Yesterday morning, students in two dormitories at New York University (NYU) woke up to find mock eviction notices slid under their doors. The notices were part of an action conducted by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at NYU to raise awareness of home demolitions in Palestine.
Such actions had taken place at other universities in the US, and as with some of these prior actions, pro-Israel groups falsely accused the NYU activists of targeting Jewish dorm rooms.
The New York Post report was headlined “Jewish NYU Students Targeted by Pro-Palestine Activists.”
CBS New York led its story with the statement, “Several Jewish NYU students say a pro-Palestinian group slipped mock eviction notices under their dorm-room doors in an attempt to intimidate them.”
The National Review Online had a post titled “NYU Jewish Students Targeted with Fake Eviction Notices.”
The Jewish Press said the action was “targeting a religious minority.”
The right-wing Arutz Sheva said, “Jewish NYU Students ‘Evicted’ By Pro-Arab Activists.”
The Times of Israel article was headlined, “Jews in NYU dorm served ‘eviction notices.’”
The New York Jewish Week claimed that a “heavily Jewish building … known for its large Jewish population was papered with fake eviction notices.”
The New York Daily News article was headlined “Pro-Palestine NYU Students Serve Fake Eviction Notices to Jewish Undergrads”—later revised to omit the word “Jewish.” Nevertheless the caption remained: “Jewish undergrads at NYU’s Palladium dormitory … received fake eviction notices,” and the revised article noted that “The Council on American-Islamic Relations could not immediately be reached for comment.”
And Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, always good for a random soundbite, was quoted by AP as calling the event “pure hate.”
In almost all of the news reports, the only source of the accusation—that Jewish students were targeted and that the dorm targeted was a largely Jewish dormitory—was a single 19-year-old NYU student, Laura Adkins, who is also the vice president of NYU’s Israel advocacy organization, TorchPAC.
Adkins occasionally blogs for the Times of Israel, which is where she published a piece yesterday entitled “NYU Jewish Students the Target of Latest SJP Propaganda Attacks.” According to Adkins, SJP had chosen “to target Jewish students (or at the very least, a dorm brimming with Jewish students).” The dorm in question was Palladium Hall, which Adkins claims is “known across campus as one with a high concentration of Jewish residents, and is the only NYU dorm with a Shabbat elevator.”
That was the extent to which a case was ever made that Jews had been targeted, and is the whole of the argument relied upon by the media sources cited.
The Jewish dorm that never was
In response to the claim that Palladium Hall was a “Jewish” dorm, John Beckman, NYU Vice President for Public Affairs wrote:
For what it is worth, because the original blog post [by Adkins] speculated that the leafleting took place here because it was “known” as a home to a particularly large Jewish population, I checked with both the University’s Housing Office and our Jewish chaplain to see if they believed this dorm did have such a reputation before issuing my statement — neither of them did.
As for the fact that the dorm had a Shabbat elevator (an elevator that runs on autopilot during Shabbat), Beckman stated:
The presence of a Sabbath elevator is the result of a stairway that empties to the street and cannot be entered through the lobby behind the security desk, not because of a disproportionate presence of Jewish students in the building.
That is, the Shabbat elevator was necessary in order to make it possible at all for observant Orthodox Jews to reside in Palladium—rather than it being a special addition for a disproportionate number of Jews.
Additionally, Adkins had failed to mention in her blog post that a second NYU dorm, Lafayette Hall, had been targeted for flyering. Nor did she explain whether Lafayette also had a reputation of “brimming with Jewish students.”
The students of NYU SJP released a statement responding to Adkin’s and the media’s accusations, saying that “over 2,000” mock eviction notices had been distributed, affecting “every resident” of Lafayette and Palladium halls:
Accusations leveled against SJP claimed that the action targeted Jewish students; this is erroneous and no objective evidence has been cited to support these allegations. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
“The anti-semitism lies in the content”
Following publication of her blog post, Adkins took to Twitter to offer her story to the New York Times, Tablet magazine, and Breitbart.com, alerting them all to an “antisemitic propaganda attack at NYU.”
@megynkelly I’m a bleeding heart liberal but I’ll personally come to your show to discuss this.
