Dion J. Pierre
Sept. 6, 2023
A New York University (NYU) building near Washington Square Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
US Jewish groups on Wednesday cheered New York University (NYU) for confirming that it will not host a conference that a California-based anti-Zionist organization planned to hold on its campus next month.
The Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism (ICSZ), which declares on its website that Zionism is a “colonial racial project” and that Israel is a “settler colonial state,” planned to hold a conference titled “Battling the IHRA Definition” over Oct. 13 and 14 at both NYU and the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz. For months, NYU was listed on an advertisement promoting the event.
However, NYU said in comments first reported this week by the Jewish Journal that it never agreed to host the event and that a student group’s request for a space for the conference was denied due to lack of availability.
Asked by The Algemeiner on Wednesday to clarify why ICSZ continued to affiliate NYU with the event, university spokesperson Jon Beckman said, “I can’t say.”
Before NYU’s clarification, Jewish and civil rights groups chastised the school for seemingly providing ICSZ with a platform. StandWithUs, a nonprofit that promotes education about Israel, issued a statement describing NYU’s participation as “troubling,” arguing that “the manifestation of this conference’s antisemitism are manifold.”
ICSZ was founded earlier this year by Christine Hong, chair of the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies department at UC Santa Cruz, and Emmaia Gelman, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College.
Last month, Hong argued during a podcast interview that ethnic studies should teach “the extraordinary violence of Zionism, the settler colonial violence, [and] the militarism that is inflicted on Palestine and Palestinian people.” She added that “a critique of Zionism is part and parcel of the field of [ethnic studies].”
In the same interview, Gelman said academics should “tie [Zionism] to this much larger Western supremacy and white supremacy” and “de-link the study of Zionism from Jewish studies.”
Since NYU’s clarification, the event’s other venue, UC Santa Cruz, has distanced itself from ICSZ, telling The Algemeiner on Wednesday that the university “does not endorse the upcoming conference organized by the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism.” The school also said that ICSZ will no longer require, as it initially planned, conference guests to pledge their allegiance to its “Points of Unity,” a list of principles that includes “Zionism is a settler colonial racial project” and “academic research is not politically or morally neutral.”
Still, UC Santa Cruz’s Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Department remains a sponsor of the conference. The department didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
“The ICSZ is within its right to host a conference on any number of topics, even controversial and offensive ones,” StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein said in a statement on Wednesday. “However, that right does not eliminate the responsibility of university administrators to clearly communicate that programs and activities which promote discrimination against Jewish and Zionist students are antithetical to their campus values and policies.”
The ICSZ conference is set to focus on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has been widely accepted by Jewish groups and well over 1,000 global entities, from countries to companies. The US State Department, the European Union, and the United Nations all use it.
According to the definition, antisemitism “is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
IHRA provides 11 specific, contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere. Beyond classic antisemitic behavior associated with the likes of the medieval period and Nazi Germany, the examples include denial of the Holocaust and newer forms of antisemitism targeting Israel such as demonizing the Jewish state, denying its right to exist and holding it to standards not expected of any other democratic state.
Critics argue that applying double standards to Israel and opposing Israel’s continuation as the nation-state of the Jewish people may not necessarily be antisemitic, creating tighter standards around when anti-Israel speech and activity is antisemitic.
“We commend NYU for choosing to take a strong and principled moral stand,” Rothstein said.
Other groups — including Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which promotes academic freedom, and antisemitism watchdog AMCHA Initiative — similarly commended the university’s decision. The former noted that, last month, NYU denounced the American Anthropological Association’s endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Calling ICSZ’s “points of unity” an “obnoxious and exclusionary purity pledge,” AEN executive director Miriam Elman gave “kudos” to NYU President Linda Mills and “other NYU leaders for reinforcing that the university is a community of learners which can only thrive on open inquiry, free discourse, and dissent.”
AMCHA Initiative executive director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin added that NYU “is right to see this new institute and its inaugural conference for what they are — blatant and egregious attempts to spread antisemitism.” However, her message for UC Santa Cruz had a different tone.
“UC Santa Cruz is shamefully too cowardly to condemn the conference or their departments’ sponsorship of it,” she said. “The fact that any school would excuse hatred wrapped in so-called scholarship would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. But even more dangerous is that several of the so-called academics who founded the institute are promoting their antisemitism through these so-called scholarly conferences are the very ‘experts’ tasked by the University of California with developing the standards for ethnic studies courses all California high school kids will be required to take to graduate. This is not a coincidence.”
Anti-Zionism is becoming one of the “core elements of collegiate life” in America, according to a report issued last October by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
During the academic year examined in the report, Jewish students experienced several instances harassment and assault, including when a caravan of anti-Israel activists pulled up to the house of Rutgers University’s Jewish fraternity and cursed out and spat on its members. In another incident, a student pelted a rock at Jewish students during a Students for Justice in Palestine protest at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign — an act that was later prosecuted as a hate crime.
The ADL report also discussed the expulsion of Jewish students from campus groups, a discriminatory practice that is now the subject of an investigation by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Faculty support for the BDS campaign against Israel is also fueling campus antisemitism, according to a March 2022 study by AMCHA Initiative.
The group’s researchers determined, based on a series of regression analyses, that schools with “five or more faculty who had expressed support for academic BDS prior to May 2021” were more than seven times more likely to have academic departments that released or endorsed anti-Zionist statements. They were also 5.6 times “more likely to have a student government that issued an anti-Zionist statement” and 3.6 times more likely to have “acts targeting Jewish and pro-Israel students for harm” occur on their campuses.
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