Since October 7, New York City has become another front in the war between Israel and Hamas in public diplomacy. Students, faculty, administration, alumni, and donors – are fighting in a free-for-all, and while tensions at Columbia University led to the suspension of pro-Palestinian student groups Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace, at New York University (NYU), tensions have already turned into lawsuits.
Currently, two lawsuits are being pursued against NYU for its conduct since the beginning of the war, with at least one more pending. In the first case, a doctor at the hospital affiliated with the institution, NYU Langone, claimed he was fired due to posts he published against Hamas.
According to Dr. Benjamin Neel, former director of the cancer center at the hospital, his work was terminated without due process, and he was unfairly targeted due to his Jewish faith and Zionism.
In another lawsuit currently underway in the city's district court, three Jewish NYU students allege that the institution is "infected with an antisemitic virus," and violated their civil rights. According to their claims, they suffered from antisemitism, discrimination, harassment, and intimidation during their studies, especially following Hamas’ attack on October 7.
The three students describe in their over 100-page lawsuit how the university operates with indifference towards the antisemitic atmosphere on campus. They recount almost daily incidents of verbal and physical antisemitic harassment, including by faculty members, with statements like "Hitler was right" and "Jews to the gas chambers" being said in class.
Coincidentally, shortly before the filing of the lawsuit, the university announced a hefty donation for the establishment of a new university center to study antisemitism, offering courses to students and grants for research in the field.
However, this did not reassure Jewish students who expressed genuine concerns for their security on campus. The situation was further exacerbated after 21-year-old student Aiden Lopez was arrested by the New York police after assaulting another student and another person in the university library during a pro-Israel protest.
Lopez was apprehended after arguing with the student and pulling on her hair, causing injuries to her hand. When another person tried to intervene, Lopez struck him in the face and neck and damaged his mobile phone.
Alongside pro-Israel demonstrations, pro-Palestinian protests continue to take place across the NYU campus, which is integrated into the city. Demonstrators fill Washington Square Park almost weekly, with calls including "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" and banners displaying antisemitic imagery.
Pro-Israel students who documented the protests or any other anti-Zionist activity on campus, such as the ripping of posters showing Israeli captives, were issued warning letters and called in for a meeting with the institution's administration. They were accused of filming on campus in a manner that discriminated on the basis of race and religion.
Some of the shocked students attended the meeting accompanied by their lawyers and described feeling overwhelmed by the entire situation. Others didn’t bother to attend, and some simply threatened to leave the institution in protest, similar to Charlotte Lincoln, a relative of U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who announced her departure from NYU due to antisemitism on campus.
'Not afraid of the administration’s warnings'
One of the students called for a meeting is 21-year-old Kayla Hutt. She went out to film on-campus interviews with students. For this purpose, she even hired a professional cameraman to accompany her and received approval from all of her interviewees.
"I'm not afraid of the administration’s warnings because I didn't do anything wrong. They told me I tried to film on a discriminatory basis because of the protestors’ ethnic background." A confrontation ensued when she was not there, and the cameraman was hit in the face.
According to Hutt, the cameraman wasn’t directly involved in the altercation, but since he was her guest, she had to take responsibility and was reprimanded. "What's weird about this whole story is that the students I interviewed didn't complain at all. It seems they were SJP students. They complain about everything. That's their weapon," she said.
Hutt doesn’t blame NYU’s president and the administration for issuing the warnings: “It would be hypocritical of me because we were the ones who demanded the university's policy be enforced in the first place. Before we complained to them, they didn't do anything. So I understand that they want to act now, but if they only act against us, that’s discrimination."
NYU’s Jewish President Linda Mills was among the presidents of academic institutions to issue a condemnation of Hamas’ attack the day after the massacre. She sent an email to all students with a statement about the "multi-faceted and deadly terrorist attack on Israel, which included widespread violence, injuries, loss of life, and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hamas."
Mills also instructed the university's welfare personnel to personally reach out to Israeli and Jewish students and offer their support. The Hillel Jewish student association on campus praised the move, but there were those who claimed these were empty words. According to critics, the university "Wishes for dialogue during a one-sided and brutal attack designed to kill as many innocent Jews as possible."
Meanwhile, the dean of NYU’s law school, Prof. Troy McKenzie, criticized and distanced himself from a letter from the President of the institution's Student Bar Association (SBA) Ryna Workman, which sparked controversy.
In the letter, she expressed support for Hamas’ attacks and accused Israel of apartheid. McKenzie said that the remarks "definitely do not represent the institution and my personal views. I condemn the killing of civilians and acts of terror with a heavy heart."
However, Jewish students argued that this was too little, too late. The NYU’s alumni club of in Israel was harsher in tone. In a letter sent to the president last week, they announced they would sever ties with the institution due to the slack response to anti-Israel protests and antisemitic incidents on campus.
According to the alumni, Mills told them in a Zoom call that the chant “from the river to the sea," isn’t necessarily antisemitic and is, in fact, "not so terrible." In their letter, the alumni demanded that the statement be defined as "hate speech," since it calls for the destruction of Israel, and called for the suspension of students and staff who call it.
Students like Hutt are struggling to understand the president's decisions. "She was on our side until now, and it's really strange if she actually said these things. It's unclear if they want to be with us or against us," she says.
"The bottom line is that it's frightening to go on campus with all these protests and chants. It feels like those who shout these things really know what they're saying; it's scary. And to hear that the president is endorsing this call is even scarier,” she added.
According to her, "Professors actually encourage us to learn from all perspectives. Sometimes I was the only Jewish person in the room, and not only did they not want to listen to me, they didn't want to listen to the lecturers. They come in thinking they know everything. It's ridiculous, especially for students. To think that they know everything as young students is insane. After all, they're here to learn."
New York University has so far declined to comment.