— Laura E Adkins (@Laura_E_Adkins) April 24, 2014
Although I’m not Megyn Kelly (I don’t believe in Santa Claus, much less that he’s white), Adkins agreed to answer a few questions from me by email. My first email posed four questions:
1.Do you believe that SJP members were specifically targeting the dorm rooms of Jewish students?
2. Did you personally receive a mock eviction notice at your home from an SJP student? If not, how did you first learn about them?
3. Were you aware that SJP members had leafleted at another dorm building—and if so, did that dorm have characteristics that would lead one to suspect they were targeting Jewish residents there?
4. Do you believe that Palladium Hall has a disproportionately high concentration of Jewish residents? If so, outside of the Shabbat elevator, what other characteristics have led to Palladium Hall having the reputation for a high concentration of Jewish residents?
To the first question, she responded:
What troubles me most is not where the flyers were distributed, it is that the language contained in the flyers is flagrantly anti-semitic. According to [Natan] Sharansky’s widely accepted definition of anti-semitism, anything that Demonizes, Deligitimizes, and holds the Jewish state and the Jewish people to a Double Standard falls under anti-semitism. The US State Department’s working definition of anti-Semitism states “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
To the second question, she responded:
I first received notice of the distribution of the flyers early this morning from concerned friends who received the notices and felt like the statements contained therein were an attack [on] the Jewish community.
To the third and fourth questions, she responded:
While I truly believe Palladium was selected because it has a high concentration of Jewish students, I would rather focus on the content of the flyer than the location of the distribution of the flyers because the anti-semitism lies in the content. If material was spread around campus saying that, for example, homosexuals were responsible for the destruction of family values, it wouldn’t matter whether everyone or just LGBTQ students received them, the fact that they were spread would constitute an attack on their community.
In response to all my questions, her answers redirected from who had received the fliers to what was on the fliers. Although she still claimed that “Palladium was selected because it has a high concentration of Jewish students,” she opted not to qualify that statement when I asked, on the basis that it wasn’t as important. Instead for her, contrary to what the news media had been reporting, “the anti-semitism lies in the content.”
Adkins gave a similar loose interpretation of “targeting Jews” in response to criticism on Twitter:
— Laura E Adkins (@Laura_E_Adkins) April 24, 2014
This conflicts with how the story has been presented in the media, where the targeting of a “Jewish” dorm has taken priority over the content of the eviction notice. Adkin herself made the “Jewish” dorm the lead of her blog post, which was entitled, “NYU Jewish Students the Target of Latest SJP Propaganda Attacks.”
It was also the lead focus of much of the media coverage. Had that element not been in the story—eviction fliers targeting Jews, Donetsk-esque in its depravity—there would have been no story. This appeared to be a bait-and-switch: Eviction notices targeting Jews! Oh, not really? Well, have you seen the eviction notices?
Adkins herself quoted an anonymous Jewish student who said,
I understand free speech rights but if this was targeted solely to Jewish students then this appears to be of a more threatening nature rather than informative.
That is, the degree to which the flier was “threatening”—as opposed to “informative”—was dependent on whether the flier “was targeted solely to Jewish students.”
Adkins was also quoted in the Daily News, saying that,
It’s specifically targeting Jewish students, which makes them feel not so safe.
Contrast that statement with the tweet cited earlier:
Distributing antisemitic lies targets and endangers Jewish students, no matter which dorm is targeted.
… and you have a circular argument: It’s the “specifically targeting” of Jews that “makes them feel not so safe.” But it is the “antisemitic lies”—independent of who actually receives the mock eviction notices—that leads to the targeting of Jews. So which came first: the targeting or the content?
Three D’s and two anti-Semitisms
There’s another bait-and-switch in the story, more commonly deployed by defenders of Israel. In her answers to my questions, Adkins felt the need to define anti-Semitism, because she was applying such an unconventional definition of anti-Semitism, namely Natan Sharansky’s “Three D’s of anti-Semitism”—demonization, delegitimization, and double-standards—a definition of anti-Semitism so arbitrary that it only works in English and perhaps a few other languages where the same concepts can be expressed with words that begin with the letter D.
