At NYU, facts optional for Rabbi Shmuley

Characterizing New York University as a hotbed of anti-Israel activism is simply not accurate

In a recent article penned by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the NYU Jewish community is portrayed as one that has had to endure a “hotbed of anti-Israel activism,” due in part to NYU Hillel — which is described as more of a nuisance than an asset to the community. Rabbi Boteach suggests that Hillel has actively refused to promote pro-Israel activities on campus, having been more interested in “conced[ing] defeat” than fighting for Israel in an environment rife with anti-Semitism. He specifically points out his invitation to Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor — an event he claims Hillel refused to partner with him.

Consider the implications of what Rabbi Boteach is alleging: the home for Jewish, pro-Israel students on campus — Hillel — is apparently so full of cowardice that it refuses to support an event featuring one of Israel’s highest dignitaries, Ambassador Prosor, who Rabbi Boteach describes as “the quintessential gentleman, a man of high character, integrity, and warmth.”

If true, this allegation would be rightly upsetting; Yet, it is not.

First, a primer.

It is common knowledge that hatred towards Israel is steadily rising on many college campuses across the United States. Just last week, UC Davis passed a resolution calling for the boycott, divestment, and sanction of the only Jewish state in the Middle East. After Jewish students staged a walk-out in protest of this blatant display of discrimination, hecklers chanted “Allahu Akbar” in an act of religious supremacy. Just one day later, a Nazi insignia was found spray painted on the Jewish AEPI fraternity house on UC Davis’s campus grounds.

Almost every week, there are new developments vis-á-vis anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment being promoted by college professors and student organizations alike.  Because they are in the thick of it, students are keenly aware of these incidents and are cognizant of the time, money, and effort needed to combat such vitriol as well our obligation to assert our own identity and combat the hatred directed toward the Jewish state.

Such a large battle takes cooperation on all fronts. Coordinating with and receiving the support of strong Jewish institutions — such as Hillel — is an imperative if we are to be successful in this fight. Unfortunately, at times, Hilels on some campuses for various reasons are not as helpful as they could be and often inhibit students from doing the work so desperately needed to make waves on campuses with a strong anti-Jewish sentiment.

Fortunately, this is not the case for NYU Hillel, and a thorough look at the facts bears this out.

Rabbi Boteach claims in his piece that when asked to cosponsor the event with Ambassador Prosor, Hillel, “gave many excuses as to why they could not.” This is disingenuous. TorchPAC, a pro-Israel organization under the umbrella of NYU Hillel, actually requested that they have greater involvement in the planning of the event. Indeed, emails between TorchPAC and the Boteachs indicate the group asked permission to be included in “the process of planning, selectively promoting, and executing it in a purposeful and above all impactful manner.”

Moreover, TorchPAC “explicitly stated … [their] … willingness to advertise the event,” and simply wanted greater involvement in the organizational process — a request that was met with a resounding ‘No.’  Thus their larger complaint was that they had no “say in the evening’s progression, no role in moderating, [and] no selection of co-sponsors.” To wit, TorchPAC took issue not with the event itself, but with the Boteachs’ lack of inclusion of their organization in the planning of the event.  When NYU Hillel Director Rabbi Yehuda Sarna first learned of Rabbi Boteach’s event, he actually offered to send an invitation of cosponsorship to over 20 Jewish groups on campus and was wildly supportive of the initiative.

In addition to mischaracterizing the disagreements held by an organization affiliated with Hillel, Rabbi Boteach presents inaccurate portrayals of what life is like on NYU’s campus.

Rabbi Boteach stated that NYU, “has become a hotbed of anti-Israel activism.” Yet in April 2014, when the infamous anti-Israel group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) send out eviction notices to students on campus, pro-Israel organizations mobilized to call them out on such bigotry. This was covered by many news outlets including Fox News, CBS, NY Observer, NY Daily News, and the Times of Israel and the university president publicly condemned the act.

Indeed, although Rabbi Boteach describes SJP’s presence as being “100 or so,” the actual number, as estimated by NYU students, is roughly ten or so students, on a good day.

“To a large extent, and for a large political school like NYU — it hasn’t seen a massive amount of anti-Israel activity in the past 3 years,” the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) informs us.  In an analysis provided by the ICC, in which the organization examines “comparative campuses with a student body of over 15,000 and look for how many unique detector events took place over the past 3 years” NYU polls  21st on the list out of 112 schools.

“Furthermore, with regards to pro-Israel assets,” the ICC explained to us, “in 2014-15 NYU is at the very top with 14 assets placed. Only 2 universities, nationwide, have  more campus organizations offering assistance.”

Rabbi Boteach has a right — indeed, a duty — to critique Hillel when it fails to promote a pro-Israel message and fails to support Jewish students in this endeavor.

Yet, what he does not have a right to do is to disseminate false information that portrays NYU Hillel in an unfavorable light. Such action is unfair and undermines the hard work that pro-Israel students have engaged in on campus.

To be sure, at times, too many students are apathetic or passive on campus — as is true nationwide. But the pro-Israel community at large is a fleet. Everyone has a role to play and contributes in their own way. This is true both on and off campus.

Through his many years on the Jewish circuit, Rabbi Boteach has played a crucial role that cannot be overstated. As both a clergyman and a dedicated activist, he brings a skill set that is rare and necessary. Yet students need not be disparaged simply because they approach things differently. Programming must be tailored to the specific needs of the students on campus. An event highlighting the horrors of Hamas, for example, may not be as effective as a discussion of Israeli technological innovation, depending on the university in question. We must keep this in mind and encourage students to move in the right direction —  while acknowledging there may be different strategies and different starting points.

Disagreements over those strategies will almost inevitably arise. Indeed, throughout the past year, student activists have disagreed vigorously with their pro-Israel friends at NYU. Whether it was over the proper response to the BDS movement or how to strategically respond to a small “die-in” that was organized on campus last June, dissent has been vocalized. But these disagreements were strategic, not ideological. Nor were they borne out of a feeling that our peers were cowards or fearful. This point cannot be overstated.

The same can be said about this piece. This is by no means an attack on Rabbi Boteach. Often times public disagreement is misconstrued as explosive, ferocious and relentlessly targeting individuals on a personal level; this is nothing more than a public exchange of ideas — in, for example, the same spirit with which Rabbi Boteach debated J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami on CNN recently.

Indeed, Rabbi Boteach was correct in demanding an apology from Ben-Ami when the J Street leader wrongly accused Ambassador Dermer of executing a “cynical ploy…in order to provide political advantage to the Prime Minister of Israel.” Rabbi Boteach should be consistent in championing the strictest fidelity to the truth and apologize for misconstruing the facts vis-á-vis NYU.

Daniel Mael, a senior at Brandeis University, is a contributor to and a fellow at the Salomon Center. Chloe Valdary, a senior at the University of New Orleans, is a fellow at the Lawfare Project.

About the Author
Chloé Simone Valdary is an expert in Israel-Engagement in the millennial space. As a Tikvah Fellow at the Wall Street Journal, she developed a blueprint on the topic of Israel advocacy on campus -- namely what works, what doesn't, and how to make it better.
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