NYU-Tel Aviv, Partnership Protest

9 03 2009

In a spacious room at the Kimmel Center for student activities at New York University, a panel was held to discuss the perils of a partnership between NYU and Tel Aviv University (TAU). The lecture was titled, “NYU-Tel Aviv University: A Partnership in Occupation,” responding to a new study-abroad program in Israel. Three panelists sat at a rectangular table at one end of the room. Two of them were NYU professors: Elias Khouri from the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department, and Andrew Ross from the Social and Cultural Analysis Department. The third panelist was a young Israeli man, called Nir Harel, representing “Anarchists against the Wall,” a group in Israel that campaigns against the constructed wall and house demolitions, among other policies. Harel was touring the U.S. to fundraise for the organization as they face debt and financial problems. The panel was moderated by a member of Students for Justice in Palestine.

The turnout was quite impressive, filling a large number of the chairs set up. Most of those who came seemed to belong to the view that this partnership is truly one in occupation, as evident during the Q&A later. Professor Ross discussed TAU’s violations of academic freedom, using correspondences with his colleague professors at the university who have said that the university doesn’t tolerate those who disagree with Israeli policies, making it difficult for them to find jobs and get tenured. Professor Khouri argued that Israel is an occupational force regardless of what other names it may be called.

Despite some organizational and technical problems, emotions were running high in the room, as the Middle East topic normally does. There wasn’t much diversity in opinions in this panel. I suppose it wasn’t its intent to do so. Many things were said, far too complicated for a simple blog entry. I was, however, drawn to a couple of questions asked by a small group of Jewish students clustered together at the end of the room. One female student asked professor Khouri what he thought of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. That naturally provoked some chaos. “According to who? Israel?” jumped in another female student in the audience. “According to facts,” the first one said, at which point the audience voiced more disapproval, even sarcastic laughter. Another Jewish student whom I had seen an hour earlier at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, directed a question to Professor Ross. It went along these lines, “I’m wondering if your views about NYU-Tel Aviv are strong enough to make you resign if this partnership takes place, or are you just a liar and a hypocrite?” I emphasize here that I’ve modified the original version.

A liar and a hypocrite? Break… Huh? There is no doubt that it takes much courage to ask any combative question among a Palestine-supporting audience. Calling a professor a liar and a hypocrite, however, wasn’t the smartest argument tool. If anything, that Jewish student gave Professor Ross the biggest favor, proving Jewish and Israeli intolerance to dissent in opinion, not to mention making the other Tel Aviv supporters look intolerant as well. In this student’s opinion, it seems, you either agree with Israeli policies or you’re a liar and hypocrite. If you can’t argue about these policies in New York, then forget about it in Tel Aviv.

I admit my discomfort about the one-sidedness of opinion the panel portrayed. I wanted to ask about the advantages of such a partnership. Nothing can be completely negative. I belong to the opinion that encourages any effort that might, in some way, create better understanding among the sides of this conflict. If we are to cut all ties with all universities in locations that violate human rights, then why do we have an NYU study-abroad program in Shanghai? Better yet, why are we building a whole other campus in Abu Dhabi with its problematic labor laws, women’s laws and a bunch of others? If we delve into this slightly more, then we shouldn’t send students to Cairo either, given Egypt’s violations of academic and social freedoms. I agree that this wasn’t the purpose of this panel, but these are points to consider.

I have no doubt that going to NYU-Tel Aviv has its disadvantages. If a student wants learn about this particular conflict in the Middle East, as the brochures and ads mention, going to Jerusalem would be a far better idea. At least you’d be exposed to some Palestinians and Arabs here and there, instead of mainly Jews and Israelis. But, again, I’m up for any idea that makes us understand each other slightly better. Going to Israel might open our minds a little more, even if it’s a tiny little bit more. Those who are rational and truly interested in the conflict won’t rely on one side to hone their views anyway. Right?



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