Moreover it defines all of anti-Semitism, “new anti-Semitism,” as relating to Israel, and says nothing about Jew-hatred, which Sharansky sets aside as “classic anti-Semitism.” In other words, it is a redefinition of anti-Semitism.
This is where the bait-and-switch comes in: The expectation is that one can employ a new definition of anti-Semitism but still maintain the connotations of the earlier definition of anti-Semitism. In other words, it’s changing the rules mid-game and hoping no one notices that it’s a different game.
Adkins further felt the need to legitimize her definition of anti-Semitism by claiming that it is the State Department’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism. Although I can go into detail about what that really means and how it originated, I will instead point out that it is not a legal definition. In fact it would be difficult to find legally exact definitions for terms such as “demonize” and “delegitimize” in this context.
Nevertheless, as Adkins switches the agent of anti-Semitism from “targeting Jews” to the content of the eviction notices, she also switches the definition of anti-Semitism from “classic anti-Semitism” to “new anti-Semitism.”
In a follow-up question, I asked Adkins to explain how the content of the mock eviction notice violated Sharansky’s three D’s. She responded:
The flyer demonizes Israel, delegitimizes Israel, and holds Israel to a double standard. It’s really that simple.
Mock eviction notice—or gag order?
I asked Adkins what she meant when she said that the mock eviction notices were “designed to silence” Israel advocates on campus.
— Laura E Adkins (@Laura_E_Adkins) April 24, 2014
After all, nothing in the notices prohibited anyone from speaking. In fact, Adkins has managed to exploit the notices and amplify her voice in the media, where she has given several interviews, and through which she hoped to appear on Fox News with Megyn Kelly.
I suggested that her objection to the eviction notices, based on her refutation of its arguments on her blog post, was a political disagreement, which she had contributed to by engaging in a debate. Her response:
The fact that I was able to respond [to the mock eviction notices] was lucky at best and is no excuse for these actions. That’s like saying white supremacist groups should be able to plaster the halls with racist garbage as long as a black student then is given a chance to respond. These religious or racially charged remarks should not have been made in the first place.
The problem with this analogy is that not only does it fail to provide an example of silencing, it suggests that a disagreement crosses a line once one party determines that it is too intense.
Last February, Adkins co-authored an open letter to NYU President John Sexton, expressing concern about an upcoming conference by university’s American Studies Program, which was focusing on Palestine/Israel.
She criticized the conference for being “scheduled to begin and end (almost to the minute) with the Jewish Sabbath” and for not being “constructive towards finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Although she did not explicitly call on the president to cancel or condemn the event, she intimated such:
Holding this event will undoubtedly diminish NYU’s stature as a global leader. The event will only lead to more conflict, not resolution …. [W]e respectfully ask that the administration begin to take a serious look at the upcoming event this weekend …
And to my specific question of how the mock eviction fliers silenced pro-Israel advocates, Adkin provided a similarly vague response that ignored the fliers themselves:
SJP brags that their tactics on intimidation and Jewish fearmongering make Jewish pro-Israel students afraid to speak up.
Anti-Semitic, yet erotically arousing
On Twitter, Adkins also claimed that SJP’s “action has been recognized by no less than the U.S. Supreme Court as unprotected activity.” To support her claim, she linked to an article by Lori Lowenthal Marcus in The Jewish Press, who in turn quoted almost verbatim from William Jacobson’s Legal Insurrection blog (Jacobson has a knack for discovering that every type of criticism against Israel is illegal). There, Jacobson cites the Supreme Court decision in Rowan v. U.S. Post Office Dept. (397 U.S. 728 ), as follows:
We therefore categorically reject the argument that a vendor has a right under the Constitution or otherwise to send unwanted material into the home of another…. That we are often “captives” outside the sanctuary of the home and subject to objectionable speech and other sound does not mean we must be captives everywhere.
Yet Jacobs omits the context of the Supreme Court ruling, which upheld a US district court ruling on the constitutionality of 39 U.S.C. § 4009 (now § 3008). Titled “Prohibition of pandering advertisements,” the section pertains specifically to
pandering advertisement which offers for sale matter which the addressee in his sole discretion believes to be erotically arousing or sexually provocative.
