Yesterday, YNet, the Times of Israel, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and the Jewish Daily Forward published reports about the targeting of 200 Jewish university students in a guerrilla campaign instigated by “pro-Palestinian” activists at the start of Passover.
Except that the incident never happened.
Here, I trace the steps to determine how a creative performance by student activists to raise awareness of home demolitions against Palestinians turned into yet another sign that Jews were being locally targeted for persecution.
The Jewish media play a game of “telephone”
On March 30, members of the Florida Atlantic University (FAU) chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) posted 200 mock eviction notices on the doors of random FAU dorm room doors and elevators in order to highlight the Israeli policy of home demolitions.
The first prominent news report of the action was published on Mondoweiss on April 4 by the university’s SJP president, Noor Fawzy. Fawzy wrote that
some 200 mock eviction notices were distributed in elevators and on the front doors of randomly-selected dorms at FAU’s three largest residential areas.
Also on April 4, the Sun Sentinel of South Florida reported on the action in an article headlined “Mock Eviction Notices from Palestinian Group Rile FAU students.” Although the article itself made no mention of Jews being specifically targeted by the fliers, an accompanying photo caption implied differently:
Member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity and FAU freshman Corey Bloom stands in front of Glades Park Towers where he lives on the FAU Campus in Boca Raton. Bloom and other jewish students received mock eviction notices on their dorm room doors from an FAU club called Students for Justice in Palestine.
The following day, the Jewish Journal of Florida reported on the event, under the headline “Fake ‘Eviction Notices’ Scare Jewish Students” (see Google cached version). Here, the targeting of Jews became more explicit. While the Sun Sentinel reported that eviction notices were “taped on more than 200 doors in three dorms on the Boca Raton campus,” the Jewish Journal revealed that all those doors were Jewish doors:
[Rayna] Exelbierd was one of more than 200 Jewish students in three dorms who received the fake [eviction] notice from the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine.
An accompanying photo caption reiterated the point:
Students Lena Emara, Gabi Aleksinko, Satya Singh and Matthew Schneider pose with an “eviction notice” similar to those put on the dorm room doors of more than 200 Jewish students at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
Complaints to the Jewish Journal led to the paper correcting its coverage. The references to “200 Jewish students” were changed simply to “200 students.” Unfortunately, the Jewish Journal did not indicate that it had updated the article. The damage was done, but the extent of the damage would not materialize until April 9.
On April 9, Ynet published an article headlined “Florida: Pro-Palestinian Group ‘Evicts’ Jewish Students.” The article was based entirely on information from the Sun Sentinel article and the original uncorrected Jewish Journal article, and featured two additional errors:
- a quote attributed to the Sun Sentinel actually appeared in the Jewish Journal.
- Ynet claimed that the incident had occurred “on Friday,” implying April 6—when actually it occurred the Friday before the Sun Sentinel and Jewish Journal pieces appeared, meaning March 30.
Angry comments followed the article, such as this one:
200 JEWISH students? How did they know? It’s extremely frightening to realize that they’ve been identifying who the Jews are on campus. Jew-counting is incredibly intimidating these days, as it has been for centuries.
In less than twelve hours, the article had registered over a thousand Facebook recommendations, making it one of the most popular articles on Ynet. When the article was reprinted by John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, it registered an additional 5,000 Facebook shares.
A few hours after the Ynet article went online, Greg Tepper in the Times of Israel published his own version of the story, using virtually the same headline as the Ynet article, “Pro-Palestinian Group ‘Evicts’ Jewish Students.” Tepper’s article provided only one new piece of information—that the eviction notices were posted “on Friday night, which was the first night of the Passover holiday,” thus contriving another Jewish connection.
Yet Tepper, as with Ynet, had gotten the dates mixed up. The first night of Passover was on April 6. Before Passover began, the SJP action had already happened on March 30, and both the Sun Sentinel and the Jewish Journal had already reported on the story.
Soon after the Times of Israel article appeared, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) published its own report, entitled “Pro-Palestinian Student Group Sends Jewish Students Fake Eviction Notices.” The JTA piece was entirely based on the uncorrected Jewish Journal article.
The Jewish Daily Forward then picked up the JTA article, renaming it “Jewish Students Get Fake Eviction Notices,” but otherwise reprinting the article word for word.
