New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Opinion: The case for closing NYU’s Tel Aviv site

In addition to disregarding humanitarian concerns, NYU’s continued operations in Israel contradict the university’s commitment to academic freedom and equality for all students.
Zhuoer Liu
(Zhuoer Liu for WSN)

WSN’s opinion section strives to publish op-eds, guest essays and letters to the editor that represent voices across the NYU community. If you’re interested in submitting an article for consideration, please email [email protected].

For the past few months, I have stood among the many students who have protested and demonstrated against NYU’s continued presence in Tel Aviv as tens of thousands of Palestinians are killed in Israel’s siege on Gaza. While there are obvious humanitarian atrocities that should implore NYU to make a moral decision to divest, the fact that the university’s continued presence in Tel Aviv also appears to violate its long-standing anti-discrimination and free expression policies is an objective reason to shut down the program. 

Among previous calls from students to close NYU’s Tel Aviv site, they have pointed out that the university had no problem divesting from South Africa during the apartheid state there in 1985, but refuse to do so in the apartheid state of Israel. This stirs an understandable outrage that NYU has remained in Tel Aviv during one of the most violent military campaigns of the 21st century. It is fair to question how a university that claims to value the livelihood, freedom of expression and equal opportunity of its students can exist in a state which has laws that directly oppose those values.

The arguments of my predecessors are poignant and warrant serious action from NYU. But if the moral argument won’t sway the university, maybe a policy-based approach will. 

Israeli law bars Palestinian Authority ID and passport holders, as well as those who have called for a boycott of the state, from entering its borders, hindering Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students from studying there in blatant violation of NYU’s policies and mission. In addition, the current concerns of suppression of speech and retaliation within Israeli universities thwart NYU’s ability to preserve academic freedom at its Tel Aviv site. This reveals critical flaws in NYU’s argument that closing the site would violate academic freedom, and instead shows that the university’s continued presence in Israel perpetuates student and faculty suppression. 

When NYU expanded its global reach by establishing a study away program in Tel Aviv in 2013, it stepped into a complex ethical landscape fraught with concerns of academic censorship. While our university prides itself on fostering academic freedom and critical inquiry, its continued presence in Israel and repeated rejection of student demands to close the Tel Aviv campus — without addressing concerns about racial discrimination and repression of speech — raises legitimate concerns about the limits of scholarly discourse and the implications for free expression.

Reports of restrictions on and suspensions of Palestinian scholars, censorship of academic materials critical of Israeli policies and the denial of entry to international academics who express support for Palestinian rights raise concerns about NYU’s complicity in these academic freedom violations. In addition, the Israeli state has consistently denied access to Israeli universities to those of Palestinian descent through its concerning and discriminatory Law of Entry amendments.  

The entry into Israel law, also known as the “Boycott Law,” allows the Israeli government to deny entry to individuals who have publicly called for a boycott of Israel or its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Students admitted to these universities have faced expulsion, eviction from housing, encounters with militarized police and withdrawal of financial aid for expressing views divergent from those endorsed by the Israeli government.

According to Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel which aims to advance the rights of the Palestinian minority and human rights in the country, in the last few months alone, there have been over 100 cases in which Israeli universities have taken disciplinary measures against students who engaged in discourse about Palestine. These universities often suspended or expelled students without proper notice or due process, with many being penalized simply for social media activity.

Tel Aviv University, which has partnered with NYU and is the largest public academic institution in Israel, has not been immune to these controversies and has failed to adequately defend the principles of free speech and academic freedom in the face of government pressure. While NYU Tel Aviv does not receive funding from Israel and has its own building in addition to its partnerships with TAU, its location and close relationship to a government-funded academic institution that is actively violating free speech raises questions about academic autonomy and the university’s role in potentially legitimizing censorship practices. 

This is especially concerning as Israel has banned even the use of the word Nakba — referring to when over 700,000 Palestinians were displaced during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 — in schools and textbooks, and approved bills banning pro-Palestinian speech on university campuses. These laws impose a culture of intimidation and fear among faculty and students in Tel Aviv, a fear that can stifle the open debate, dialogues and questions that are essential elements of academic exploration.

While NYU’s Washington Square campus offers a limited selection of courses about the history of the region, classes specifically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are only available at the Tel Aviv campus, a place not equally open to all NYU students. The legal restriction of access to the country for those who have called for a boycott, as well as for residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is a significant barrier to academic exploration for those who wish to study the subject further. 

NYU’s faculty has criticized the Israeli government’s policies regarding academic freedom several times in the past due to concerns about students’ and professors’ ability to engage in academic discourse freely and equally in the country. In 2018, NYU’s department of social and cultural analysis passed a resolution of noncooperation with the study abroad program in Tel Aviv due to Israel’s discriminatory entry policies. 

The resolution pledges “noncooperation with the Tel Aviv program until (a) the Israeli state ends its restrictions on entry based on ancestry and political speech and (b) the Israeli state adopts policies granting visas for exchanges to Palestinian universities on a fully equal basis as it does to Israeli universities.” The resolution also states that professors in its department have been denied entry to Israel. 

Although the resolution does not prevent students and faculty in the department of social and cultural analysis from traveling to Israel or the Palestinian territories, the department will not officially sponsor faculty teaching in the Tel Aviv program. 

“The pledge of noncooperation is not a moral act,” CAS professor Andrew Ross, who was involved with the resolution, told WSN. “It is an institutionally necessary one to avoid complicity with violations of NYU’s own campus codes. No university should operate a program that is not accessible to all students and faculty.”

Similarly, the group Faculty of Color for an Anti-Racist NYU also circulated a pledge of noncooperation with the Tel Aviv program in 2021, which garnered several hundred signatures. The letter pledges noncooperation with the site “until the Israeli state ceases its military campaign and takes action to end discriminatory policies that limit Palestinian students’ access to education.” 

In response to faculty and student groups that expressed these concerns, the university has said that “no NYU student has been prevented from going to Israel,” but this appears to be an inaccurate assertion. NYU community members from the West Bank and Gaza face barriers to entry into Israel, and students of other nationalities have been prohibited from entering Israel based on their Palestinian heritage or political actions. 

A large number of SCA members, including professors, graduate students and undergraduates, have profiles on the infamous Canary Mission blacklist, which Israeli authorities use to determine who gets in. The political speech-related barriers to entry in Israel are even admitted to by the university’s travel advisory for the program, where it states they are “contrary to the spirit of open access that NYU espouses.”

In the face of the ongoing siege on Gaza, many institutions like NYU, Rutgers University and Columbia University, which have academic ties to and campus sites in Israel, are hesitant to take any action based on these concerns to keep the outward facade of neutrality and avoid controversy or backlash. But by choosing inaction in the face of censorship, NYU becomes complicit in the suppression of academic discourse and political expression.

NYU’s commitment to the free movement of students, expression and thinking should be reflected in tangible actions; if it decides to operate in places abroad that do not facilitate the participation of all voices, it falls short of a true commitment.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are solely the views of the writer.

Contact Mehr Kotval at [email protected].

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  • C

    ChristiannMay 5, 2024 at 11:15 pm

    I completely agree. Our institutions cannot be agents of genocide, we cannot stand for complicity in the wake of indiscriminate murder and tragedy. Wonderfully written article, I hope to see more of this kind of journalism from the Washington Square.

  • J

    Jana zMay 2, 2024 at 2:02 am

    So eloquently written. Could not have said it better.