Normalizing Atrocities: Why we must challenge the Culture of Impunity for Israeli War Crimes at NYU Law

NYU Students Protest Israeli Atrocities

Amith Gupta is a student at the NYU School of Law, where he is an Institute of International Law and Justice Scholar.


Nearly 200 people, including Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 71 NYU students, 23 alumni, and others, petitioned an NYU Law student organization to rescind its invitation to Israeli military advisor Eran Shamir-Borer. On tour throughout the country to justify Israel’s summer atrocities in Gaza, Shamir-Borer heads the strategic affairs branch in the international law department at the Israeli Military Advocate General’s Corps. He is involved selecting targets for Israeli strikes and “providing operational law advice prior to, and during, active conflict”.

Israeli war criminals have met explosive outcry at universities following Israel’s deadly invasion of Gaza, which killed two thousand Palestinians — mostly civilians. Over 1,500 people signed a similar petition to cancel Shamir-Borer’s stop at Tufts University — where he was met with a “die-in”.

Following Tufts’ example, demonstrators at NYU Law disseminated literature, held signs, and performed a die-in last Thursday, 13 November, at Shamir-Borer’s speaking event.

The petition references the international consensus among human rights organizations and UN authorities that Israel committed war crimes during its Gaza invasion.

Among Israel’s targets during this summer’s massacre were UN shelters, beach goers, hospitals, ambulances, places of worship, journalists, and the entire villages of Khozaa , Beit Hanoun, and Shujayah. While Israel accused Palestinian militants of hiding behind civilians, international observers consistently find that Israel, not Palestinian militants, uses human shields.

The event took place with heightened university security, requiring students to show ID to enter the room.

How We Talk About Palestinians

Campus discussion ranged from supporting the petition to vulgar and derisive anger that the event was being protested.

One law student callously compared outcry over the summer’s tragedy to stress during finals week with a mocking counter-petition for the Law School to provide more puppies during exams. Another wrote, “Personally, I believe all Muslims are complicit in very serious crimes…But you don’t see me sending 12 emails…every time NYU hosts a Muslim speaker”. Another signed the petition with a vulgarity.

But perhaps even more conspicuous was the silence of many supporters, who defended the petition in private, but refused to add their names.


“Academic Freedom”

Many critics claimed that the protest and petitions contradicted academic freedom. The concept of academic freedom is sacrosanct at any reputable institution; and indeed, it is on the basis of that very freedom that student activists across the country are fighting back against spurious legal complaints designed to stifle student activism regarding Palestine.

Law students should ask ourselves: If petitions and protests violate academic freedom, why don’t crimes of war violate those same freedoms? How can one argue that protests and petitions are anything but protected forms of academic engagement themselves?

Eran Shamir-Borer’s tour stops at Tufts and NYU Law have not met opposition simply because of his dehumanizing views of Palestinians — views which are unfortunately commonplace in the United States. Rather, his responsibility for war crimes were at issue.

Officials from a host of other countries and organizations do not or have not had the legal right to enter the United States for any reason based on crimes they have allegedly committed. Others who are classified as “terrorists” cannot speak at university campuses, even remotely, lest their sponsors risk accusations of material support for terrorism.

Whatever one thinks of such restrictions, the facts are clear. Universities do not necessarily grant military and government officials “academic freedom;” when they do, society often places restrictions on their engagement, ranging from preliminary statements by university officials exceptionalizing such events, to laws banning the possibility of exchanges with them outright. “Academic freedom” is apparently not always an excuse for individuals believed responsible for serious crimes.

What Crimes are Acceptable at NYU?

But events involving Israeli potential war criminals are treated as normal nonetheless. So long as Palestinians are dehumanized in American academic discourse, it is unsurprising that Israeli atrocities are reduced to abstract academic matters to be discussed with the individuals responsible for them, rather than crimes which negate their perpetrator’s right to freely engage society pending trial.

NYU has a lackluster record in opposing this dehumanization. While threatening disciplinary actions against NYU Students for Justice in Palestine for flyering to raise awareness about Israel’s illegal home demolitions, NYU has given implied endorsement to Israeli atrocities.

NYU Law embraced the Forum on Law, Culture, and Society as an institutional part of the NYU Law School shortly after Forum Director Thane Rosenbaum opined that Palestinian civilians forfeited their “right to be called civilians” due to how some voted in a 2006 election. Critics claimed Mr. Rosenbaum’s commentary mimicked terrorist propaganda that justifies massacring innocent Americans and Israelis.

The Forum hosted inflammatory events under the banner of NYU Law, inviting notorious Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali and “Stop & Frisk” police commissioner Ray Kelly, who was caught spying on Muslim students at NYU in 2011. NYU Law’s affiliation with the Forum has provoked widespread condemnation.


The answer is BDS

Palestinian civil society has issued a clear response to this dehumanization: boycott, divest, and sanction it. So long as Israel is not held accountable for its crimes against Palestinians, society must step in — and that includes university campuses.

Wanting to hear every side of debate does not excuse impunity for the actions of a speaker, or our own roles as students in universities that build tomorrow’s leaders. It is the responsibility of intellectuals not to be complicit in the very crimes they study.

That refusal of complicity is already underway. Despite backlash from administrators, hundreds of professors and students at dozens of universities across the countries have embraced the call to boycott institutions linked to Israel’s military aggression, including Stephen Hawking and Judith Butler. We should follow their lead.


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