Misreporting leads to death threats
On the same day that these articles appeared, student activists at FAU began receiving hate mail and death threats. Noor Fawzy, the campus SJP president, received a death threat to her personal email, while another death threat was sent to the SJP general email address. Both threats were reported to FAU police.
I asked Fawzy if the death threats were explicit or “merely” hinted at. She told me that the death threat sent to her explicitly detailed the method in which she would be killed.
Fawzy also stated that SJP had not been contacted by any of the media outlets that published the April 9 stories. Instead, she contacted Ynet to request that they correct their misinformation, which they have not done.
I asked Fawzy if it was even possible to single out 200 Jewish dorm rooms.
We randomly selected 200 dorms and elevators. We have no way of knowing who lives where. Not even housing knows that. Who would do this [target Jewish students]? It’s just ridiculous.
Inundated with complaints, Charles L. Brown, the senior vice president for student affairs at FAU, issued a statement, claiming that the mock eviction notices had violated school policies:
The University has received a number of inquiries following the recent posting of mock eviction notices in certain FAU residence halls. The University, as an institution of higher education, prides itself on being a venue for free expression, regardless of viewpoint. However, the distribution of printed material on University property is subject to FAU policy and regulation. These policies require that printed material be distributed only at reasonable times and places and in reasonable manners. These policies are designed to ensure that the manner in which material is distributed is consistent with the educational mission of the University, its uninterrupted orderly operation, the safety of the University community, and the protection of University property and that of its students, faculty and staff.
The recent mock eviction postings did not comply with the policies of University Housing and Residential Life or the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership concerning the distribution of printed material, and therefore the postings were removed.
However, Fawzy explained to me the careful steps that the campus SJP followed before they initiated their action.
One month before the flyering, members of SJP had approached FAU’s associate director of housing with details of their plans. They even provided a draft of the eviction notice. The associate director then conferred with the director of housing before approving the initiative.
“I got confirmation by email,” Fawzy explained. “That doesn’t mean they supported it. That just means they gave us approval to do it. We were trying to be as professional as possible,” aware that any careless move would be jumped on by SJP’s critics. SJP also presented the housing office with the final mock eviction notice beforehand. “We showed them the final copy—everything.”
Housing staff suggested that SJP members remain in the dorm buildings to answer questions from students who encountered the eviction notices, which SJP agreed to do. “We were very cooperative with them. We stuck around to answer potential questions.” SJP members were even escorted by housing staff when they went to post the mock eviction notices.
Fawzy complained about the vagueness of Brown’s accusation.
We had no intention of violating the laws. [Brown] was not specific about which policies we violated. To this day I still have no idea which policies we violated.
However, to Scott Brockman, the executive director of Hillel at Broward and Palm Beach, the very fact that the notices contained the housing department stamp of approval was proof enough that the action was “a clear violation of university guidelines,” as he told the Jewish Journal.
I contacted FAU student Jackie Klein, who was quoted in the Sun Sentinel as saying that the eviction notices were a “bit intimidating.” Klein, who is a Jewish education intern with Hillel and is the president of the Jewish Student Union at FAU, confirmed to me that the mock eviction notices did not target Jewish students. Although Klein did not personally receive a notice, she said she was “affected emotionally” by the notices, under her capacity as a Jewish educator.
I know a lot of the students on campus that weren’t Jewish that had the eviction notices on their dorm rooms, and their first thought was, ‘Okay, I’m being evicted. Why?’ And when I spoke to some students that had notices on their door, they were more scared about being evicted and not [about] the content of the paper.
I asked Klein about a statement made by fellow FAU student Rayna Exelbierd in the Jewish Journal. Exelbierd, who is an Israel advocacy intern for Hillel, had stated,
We’re considering it a hate crime. The flier promotes hate; it doesn’t promote peace.
I asked Klein if that was the official Hillel position, and she stated she didn’t know anything about that.
Klein stressed that she was more focused on the educational aspects of Israel and Jewish advocacy and did not like to be directly involved in the political disputes on campus. “I’m a proud Israel supporter. Because of my involvement on campus, I automatically support Israel. I’m constantly advocating Israel, no matter what.”
