NYU Sued for Alleged Anti-Semitism, Students React

A Pro-Israel NYU alumna is suing the university for alleged violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, accusing NYU of harboring anti-semitism.


Anna Letson

NYU faces complaints from a student filed in April about not addressing anti-Semitism enough on campus. (Photo by Anna Letson)

Mina Mohammadi, Deputy News Editor

NYU is in the midst of a lawsuit for allegedly violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act — which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin— by harboring anti-semitism on campus. 

Adela Cojab, a 2019 Gallatin graduate who was president of Realize Israel and a member of Inter-Greek council, filed a Title VI complaint against NYU last year stating that the administration allowed anti-Semitism to take place on campus. Cojab discussed this in a Feb. 13 interview with the Jerusalem Post. 

In October, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights launched an investigation to determine whether NYU created a hostile environment for Jewish students and to evaluate alleged anti-Semitic incidents. 

Cojab met with NYU administrators after Students for Justice in Palestine received the President’s Service Award last April. Weeks later, NYU President Andrew Hamilton published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal stating that he would not have chosen to give the group the award. The op-ed was in response to another piece published by the WSJ that month, in which Susan Shapiro — who teaches writing classes at NYU — claimed NYU tolerated anti-Semitism in the past. 

“They didn’t think it was that big of a deal to give a hate group that award,” Cojab told the Jerusalem Post.

Her suit cited protests at the April 2018 celebration of Israeli Independence Day held by Zionist student groups as well as student support for the Boycott Divest Sanctions movement —  a Palestinian-led campaign that seeks to put economic and political pressure on Israel — which Cojab claims is anti-Semitic in nature. In the interview, she also mentioned feeling uncomfortable at student government and activist events. 

In December 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order broadening the definition of anti-Semitism to include criticisms of Israel when assessing discrimination complaints under Title VI. The expanded definition falls in line with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition

Cojab said she supports this executive order and was a speaker at the Israeli-American Council’s 2019 summit in Florida this December, standing on stage alongside Trump, who was the keynote speaker at the event. 

Free-speech advocates have expressed concerns that a broader definition of anti-Semitism might be used to limit criticism of the Israeli government’s actions on college campuses. 

A letter from the Middle Eastern Studies Association and its Committee on Academic Freedom written by MESA President Dina Rizk Khoury and Chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom Laurie Brand, urged President Hamilton to regard the DoE investigation and Cojab’s lawsuit as a politically motivated attempt to threaten free speech. 

The letter also highlighted the controversial nature of equating criticism of Israel and Zionism to anti-Semitism.

“Such conflation, often perpetuated by organizations based outside of academia seeking to further their political agendas, and now by an agency of the U.S. government, is apparently intended to delegitimize and stifle certain opinions by tarring them with the brush of anti-Semitism,” the letter reads. 

There is much disagreement about the lawsuit’s legitimacy amongst students.

College of Global Public Health first-year Rachel Friedlander is a member of Realize Israel and feels Cojab is right in her decision to sue NYU. She added that her individual opinion does not reflect that of Realize Israel.

“I think that [anti-Semitism] is a huge problem on campus,” Friedlander said. “If anyone has been unjustly hurt and not protected by an institution that is supposed to support and protect them, […] they should take the necessary measures. The fact that someone could be so fed up and frustrated with how their opinions are being handled on campus that they would go to this length looks pretty bad for the university.”

Friedlander knew about the allegations of anti-Semitism prior to attending NYU in the fall, something she said factored into NYU not being her first choice of university. She also expressed being uncomfortable with expressing her views on campus and suggested that she would receive more anti-Semitic remarks if she were more vocal about her views. 

“Popular sentiment on campus is that Israel is evil and many clubs don’t recognize Realize Israel and boycott it,” Friedlander said. “I’m sure if I was more adamant or open about the fact that I am pro-Israel, I would receive more backlash. I’ve also only been here for a semester, and I am pretty quiet. It’s not a safe environment if you are Jewish [or] see Israel as your homeland.”

Stern junior and President of Realize Israel Javier Cohen, also speaking as an individual rather than representative of the organization, expressed similar sentiments. He stated that, in his opinion, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two sides of the same coin.

“I try my best to stay as quiet as possible because I do not want to cement the conflict,” Cohen said. “I feel unsafe in a room of student activists when resolutions in student government are being discussed.”

In an email to WSN, University Spokesperson John Beckman stated that NYU disagrees with Cojab’s lawsuit and that NYU has always been supportive of Jewish students.

“Through the University’s historical openness to the Jewish community, its repeated opposition to BDS, its presence in Tel Aviv (NYU is the only major US university with a campus there), and its record of support for distinguished Hebrew and Judaic scholarship, NYU has made its position – and its commitment – crystal clear,” he wrote. 

Pro-Palestinian students disagree with the allegation and Beckman’s statement. Steinhardt junior and NYU Jewish Voice for Peace member Sarah Patt is one of these students. A practicing Jewish student, they said NYU was problematic for conflating Judaism and Zionism. Patt’s individual opinions do not reflect that of JVP. 

“That is kind of insulting, as a practicing Jew who is not Israeli with very different political viewpoints than that of the Israeli government,” Patt told WSN. “[The statement] is basically anti-Semitic: you’re equating support for a nation-state with a diverse community of people that have existed for centuries. This statement basically smears Jews with a broad political stroke.”

A member of pro-Palestinian activist group Students for Justice in Palestine — who chose to remain anonymous for fear of being blacklisted on sites like Canary Mission — also argued that the sentiments provided by Cojab are Islamophobic and NYU taking these anti-Semitism allegations seriously is dangerous.

“The letter of Cojab’s lawsuit makes accusations that NYU SJP is a terrorist organization, which is a dog whistle for anti-Arab and Islamophobes,” the source said. “Myself and people that I know are put in danger because of this language. Anti-Semitism is a genuine problem, but to frame it all on Palestinian human rights work is a mischaracterization of rising anti-Semitism and takes attention away from actual anti-Semitism on the far right.”

Both Realize Israel and SJP have yet to come together to discuss the allegations. The lawsuit is ongoing. 

Correction, Feb. 26: A previous version of this article misstated feelings perceived by a quoted source. The article has been updated and WSN regrets the error.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, February 24, 2020, print edition. Email Mina Mohammadi at [email protected]