Although the code leaves the interpretation to the “sole discretion” of the addressee, one would nonetheless be hard-pressed to find an NYU student—Jewish or otherwise—who would claim that the source of their discomfort was the “erotically arousing” nature of the mock eviction notices.
There are other, less prurient, elements to the code that make it inapplicable to the present case:
1. The material must be advertising a product for sale.
2. The advertisement must be mailed.
3. The addressee must have informed the sender beforehand to refrain from such mailings.
One must be careful applying Jacobson’s quote outside the context of § 3008. The portion quoted by Jacobson refers specifically to “a vendor.” Paragraphs immediately preceding the adverb “therefore” clearly refer to “advertiser,” a “mailer’s right to communicate … circumscribed only by an affirmative act of the addressee giving notice,” and “the absoluteness of the citizen’s right under § 4009 [now § 3008].”
It is misleading, therefore, to extrapolate from such statements that the Supreme Court has declared distributing mock eviction notices to be “unprotected activity.”
Mock eviction notices—or certificates of Jewish conversion?
It must also be noted that this is not the first manufactured controversy surrounding mock eviction notices and the alleged targeting of Jewish students. Similar charges were made last October against SJP members at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Despite claims from the local Hillel chapter that Jewish students had been targeted, the Rutgers bias committee determined that such claims were untrue, finding no bias.
And two years ago, I reported on how several media outlets—primarily Jewish ones—made similar claims against Florida Atlantic University (FAU)—alleging that SJP members there had targeted “200 Jewish students.”
At the time, I compared the hoax to a game of “telephone,” in which each subsequent media outlet would embellish the story in a manner not described in the preceding outlet. Ynet, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Forward, Arutz Sheva, and the Florida Jewish Journal all participated in the hoax.
The Times of Israel joined in, too—its own contribution was in falsely claiming that the mock eviction notices were distributed on Passover, when in fact they were distributed the week before.
The Times of Israel later corrected itself, sort of: it removed claims within the article of Jews being targeted, but kept the misleading headline (“Pro-Palestinian group ‘evicts’ Jewish students”) and the false Passover reference. It made no note of the partial correction and in fact repeated the “targeting Jews” claim in another article two days later.
As with the Rutgers claim, the FAU administration investigated and determined that the “targeting Jews” accusation was unfounded—but not before explicit death threats were leveled against SJP members.
Mock eviction armies of the night
The CBS New York headline to the mock eviction story was “NYU Jewish Students: Pro-Palestinian Group’s ‘Eviction Notices’ Go Too Far.” But instead of going “too far,” it seems that the eviction notices did not go far enough—which is precisely why the story had to be embellished with allegations of targeted Jews.
To make the story even more dramatic, several reports followed Adkin’s lead and stressed the nighttime setting of the performance:
“Slinking quietly through the night” was how Adkins initially described the SJP members in the Times of Israel.
The New York Post took the cue and said that the eviction notices were “stealthily delivered in the dead of night.”
The Jewish Week quoted an anonymous NYU alum, who proclaimed,
This was done in the middle of the night, the cowards. This is NYU, NYU. It’s unbelievable.
Not to be outdone, the Jewish Press referred to “the dark of night” three times, when SJP members “crept into the building,” and it quoted Adkins describing how “people skulk around at night.”
Such emphasis on “the dead of night” and “the dark of night”—“stealthily” “creeping,” “slinking,” and “skulking”—suggests one should worry about how well the hallways are lit in Palladium Hall. One must also question whether news reports should be narrated from around a campfire.
To conclude, we must recognize the “targeting Jews” hoax as part of a broader pattern of exploitation that incorporates the recent attempts to charge Max Blumenthal for the Kansas City–area shootings and even evokes the Jewish registration hoax in the Ukraine.
If this seems like a stretch, we can look for affirmation from a recent Twitter exchange between Hen Mazzig (a StandWithUs representative) and “Volunteers for Israel”:
— VolunteersForIsrael (@VFI_USA) April 17, 2014
You can sign a petition in support of New York University SJP here.