Ellen “Elly” Schanzer
knew she had had enough.
That was long before a doctoral candidate and keynote speaker delivered an anti-Israel-laden address during New York University’s May 20 graduation exercises.
Schanzer, 19, from New Rochelle, decided to withdraw her early decision acceptance to NYU. She made her decision after the school’s department of social and cultural analysis voted to end its relationship with NYU’s Tel Aviv campus. She sent the letter to NYU and the president’s office a full week prior to Steven Thrasher’s speech.
The anti-Zionist speech delivered by Thrasher at the convocation for the university’s graduate school of arts received tremendous criticism from university officials and the pro-Israel community.
For Schanzer, the speech, which praised NYU’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace for “supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the apartheid state government in Israel” was just another validation of her concerns.
Indeed, NYU also awarded its President’s Service Award to the Students for Justice in Palestine.
Her withdrawal letter read:
“I have decided to withdraw from NYU beginning in the Fall of 2019. This decision is made with real sadness as I was very excited to apply early decision to NYU and have looked forward to attending for many years. My family has a long connection to NYU going back to my great-grandfather Martin Berstein, who founded the department of music and was a professor at NYU for many decades. Notably, when my great grandparents passed, they asked their ashes be sprinkled around Washington Square Park due to their close connection with NYU.
“Unfortunately, it appears the NYU my family has known is changing. It has now become clear to me that as a Jew, if I were to attend NYU I would be affiliating myself with an institution that accommodates faculty members and student organizations that are dedicated to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. However, I am not one of those people. This age-old hatred of my people wears different disguises in different generations, but its root objective is always the same. I will not stand by as it is allowed to take form at NYU and will certainly not attend an institution where my core beliefs and very existence is being threatened.”
Responding to email questions from The Jewish Link, Schanzer, a graduate of SAR High School and SAR Academy who is a talmidah at Midreshet Harova in Jerusalem, said that she is hoping that her letter will trigger a bigger and more widespread discussion on what she described as “growing anti-Semitism and associated bullying of Jewish students on campus.”
Still, Schanzer said that she never really intended for her letter to become so public. She saw its publicity, though, as an opportunity to “make a positive impact.”
Schanzer was also not pleased with NYU President Andrew Hamilton’s response to the Thrasher speech.
Hamilton was quoted as saying, “I found it quite objectionable that the student speaker chose to make use of the Graduate School of Arts and Science doctoral graduation to express his personal viewings on BDS and related matters, language he excluded from the version of the speech he had submitted before the ceremony. We are sorry that the audience had to experience these inappropriate remarks. A graduation should be a shared, inclusive event; the speaker’s words—one-sided and tendentious—indefensibly made some in the audience feel unwelcome and excluded.”
There is video, however, of Hamilton applauding after Thrash’s speech.
Schanzer told The Jewish Link that Hamilton’s apology was “not enough.”
“While it is important that liberal universities encourage diverse viewpoints that can sometimes lead to intellectual conflict, I think these institutions are missing the point when it comes to BDS. In my opinion, BDS is simply anti-Semitic and has no place in a civilized environment. It’s premised on untruths about Israel, the Jewish homeland, and isn’t simply speech since it encourages a financial and academic boycott. Although I thank God I didn’t experience the Shoah first-hand, I would imagine it parallels the way Jews were treated in 1930s Germany when their businesses were boycotted and they were excluded from academia for a flawed rationale.”
Solomon Birnbaum, an NYU Stern School of Business graduate, and the founder of a pro-Israel on-campus action group Realize Israel, called Thrasher’s speech “divisive, grandstanding at a minimum.”
“It is of course disappointing,” Birnbaum told The Jewish Link. “No one wants to be singled out at what is supposed to be a celebration for the students.”
Birnbaum said he founded Realize Israel on NYU’s campus because of his disappointment in well-funded Jewish organizations that were not “meeting the requirements for Jewish NYU students to express themselves.”
A partner at Fuchsman and Birnbaum Advisory, he is a graduate of the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, New York.
His take on Thrasher was mixed.
“I would say it empowers both sides,” said Birnbaum. “It emboldens those who agree with Thrasher, and it motivates Jewish and Zionist students to speak out. At a minimum it brings everyone’s attention in the tri-state area to how blatant these movements have been and how they have taken over other peoples’ platforms. At someone else’s moment of achievement, Thrasher is grabbing a headline.”
Birnbaum said in more recent years on college campuses around the country, the tactics of the anti-Israel organizations have changed.
“I think they are reaching into areas that are off limits such as the academic boycotting of academic institutions,” he said.
Birnbaum added that he felt the real core issue coming out of the Thrasher speech and other anti-Israel actions is that a non-Jewish or non-Zionist person “envisions a white male person as being the Zionist, which of course is not representative of all Jewish people. So now we’re hearing this narrative of the privileged white male connected to Zionism.”
Birnbaum was also quick to note that the reality of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians positions a “powerful democratic state with one of the world’s strongest military powers up against a Palestinian economy that its people have largely yet to establish.
“The Israel Palestinian conflict is structurally disadvantaged out of Zionism’s favor,” he said.
Realize Israel, which can be found at realizeisrael.com, has reached over 1,000 Jewish students since its 2015 beginnings. Its mission is to bring students together to “defending, standing with and celebrating Israel.”
It recently held a “Rave in the Park” at nearby Washington Square.
“It was an unbelievable celebration of the year’s grass-roots efforts for Israel by our students,” said Birnbaum. “Realize Israel is a very diverse group, with Jewish students from all backgrounds.”
Concerning Thrasher’s speech and President Hamilton’s response, Birnbaum added, “When you look at the situation in its entirety, NYU is focusing on addressing it. It is a tarnish on its reputation.”
Still, any contrition from NYU would not have been enough from keeping Ellen Schanzer from switching to Stern College.
“It was easy to write the letter, as having spent the year in Israel, I appreciate the absurdity of what the BDS supporters say about Israel,” she said in her email to The Jewish Link. “In fact, my parents made me wait a few days to send the letter since they were concerned about the practical consequences of my decision to withdraw because I had worked so hard in high school to gain admission to NYU.”
By Phil Jacobs