Speaking at the commencement of the College of Arts & Sciences, graduation speaker Steven Thrasher’s bravely commended NYU students and departments who have stood up to the string of Israeli massacres and Israeli racism against Palestinians generally: “I am so proud, so proud of NYU’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace … and of the NYU student government and of my colleagues in the department of social and cultural analysis for supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the apartheid state government in Israel.”
As an NYU student from 2014 to 2017, I can testify that issuing such a bold defense of Palestinian rights was no easy task. Amidst the relentless barrage of bogus accusations, personal harassment, public shaming, loss of potential career opportunities, police violence, threats of disciplinary action, and the never-ending stress of internal feuding with other students over how best to deal with a hostile climate, the progress made at NYU has been nothing short of remarkable. From being forced to clarify amidst a right-wing smear campaign that students who empathize with Palestine were not, in fact, trying to evict Jews from campus in early 2014 to convincing over fifty NYU student groups to boycott Israel and pro-Israel clubs in 2018, the climate shift is palpable.
But that climate has changed among the students, academics, and some departments — not the administration and its donor allies. Many, including other apologists for Israel and Zionism, criticized NYU President Andrew Hamilton for undermining campus free speech when he censured Thrasher’s comments. But lost in this formalistic discussion about the right to say what you please is any meaningful discussion about which ideas are being suppressed at NYU in the first place — and which ideas are being promoted.
When I joined NYU as a law student in 2014, I had just returned from teaching in the Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidieh in southern Lebanon, which is shared between Palestinian and Syrian refugees. It was a difficult time to be in the camp, as Gaza was in the throes of a 51-day massacre that killed 2,000 Palestinians while Syria continued to bleed. Most of my students were between the ages of 7 and 12, in a country that cared little for their existence as Palestinians, Syrians, or both. Every day was a struggle by the camp elders to remind the students that their existence mattered — a counterintuitive notion in a world in which every student had a relative, or two, or three, that were trying to escape death and their “refuge” was an overcrowded, tightly-controlled encampment without a sewer system.
At roughly the same time, a peculiar op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal. While Palestinians in Gaza were afraid to bury their dead family members out of fear that they would be caught in a massacre, Thane Rosenbaum, the head of the grotesquely misnamed “Forum on Law, Culture, and Society” took out an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claiming that Gaza’s 1.8 million residents had forfeited “their right to be called civilians” because of how a majority of Gazans voted in the 2006 elections. The justification Rosenbaum gave to kill people based on how their society voted is the exact same line of reasoning used by Osama bin Laden to justify the September 11th attacks.
Less than two weeks after Rosenbaum made these violent remarks, the NYU School of Law enthusiastically bestowed an institutional NYU affiliation on Rosenbaum’s Forum. “I am very pleased to welcome Thane’s forum to NYU Law,” said NYU Law Dean Trevor Morrison.
In the months that followed, Rosenbaum’s Forum, sporting the logo of my new law school, would invite a slew of guests who shared a conspicuous theme amongst themselves: Ray Kelly, the former NYPD police chief responsible for spying on virtually every Muslim community within one hundred miles of New York City and implementing the programmatic harassment of black and Latino people throughout New York City under the “Stop & Frisk” program; Michael Mukasey, the former Bush Administration lawyer that believes most of the world’s Muslims want to impose religious theocracy upon us and who defended Executive Branch officials complicit in torture; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the ex-Muslim commentator who thinks Islam is a “nihilistic cult of death” that must be “crushed” and Muslims should not have 1st Amendment rights; and pseudointellectual Jean-Bernard Levy, who believes that a woman’s Islamic headscarf constitutes “an invitation to rape”. The first two were brought to provide commentary during a screening of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA-sponsored Hollywood film that gave a fictionalized portrayal of Osama Bin Laden’s capture, falsely implying that torture was a necessary evil.
