speech of Dweik and her crowd, to a tweet that smugly dismisses the death of an 88-year-old Israeli. Not only does she lack basic decency at a time where every human being is at risk, but she continues to harbor unbridled hatred. For far too long, students have had to check their Zionism at the door for fear of the SJP retaliation. Had she and others been reined in earlier, had she been firmly told that she had crossed red lines, that fellow students who are passionate about Israel have as much right as she does to hold their views, she might have learned that free speech does indeed have limits.
The NYU statement on Dweik was welcome, and perhaps not too late. Let’s hope, in the middle of our intense focus on the coronavirus, it was not lost on college administrators everywhere.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International. As the organization’s top executive officer, Mariaschin directs and supervises B’nai B’rith programs, activities and staff around the world.