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

Guest Essay: American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists calls for the expulsion of Steinhardt students

Tanisha Thakkar is the president of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development’s Undergraduate Student Government.
Kiran Komanduri
(Kiran Komanduri for WSN)

Guest essays reflect opinions from writers beyond WSN. If you’d like to submit a guest essay for consideration, please email [email protected].

The Undergraduate Student Government of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development released a statement on Wednesday, April 24, regarding the events on Gould Plaza on Monday, April 22. The statement was sent out to all Steinhardt undergraduates via our newsletter and posted to our Instagram. Within minutes, we received multiple responses. While we received many responses in appreciation of our statement, we also received various responses expressing dissatisfaction. Some were sent through direct replies, and others through anonymous email aliases. Those who expressed dissatisfaction were fueled by harsh language and hate speech. Much of it was directed at me and my e-board, mostly people of color. They questioned our leadership and character, at one point stating, “You all sitting on this board are utterly disgusting. Lastly, if police and authority tell you to do something you point blank do it.” 

However, the most notable response we received was from an external actor, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. This letter was sent by its president, Robert Garson, to me and my e-board on Sunday, April 28 at 6:51 p.m. via email, and the subject line was “Abuse of Authority and Misuse of Elected Position by Reason of Antisemitism” and cc’d President Linda Mills. Their goal seems to be our expulsion from NYU, as evidenced by the following statement: “As such, it compels me to call for your removal from the USGEB or expulsion from New York University.” The letter used jarring language, and it was clear that the goal was intimidation. They used their official logo and organization to send letters to us personally, cc’ing the Office of the President. If they were truly concerned about offering corrections, discourse or even their alleged expertise being lawyers, they would make better fact-based arguments. 

Largely, we fail to understand why lawyers decades older than us, who are not stakeholders in this conversation or institution, take an interest or have the time to dedicate themselves to hunting down college students. But since they decided to take the time to send a long albeit nonsensical letter to us, we only think it’s fair that we address it. Since they did not have enough faith in their own arguments to make this letter public, we are extending them the grace and respect that they do not think they deserve to respond to this private doxxing attempt publicly. For the sake of brevity, we will address the larger commentary in the letter. 

The American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists’ April 28 letter to the Undergraduate Student Government of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. (Courtesy of Tanisha Thakkar)

In the first paragraph, they state, “Instead of criticizing the NYU administration for its lawful and undoubtedly correct actions, you should have been thanking them for keeping the student body safe from those fomenting thuggish behavior.” An explanation of how the student body was kept safe through the NYU administration’s actions was not provided, likely because there is no supporting factual evidence. An over-reliance on exaggerated phrases and absolutist language seems to be the theme of their letter, which leads us to the inference that they do not have faith in the validity of their own claims. Secondly, “fomenting thuggish behavior” is an intentional and unfortunate phrase to use when referencing the actions of protestors who were largely people of color and supporting the pro-Palestinian cause. Lastly, we believe that it can be reasonably accepted that student leaders who represent students at NYU are better at determining whether the student body feels safe than a collective of random lawyers. 

Next, in the second paragraph, they state, “Secondly, the shameless attempt to try to cast a racist pall over the actions of the NYU administration or the police is nothing short of despicable.” We believe that any reasonable person would, in fact, agree that calling the New York City Police Department on your own students who were peacefully protesting is the thing that’s despicable here. We are apparently despicable for merely describing the reality and experiences that many students faced that day and have faced over the past several months. They also claim here that “There has been no rise of Islamophobia on campus.” Sources are always welcomed, and claims should always be substantiated, which is particularly valued in the legal profession. They continue to say, “Thirdly, the USGEB betrays not only its biases but its collective ignorance in accusing NYU of complicity in ‘the genocide of the Palestinian people.’ Such ignorocracy is an embarrassment to NYU and should be grounds for immediate expulsion.” Another valued skill set in the legal profession is attention to detail. Our letter does not “accuse NYU of complicity in the genocide of the Palestinian people;” that is simply a descriptive account of the point of protest. Further, if ignorance was grounds for immediate expulsion, NYU would have a tough time upholding that loosely defined standard. We will not address any references to Israel or its actions, as, once again, attention to detail is paramount, and our statement was about the NYU administration’s response to the protests at Gould Plaza and did not discuss the international issue itself. 