I joined a number of other students and community members in protesting the Forum and calling on NYU Law to disavow Rosenbaum’s comments and his violent and racist institution. During a brief meeting with Trevor Morrison in 2014, we were told that NYU Law did not feel comfortable issuing the sort of disavowal of Rosenbaum’s comments that Provost Hamilton has just made of Steven Thrasher, as that would undermine academic debate. We were told that the appropriate response to Thane Rosenbaum’s comments was to criticize his statements in the realm of academic discussion. To be fair, Rosenbaum did receive some criticism from at least one NYU Law faculty, and, amidst our protesting, the Forum did add at least one voice of reason, Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center, to their otherwise extremist programming during that year.
Some months later, NYU Law, which brags of the most prestigious International Law program in the world, made another notable hiring decision. The School hired Harold Koh, a noted international law scholar and former Department of Justice attorney, to teach Human Rights Law. A colleague of mine, however, told me about the dark side of Harold Koh’s record: Koh was one of the crafters and foremost defenders of the Obama Administration’s drone policy during his stint at the Department of Justice. As that policy resembled less of a wartime tactic and more of a due-process free execution, and had been condemned by none other than NYU Law’s own joint human rights clinic with Stanford Law for its indiscriminate nature, my colleague felt that a petition was in order.
A group of NYU students from multiple schools, including the School of Law, various community organizations, and several scholars in the field, came together to criticize the decision to hire him and to note that he may be complicit in war crimes. Notably, the letter stopped short of calling for Koh to be penalized for his statements or policies, and was little more than a collective expression of our concern. The letter was followed by a panel event featuring several experts and signatories to the letter, including the former Vice President of the American Society of International Law and a now-Human Rights Watch attorney who had carried out field research for the aforementioned NYU-Stanford report.
The response from the School was outrageous. Multiple professors and administrators began their classes expressing shame and disappointment with students who signed the statement. Several students contacted my colleague asking for their names to be removed from the letter, not because they disagreed with its content, but because they were afraid of facing career consequences. One NYU Law faculty e-mailed every single law student listed and asked them to remove their names based on his disagreements.
Some critics emphasized Harold Koh’s more admirable legal positions (such as his opposition to torture and his argument that international civil rights covenants should apply extraterritorially — with the notable exception that they need not govern targeted strikes), ignoring the stated concern about Koh’s role in the drone policy. This ironically prompted some involved in crafting the letter to even further scrutinize Koh’s record, which was not as pure as his supporters maintained.
Other critics suggested that the letter itself undermined Harold Koh’s academic freedom. This struck some of us as odd, given that the Obama-Koh drone policy itself had deterred villagers in some parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan from sending their children to school — out of fear that they would be hit with a missile if they gathered with too many other young boys. Surely our own academic freedom includes the right to criticize policymakers for decisions that themselves undermine academic freedom by threatening students with death.
My experiences at NYU Law were not unique, and the incidents above are not comprehensive of those experiences. Staying in touch with recent graduates as well as elder alumni, I am told of the oddly similar campus battles that took place both before and after my brief time at the School. The running theme has nothing to do with academic freedom. Instead, elite schools like NYU cite various justifications for whatever contradictory line of behavior is politically convenient. As such, “academic freedom” can be used as justification for refusing to endorse or even outright discourage dissent; in other cases, like the shaming of Steven Thrasher, the concept simply disappears from the calculation entirely.
Tracking the School’s attitude across different subject areas, the following pattern emerges: where a topic concerns a serious transgression against people who are outside of the NYU professional or donor network, virtually any statement or policy is treated as acceptable and disagreement must be muted, overly academic, or otherwise imply business as usual. From Palestinians being massacred to Pakistanis and Afghans being remote-bombed, both violent statements and potentially criminal policies enacted by individuals within NYU’s network are considered “controversial” at worst. In contrast, where criticism is leveled at an individual within NYU’s network over the way they treat individuals outside of it, that criticism is elevated to a transgression and the School avoids endorsing it or even publicly rebukes the criticism (and the critics) altogether. The professional and donor network should be understood broadly, and unambiguously includes a revolving door between the school, the US military and policy elite, and their Israeli counterparts. In this way, NYU simply reproduces the overarching international inequalities that its students pride themselves on challenging.