As the make-believe story of 200 Jewish students being targeted continues to spread internationally, it is important to note that the only news outlets that have propagated this myth have been outlets that cater to Jewish audiences. It is yet again an instance of Jewish media doing a disservice to its readership by feeding into the ever-present fears of anti-Semitic resurgence.
I have at times written about the phenomenon of “Jews scaring Jews,” in which mostly Jewish reporters and commentators seek to trigger the fears of their Jewish audiences—whether for sensationalism or for manipulation. I reported on how Haaretz’s Barak Ravid, with the assistance of Israeli minister Yuli Edelstein, turned the Park Slope Food Coop BDS campaign into a story in which “hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists” protested outside a “Jewish supermarket” that carried Israeli goods such as “Bamba, Milky, and hummus.” I reported on how commentators tried to outdo one another in stacking up the most trauma-triggering adjectives to describe the Penn BDS conference. And most recently, I reported on how StandWithUs concocted a boycott campaign against a Jewish deli in Olympia, Washington.
In the present story, there are clear steps needed to resolve this matter:
- The Jewish Journal needs to indicate that its original article on the issue has been corrected and that “200 Jewish students” were not targeted.
- YNet, the Times of Israel, the JTA, and subsequent news outlets need to issue their own corrections for carelessly reporting on a preposterous premise.
- The FAU administration needs to ensure the safety of all of its students, but most importantly those who are being targeted with death threats and a smear campaign—that is, the students of SJP.
- Furthermore, the FAU administration needs to take responsibility for its own actions, defend free speech, not turn its back on its students due to external pressure, and not scapegoat SJP for violations that it did not commit.
In this story, the irresponsible actors are the adults in positions of power—whether it is the university administration that seeks to pander to external pressure and blame students for the administration’s own deficiencies, the Israel advocacy organizations that seek to capitalize on a manufactured controversy, or the Jewish media that continue to manipulate their own readership by indulging in sensationalistic stories designed to trigger Jewish fears of pending doom.
And where was the Anti-Defamation League?
I close this piece with the ADL’s own unfortunate contribution to the game. The ADL released a statement early, on April 5, before the “200 Jewish students” scare had fully materialized. Although the ADL did not accuse SJP of targeting Jewish students, its statement attempted to associate the flyering action with the evils of campus Palestine solidarity activities in general:
…anti-Israel campus group…
… anti-Israel activity on campus…
…consistently demonized Israel…
…describing its policies…as racist and apartheid-like…
…compared Israelis to Nazis…
…criticize the “actions of the Israeli state”…
…American Muslims for Palestine…a virulently anti-Israel organization…
It was only following this laundry list of the evils of campus organizing that the ADL explained what was so wrong about the FAU SJP action in the final sentence:
As was the case at the University of Chicago and at Yale, the eviction fliers at FAU were seen by some students as disrespectful and intimidating.
April 11 update:
Sol Salbe has pointed out that in Ynet’s Hebrew version of the article, which was datelined one hour and thirty-nine minutes earlier than the English edition, there is a significant line at the end of the first paragraph that does not appear in the English version: “It is not clear if only Jewish students were sent the leaflets.”
The line indicates that someone at Ynet had expressed skepticism of the story. But the story was published anyway, under the premise that Jewish students were targeted, with a headline that suggested the same, and with the lead sentence falsely claiming that “more than 200 Jewish students” received the eviction notices.
The English version of the Ynet article is not a straight translation of the Hebrew version, as it features different quotes and details. However, both versions are based entirely on the Sun Sentinel article and the original uncorrected Jewish Journal article, with no additional investigation.
The Hebrew version also notes that the story idea came to the Ynet offices via its “Red Email” submission form. What this suggests is that someone fed Ynet the fake story. Ynet accepted the story as accurate enough to report on, despite expressing doubts, and without conducting its own research. That started the ball rolling to get other Jewish-focused media in the US and Israel to pick up the four-day-old debunked story, with none of these other media outlets expressing skepticism or doing their own investigation, and eventually leading to false charges and death threats against SJP students at FAU.
Since this story was published on Mondoweiss, JTA has issued a correction and the Jewish Journal stated that it will be noting the correction both online and in its next print edition. We are still waiting for responses from the other publications.