They also add, “Your request for the NYU administration to adopt terms that suit your quest for ignorance rather than facts, or indeed history, should lead to your immediate expulsion. You simply do not belong at a top-tier university.” As students at Steinhardt, we strongly agree that education is an important tool for social change, and the accuracy of facts and the knowledge of history is essential. Facts are objective and should not be conflated with opinion. It is not worth engaging with those who cannot make this distinction. Unfortunately, even as student leaders, we do not have the privilege of requesting NYU administration for such things or hold the belief that these requests would be duly entertained.

They end by writing, “I sincerely hope that if NYU allows you to stay, that you avail yourselves of the wonderful libraries, the thoughts of those professors that are not part of the growing ignorant class and engage in actual debate. If you do that, you might be employable.” We thank them for alerting us to the fact that this collective of lawyers has the ability to determine the employability of NYU students, as we did not know that the AAJLJ provided that service. 

Overall, the main arguments seem to be that we did not uphold professionalism or our duty of representing students by putting out the statement that we did. In the same breadth, we would draw attention to clause five of the Preamble of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct as defined by the American Bar Association, which states, “A lawyer should use the law’s procedures only for legitimate purposes and not to harass or intimidate others.” We implore the exploration of its own standards of professional conduct and expectations that they are bound to, without arbitrarily referencing ours. We also noticed a pattern of “should” statements throughout the letter. Since they feel such a deep investment in NYU students and our community to the extent that they feel the need to police an on-campus organization, we implore them to apply for admission to one of NYU’s wonderful programs and run for elections for these unpaid positions themselves. A word of advice would be to prepare to receive and respond to such letters as theirs. We believe that our sense of professionalism, if not our self-respect, would prevent us from writing and signing our name on such a letter that lacks accuracy and thoughtfulness and is uninformed and reductionist. However, as they aptly note, our NYU education has guided much of this sense of judgment, which, given their lack of education from our “top-tier university,” they seem to lack. 

We will conclude by stating that the goal of this essay is to be transparent about the lengths to which students are being doxxed, harassed and intimidated by internal and external actors. It is not easy nor very wise for us to risk ourselves further by making this public. But it has been several weeks since this communication was received and we have received no outreach from NYU’s administration. The Office of the President was directly cc’d on this, so to have absolutely no follow-up to a serious letter is disheartening, to say the least. We had to work and brainstorm ways to keep ourselves safe, online and physically. Unfortunately, this is not new — several students, student leaders and student clubs have been facing this unfortunate reality of doxxing, intimidation and harassment. In a recent communication, Mills shared that she received personal threats, so we are hopeful that she can appreciate and empathize with what has been the reality of several students for several months. Further, given that Mills has a law degree from the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco, among several other degrees, we would also hope that she is able to discern the severity of this threat of intimidation and acknowledge the fact that her students are being harassed and intimidated. However, despite several months of documented proof, there is complete inaction by the university. It is seemingly apparent that the value of each student’s life is not the same in the administration’s eyes. 

Our statement expressed our extreme concern at how the situation was handled on Monday, April 22. We wrote, “The NYU administration’s silence, bureaucracy and complacency are the reasons that we have been unable to combat the harassment and retaliation that students face to this day.” Sadly, this holds to be even more true today. We were and remain deeply concerned as to this administration’s true priorities, values and competency. There is a time for listening, and there is a time for action. Now is the time for the latter. Listening is a two-way street. We are tired of vague terminology, explanations and performative actions. We have engaged in good faith consistently and, perhaps foolishly, expected the same back. Let me be clear: As we mentioned in our statement, we value dissent as a healthy part of discourse and education. We understand that our role as student leaders in student government is to represent all student voices and advocate on behalf of our students. We take this responsibility seriously and feel so gravely about this in our sense of duty that we are repeatedly risking our individual and collective safety for our community of students. We sincerely hope that administrators feel that at least half as genuinely, especially with the greater protections afforded to them. We continue to welcome any discussion; we do not shy away from it. However, if student leaders are more capable of having productive discourse and taking action, and students at large are feeling more heard and represented by student leaders than the university’s administration, then this is absolutely a cause for serious alarm, and NYU has a long road to rebuilding the trust and relationships it seems to have permanently shattered.

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 Tanisha Thakkar at [email protected].

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