Caught in the Middle: The Boycotted Students of NYU Tel Aviv

by Ethan Seavey

Tel Aviv Port. Photo by Ethan Seavey

The door to the lounge is heavy. Six students enter and sit on large bean bags and a small couch and two cots. They laugh as someone struggles to connect their computer to the television. Behind or between them is a plate with writing in Hebrew, directing attention to the metal door set into the floor. It leads to the common room on the floor below as I’ve been told. The television is turned on and the lights are turned off; but no, the room does not become a dark void with their focus turned to the screen. Eerie green light radiates from the corners, where glow-in-the-dark tape has been pasted. Here, the common room is a bomb shelter. The students who live here brush it off; but I, the visitor, cannot shake the idea of that heavy door slamming shut and the lights going out and the room filling with green and the cots being shared by the six of us.

The students at NYU Tel Aviv are caught in the middle. Fortunately they have not been in any danger—unlike many because of the conflict between Israel and Palestine—but in Tel Aviv they are stuck in the center of the rising tensions within their academic community. In May 2021, a letter was drafted calling for members of the New York University community to support academic non-cooperation with the campus in Tel Aviv until Israel is de-militarized and Palestinian students are offered equal opportunities for education. Over a hundred faculty signed the letter, and it’s safe to say that the sentiment is shared by a lot of students as well.

I knew about this before I made the journey from Paris to Tel Aviv to visit my boyfriend in this past month. He’s a student of NYU Tel Aviv. COVID blocked travel for the past few months, but Israel opened up to tourists in November, and I took the many bureaucratic steps necessary to visit him for a very short weekend.

I was with him and his peers and the topic of the boycott came up. Their anxieties over the situation were clear on their faces. I questioned this—it never seemed that serious to me—but they looked me in the eye and told me how serious they are. They’re worried about professors blacklisting them for future opportunities because Tel Aviv would be on their transcript. Socially, they’re feeling the pressure too. My boyfriend extended his time studying abroad from one semester to two partially because he’s nervous he’ll be “cancelled” by his peers upon return to New York, and this fear is shared by multiple students.

They’re stuck in a place where they are criticized but aren’t heard by their community.One student suggested she had lost a close friend after going abroad specifically because of the boycott. She had been blocked on social media, where a lot of the pressure seemed to be coming from. Another student writes for NYU’s student newspaper, Washington Square News, and found himself in a difficult position. In September he wrote a piece about the psychological effects of being on campus when in May 2021 Hamas fired 4,000 rockets in response to Israel’s eviction of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Just like myself, this writer doesn’t pretend to know enough about this conflict to write extensively or argumentatively about it. He included details of casualties which spoke for themselves. He was merely writing about these facts for background as a means to access the traumatic experience of being a student in Tel Aviv at this time. However, he encountered problems when he submitted it for publication. He received edits that explored the conflict more extensively than he thought was necessary. He had included a quote of an Arab-Israeli NYU student detailing their frantic phone calls to family in Haïfa—but it was labeled “hearsay” by the editorial staff, even though it was included in quotation marks, and detailed one student’s specific experience. He began to piece together the bias stacked against his publication of the piece. One of the editors on his work had published an article earlier in the summer detailing the boycott against NYU Tel Aviv. Eventually he decided to give up on trying to publish the piece. In general, these anecdotes reveal how students of NYU Tel Aviv feel as though they’ve been given the silent treatment for their decision, from both friends and peers.

I was asked as an outsider what I had been hearing and I laid it all out for them. Sure, the situation was discussed among students at Paris. I was in the lounge of NYU Paris—a wide-open space with panoramic views of the whole city—and a fellow student expressed support for the boycott of the campus, as well as for “boycotting” the students who made the choice to attend. The oppression of Palestinian people is on their hands; they’re supporting Israel financially; they’re learning propaganda from Israeli professors; they have no business being there. This student received some general agreement as I headed to the elevator to get to class. As the doors closed there was disagreement, because it’s an over-simplification of the conflict to pick sides like a sports game. I told the students of Tel Aviv this story and that yes: there are students who want to boycott you, but no: not every student will. Really, I have no way of knowing. But disagreement only comes from behind closed elevator doors.

As this conversation extended over the weekend, I felt as though students felt the need to justify to me why they had applied to study in Tel Aviv in the first place. For some, it made the most sense academically. They’re studying politics and archaeology and Hebrew and Arabic, fields in which the campus specializes. They also mentioned that Tel Aviv is one of the few sites where marginalized students feel comfortable studying abroad. NYU Tel Aviv offers a study abroad experience in a unique location, which is relatively free of anti-Semitism and homophobia as compared to other study abroad sites. NYU has a wide range of sites, including Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, and Prague, where there is no guarantee that discrimination won’t be experienced on a day-to-day basis. In Tel Aviv Jewish students find an academic environment which respects the outward expression of their religious and cultural identities; in Tel Aviv queer students can gather on the Gay Beach and find a pocket of tolerance. This acceptance cannot be underestimated as a deciding factor for where many students will choose to study abroad.

In addition, these students are rebutting the idea that choosing to attend NYU Tel Aviv is a decision intended to support Israel financially and ideologically.

Though they support Israel financially in their attendance, Tel Aviv is one of NYU’s smaller abroad campuses, with around 25 students enrolled, and the financial impact of their boycott would be very small compared to, say, a boycott of NYU Shanghai, where over a thousand students support China financially. Calls are growing to boycott China’s olympics for human rights violations; but no calls are made to boycott NYU Shanghai. When it comes down to it, yes, these students do support Israel financially. This is the same as every tax-paying American since World War II. Even though it’s a more direct support than taxation, this is does not mean they align themselves with their political actions.

These students have heard claims that through studying at Tel Aviv they are automatically supporters of Israel as a political institution, but this is true neither in the classrooms nor in their daily life. The classes concerning politics I heard about have open discussions about the importance of the liberation of Palestinians; and many professors will discuss their personal beliefs with their students as well. In their daily life, these students are gaining a crucial understanding of the realities of life in Israel-Palestine right now. One of the RAs is Palestinian herself, and through conversations with her these American students develop a crucial understanding of what the Palestinian perspective is on the oppression of Palestinian people and the region’s social divides. Moreover, NYU Tel Aviv offers them field trips to villages in Palestine, such as Taibe, where they met with the mayor, having an experience that would be impossible without their studying abroad.

There’s an imbalance here in the perceived value of studying abroad. While these students do support Israel financially, the idea that their attendance has any impact on the financial stability of Israel doesn’t hold much water. Moreover, the value of twenty students investing into a more complete education of these conflicts is much greater than the boycott movement implies. Some of these students will be working in American politics, and all of them will have a greater understanding of foreign policy, and they will vote (and protest) with a better understanding than most.

Everyone is frustrated with the ongoing conflicts between Israel and Palestine. Within the NYU community, this frustration is directed not only at the campus at Tel Aviv, but directly at its students. While they’re the ones most directly involved in this debate, their perspective is being ignored by their fellow students who don’t want to hear from them. They are stuck gaining valuable perspective that they’re afraid won’t be heard; and anxiously await their return to New York.