On April 21, The Wall Street Journal published an article
by New York University alumna Susan Shapiro titled Anti-Semitism at NYU. This article lists a number of recent incidents at NYU as examples of anti-Semitism at the institution, including the conferring of a President’s Service Award on student group Students for Justice in Palestine. In response to this article, NYU President Andrew Hamilton wrote a response
for the same publication denying the charges of anti-Semitism and arguing that if it were up to him, SJP would have never received the award because he considered the group’s actions “divisive.”
This article was not the first time President Hamilton has denounced
Palestinian advocacy groups at NYU. In response to support among NYU student groups for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement
, Hamilton argued that the university exists to bring people together, not to separate them, and so he opposes the BDS movement. When SJP received its award, Hamilton was a notable absentee from the award function that bore the name of his office; a sign, some claimed
, of his opposition to the conferment.
Unfortunately, in his labelling of SJP as divisive, President Hamilton shows a problematic understanding of the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an inability to empathize with the actions of pro-Palestine groups at NYU and beyond. Hamilton seemingly fails to grasp the fact that SJP and BDS only engage in the actions he may consider divisive because of the high stakes of their struggle against the historical robbing
of a people’s homeland, against apartheid
and against regular and bone-chilling violence
In the last year alone, Israel has been accused
by Human Rights Watch of having committed war crimes and by the United Nations
of having committed crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won reelection by making a pledge
to annex parts of the West Bank and to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state central to his campaign message. Palestinian prospects are also increasingly threatened by the U.S. administration that appears to be decisively on the side of the State of Israel. 2018 saw – amidst huge uproar and condemnation – the formal recognition
of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is significant because Jerusalem is disputed between the Palestinians and Israelis, and the international community has refrained from recognizing it as Israel’s capital in order to project neutrality.
Faced with these uncomfortable realities, President Hamilton should have shown a more nuanced understanding of why SJP felt compelled to protest
against the holding of a rave to celebrate Israel’s independence, especially after 32 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers in the weeks leading up to that event. As a distinguished academic and university president, Hamilton should have also recognized the reasoning behind the arguments of those who argue that engagement
with Israel may legitimize and reinforce the country’s actions – especially considering similar policies went a long way toward ending the apartheid in South Africa
– rather than dismissing them outrightly. Regular academic engagement with Israel paints a picture of normalcy in a country where an entire people are being subjugated and brutalized. Engagement with Israel also reinforces its belief that it can continue to carry out its atrocities without any sanction or penalty. When confronted with the possibility of legitimizing Israel’s many atrocities, President Hamilton should reevaluate the importance of academic ideals like freedom of access and the free flow of information.
More importantly, by only calling out pro-Palestinian groups as divisive, President Hamilton ignored the fact that pro-Israel groups at NYU have also been accused
of harassment, especially against people of color. Thus, Hamilton’s condemnation of SJP means the pro-Palestinian student group joins a long list of individuals and organizations who have have faced systemic efforts
at censure as a consequence of their support for Palestine, all while pro-Israel groups continue
their activities without criticism or condemnation.
President Hamilton’s opposition to BDS and his labelling of SJP as divisive may very well be grounded in a genuine belief in bringing people together. But his ignorance – willful or otherwise – of the suffering of the Palestinians has meant that Hamilton fails to understand what causes pro-Palestinian groups to remain staunch opponents of engagement with and celebration of the State of Israel. Asking those engaged in the fight to reclaim Palestine and end the everyday precarity of Palestinian existence to be less “divisive” is not only insensitive but also complicit in the silencing of pro-Palestinian voices.
The Gazelle Staff is a Contributing Writer. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.