An NYU student wrote ‘F–k Israel’ on a piece of trash. Is that antisemitism or freedom of speech?


(New York Jewish Week) — New York University is investigating a graduate student working at the school library who wrote “Free Palestine” and a profanity on an Israeli mail bag left in the trash. 

The university accused Naye Idriss in November 2022 of alleged antisemitism and vandalism, according to her attorney. Idriss was informed that she was being investigated for allegedly violating the non-discrimination policy in the student conduct code.  

Dylan Saba, who is representing the student through Palestine Legal, a civil rights group, also said that the university sent an email to library staff saying that there was “an anti-Israel incident.” Another email stated that there was “an alleged antisemitism incident.” 

In December, Idriss, who was one of three Arabic language students working at the library, was not rehired with her peers.  

Photographs show a bag bearing the logo of Israel’s postal service, with the word “F–k” written next to the word Israel and “Free Palestine” scrawled on the side. The bag appears to have been shipped from an Israeli vendor in July 2022 before being tossed in a recycling bin.  

The incident was first reported by the online news publication Electronic Intifada on Monday.  

Idriss did not respond to a request for a comment, but NYU spokesperson John Beckman confirmed to the New York Jewish Week that the university is looking into the incident.  

Beyond acknowledging that there was an incident that involved the writing of profanity in the library, and that various appropriate NYU offices have looked into the matter and responded to it, I cannot elaborate because it is NYU’s practice not to comment on the specifics of individual employee or student matters,” Beckman said. 

NYU had initially classified the investigation as a student conduct issue, which would not have entitled Idriss to union representation. Because the incident occurred at work, Idriss has the right to have a union representative present in any workplace disciplinary proceeding, Saba told the Electronic Intifada. After the union intervened, the investigation led to a hearing with NYU’s human resources department.  

“They have not dismissed the antisemitism charge,” Saba said. “They just haven’t moved forward with it.” 

He added in written statement to the New York Jewish Week: This is very clearly an example of repression from NYU in response to continuous pressure from outside Zionist organizations to silence pro-Palestinian political speech.”  

Tova Benjamin, a steward and organizer with the Union for Graduate Workers at NYU, also confirmed to the New York Jewish that the union has been representing Idriss during NYU’s investigation, but would not comment any further. 

Saba told the New York Jewish Week that the proceeding “has been on pause while the HR process proceeds to a resolution.”

On Monday, the aggressive watchdog group Stop Antisemitism tweeted Idriss’ face and details about her education and place of birth to over 60,000 followers online.  

“I hope she gets suspended,”one person commented.  

“Throw her azz in jail,” another wrote.

NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, the campus Hillel, declined to comment.  

Jewish groups have complained in the recent past about incidents at NYU they call antisemitic. In 2020, following complaints that NYU hadn’t done enough to prevent “a hostile environment” for Jews on the campus, the U.S. Education Department and NYU reached an agreement under which the university agreed to “bolster our longstanding commitment to opposing and responding to antisemitism,” a university spokesman said at the time.

In April 2022, a pro-Palestinian law student group sent out an email chain saying, among other things, “the Zionist grip on the media is omnipresent.” Like the mailbag incident, the email prompted a debate over what is legitimate and protected criticism of Israel, however harsh, and what constitutes hate speech.

Alex Morey, a lawyer and director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a non-partisan organization that defends free speech on campus, told the New York Jewish Week that this seems to be the first case he’s seen where “a student is using garbage as their medium of expression.” 

“But free speech principles protect all manner of written expression, whether you’re putting your views on a protest sign or a piece of trash,” Morey said.

Morey added that “you can’t vandalize garbage.” 

“Vandalism requires damaging someone else’s property, and garbage, by nature, belongs to no one,” Morey said. “When the student took the bag from the trash, it became hers to use as she saw fit. Reportedly, the bag was in a recycling container. She was, arguably, recycling it.” 

NYU’s student conduct policy says that the campus community “thrives on debate and dissent,” and that “free inquiry, free expression, and free association enhances academic freedom and intellectual engagement.”

“Any student reading this promise should feel confident expressing even the most controversial views in creative ways on campus,” Morey said. 

Still, Morey noted that speech that rises to the level of a threat or discriminatory harassment should be punished, but proving that can have “high legal bars.” 

“Simply holding or expressing an anti-Israel view, whether one defines it as antisemitic or not, doesn’t get close to meeting these standards,” Morey said. “In other words: NYU not only allows but encourages students to express all sorts of controversial views on campus, even if some people deem those views antisemitic.’”