The students’ demands, at first glance, seemed like standard-issue ones: a tuition freeze, requests for budget transparency, student representation on the board of trustees, and fair labor contracts for all employees.
But the 64 New York University students who barricaded themselves inside a cafeteria for two days last week had two other demands, that seemed out of left field: Provide 13 Palestinian students from Gaza with scholarships to the university, and donate all excess supplies to rebuild the University of Gaza, damaged in Israel’s recent war against Hamas.
Farah Khimji, a spokesperson for Take Back NYU, the group that staged the protest, told The Jewish Week that the Gaza requests were recent additions to their list of demands.
But, Khimji added from inside the Kimmel Center cafeteria Thursday afternoon, “We see them as fitting in with everything else. We’re asking for student rights in numerous ways on our campus; we see those last two demands as talking [about] human rights in general.”
Not only did NYU’s administration not accede to any of the students’ demands, it suspended 18 of the students who remained in the cafeteria beyond the early-morning Friday deadline presented to the protesters on Thursday.
Some of the Take Back NYU students involved in the protest were Jewish.
Maria Lewis, a TBNYU member, attributed her beliefs to her Jewish upbringing.
“I think my Judaism in a lot of ways was one of the things that taught me to fight for social justice,” she said. “Every year on Passover I heard about how we were slaves in Egypt, and how we became free and that really resonated with me. Until all of us are free none of us are free,” she said.
Members of Take Back NYU said they were motivated by recent actions at the University of Rochester, where a protest resulted in the administration agreeing to provide any surplus goods or supplies that could assist the University of Gaza, commit resources to assist fundraising for the crisis in Gaza and provide students from Gaza with scholarships.
The drama began last Wednesday night, when a group of students took over the cafeteria, refusing to leave until its list of 13 demands was met by the university administration.
The students, affiliated with the radical organization Take Back NYU! remained in the room on the 3rd floor of the Kimmel Center at NYU for over 40 hours, until the remaining 18 students were led out by NYU security officials on Friday afternoon.
Throughout the two-day occupation, many of the students left the building willingly, but at 9:30 p.m. Thursday night more than two dozen students attempted to enter the barricaded room to join the protesters, surging past security guards and entering the building. Two guards were injured during the entry and one was taken to the NYU Medical Center for treatment.
Many of the students inside the building were not actually students at NYU, but were supporting their efforts from other schools, including the New School. Students there staged a similar and successful protest last month. The NYU group was live-blogging their actions from inside the building, and also posted a live video feed to their Web site for the hours they were inside.
The university suspended the 18 students remaining in the center after 1 a.m. on Friday morning, according to an official university statement. The students were also removed from university dorms, though they were offered interim housing. Judiciary hearings will begin next week for the affected students, and could result in warnings or expulsion for the students.
Despite the suspensions and the fact that none of their demands was met, the students say have not given up hope.
“My immediate concern is having the suspension removed,” said Emily Stainkamp, a TBNYU member, “and mobilizing the attention we’ve gotten through this campaign and continuing to drive home these demands for accountability and democracy at NYU.”
Yehuda Sarna, the rabbi at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, said that the group’s radical tactics “undermined their position and were ultimately ineffective.”
But Rabbi Sarna’s focus was on next week’s Israel Apartheid Week, which will be held in over 25 cities worldwide beginning March 1. Initiated in Toronto in 2005, that event has spread to more than 25 cities around the world with events commemorating what planners call the expulsion of Arabs from their land in 1948, when Israel was born.
“Our primary focus will continue to be on displaying the diversity of Israeli politics and culture, and on bridge-building with the Muslim community,” said Rabbi Sarna.
“We stay far away from street theater and media stunts and will not be drawn to the bottom of the barrel,” he continued. “Acting decisively does not mean acting impulsively,” he said.
Jewish students on the NYU campus were among many who expressed concern with the takeover group’s demands and tactics.
“I don’t think it is NYU’s place to make political statements like this,” said Barry Guttman, a senior. Guttman also noted that providing scholarships exclusively to Palestinian students is “reverse discrimination. Anyone should be able to get those scholarships,” he said.
“These demands are not coherent with the rest of the demands that were being protested for,” said Michelle Kornblit, a sophomore. “I would be very upset and very shocked if they gave into those specific demands,” she said.
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