Three days after Hamas’s attack on Israel, New York University Law School student body president Ryna Workman sent a newsletter to classmates expressing “unwavering and absolute solidarity with Palestinians in their resistance against oppression toward liberation and self-determination.” Workman assigned the blame for “this tremendous loss of life” to Israel’s apartheid regime over Palestinians, while not mentioning Hamas, whose attack killed some 1,300 Israelis.
Workman told The Intercept that the intention was an intra-community message that spoke to Israel’s 75-year violent regime over Palestine and expressed support for Palestinians’ basic human rights.
Yet the newsletter drew widespread criticism for not directly condemning Hamas’s killing of Israeli civilians — and the backlash was swift. Workman was ousted as student body president; had a job offer rescinded by a firm they previously interned at, Winston & Strawn; and received a litany of threats online.
Workman told The Intercept they maintain resolve for the sake of two goals: that people should not be punished for advocating for Palestinian human rights; and that everyone who cares about human life should be doing what they can to call for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza.
“What’s been driving me is the resilience of Palestinians in this moment,” Workman told The Intercept in their first interview with the news media. “The fact that they are still using their voice, that they are still standing strong, that they are still here, and that they are asking us to continue to speak out and show up for them through this and to not let this be their end.”
“And so for me, I will continue to speak out for them and ask for these demands of an immediate ceasefire and this provision of this humanitarian assistance in a safe, secure, and timely fashion to the people of Gaza.”
“I will continue to speak out for them and ask for these demands of an immediate ceasefire and this provision of this humanitarian assistance.”
Workman is not alone in facing backlash, with students across the country, particularly at Harvard, facing condemnation for similar statements and even broadly protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The attacks in universities and colleges are part of a longer history of people being targeted for expressing support for Palestinians or criticizing Israel’s policies. Palestine Legal, an advocacy group that supports threatened pro-Palestinian activists, says it has responded to 1,707 incidents between 2014 and 2020 alone, including cases of discrimination, disciplinary investigations, and censorship.
“This is an unprecedented moment of anxiety and fear for everyone speaking out publicly in support of Palestinians, who are compelled to do so to stop an unfolding genocide in Gaza,” Palestine Legal Director Dima Khalidi told The Intercept. “There has always been a concerted effort to shut down the movement for Palestinian rights through censorship, legal bullying, doxxing, and more, as Palestine Legal has been documenting for years. Now that attack has been magnified by 100.”
Blacklists and Harvard
The most notorious anti-Palestinian campus operation is Canary Mission, which compiles dossiers on students, teachers, professionals, or organizations that, according to its website, “promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses and beyond.” The blacklist targets supporters of BDS, the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel and Israeli companies, in order to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights and cease its occupation.
Canary Mission’s targeting of BDS activists came as many state legislatures pushed to ban and, in some cases, criminalize boycotts of Israel. The blacklist fostered an environment where students speaking out in support of Palestinians or against Israel’s policies became vulnerable to targeted harassment and discipline in both the academy and employment. The FBI has even targeted activists whose names appeared on Canary Mission’s website.
Such efforts have intensified in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israel and the retaliatory war against Gaza. At Harvard University, 34 student groups co-signed a statement similar to Workman’s, casting blame on Israel for its deadly attacks, denouncing it for maintaining an open-air prison over Palestinians, and calling on Harvard to “take action to stop the ongoing annihilation of Palestinians.”
Subsequently, numerous CEOs, from billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman to Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Newman, called for the lists of signatories to be made public, so their companies, as Ackman put it, would not “inadvertently hire” any of them. Last Wednesday, a mobile-billboard truck drove around the Ivy League campus, blasting the names and faces of signatories, describing them as “Harvard’s biggest antisemites.” The Guardian revealed that the funders of the truck are connected to a complex network of right-wing organizations buoyed by millions of dollars.
Several students and groups removed their signatures after the backlash, with some people saying they had not known their group was a signatory or were not aware of the exact content of the statement.
The targeting of the student activists at Harvard has met some resistance — even among those who disagree with the initial statement.
While Jewish Harvard College student Maya Bodnick disagreed with the Harvard students’ statement, she was incredulous that Ackman didn’t consider the potential for endangerment in such doxxing. In the Forward, Bodnick wrote, “Ackman’s actions do not make this painful moment safer for my Palestinian, Jewish, and Israeli peers.”
The Harvard chapter of Hillel, a Jewish student organization, similarly condemned the truck. While the Hillel chapter said it rejected the student groups’ statement and demanded accountability for the signatories, “under no circumstances should that accountability extend to public intimidation of individuals.”
Last week, at least four websites circulated the personal information of Harvard students affiliated with groups that signed the statement, including their full names, past jobs, and hometowns.
The negative attention has stretched to campuses all across the country, as students at Arizona State University, Butler University, Ohio State University, and the University of North Carolina have protested in support of Palestinian rights.
Job Loss — and Support
For some, the consequences of the attacks were immediate. In Workman’s case, beyond being ousted as a student leader, their prospective employer, the law firm Winston & Strawn, rescinded their offer in a post on LinkedIn last week, writing that Workman’s “comments profoundly conflict with Winston & Strawn’s values as a firm.”
In a statement Monday, Workman described the various reactions to their newsletter as deflecting from what’s really at stake. “Regardless of how terrible my week has been, this attention on one student’s email to their fellow law students is entirely misplaced and a dangerous distraction,” Workman said, citing Israel issuing an extreme 24-hour evacuation order to people in northern Gaza, and its moves to cut off food, water, and electricity.
“My intent was to call attention to the lack of coverage about Palestinians and to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”
Beyond their own consequences, Workman told The Intercept, “I am concerned that this backlash against me and other people who have spoken out as well will have this chilling effect that allows for this unbalanced and dangerous media narrative to continue in which violence against Palestinian civilians is normalized.”
Various groups have announced their support for Workman and Palestinian solidarity more broadly, including over 100 NYU law alumni, and 51 students and alumni of NYU Law Jews for a Free Palestine. Both groups sent letters directly to Dean Troy McKenzie, who had distanced himself and the university from Workman’s newsletter.
“My message came across as insensitive to the suffering of Israelis during a time of crisis and that is not what I intended,” Workman said in their press release. “The killing of children and other innocent civilians is horrific.”
“What I wrote was inspired by, and in line with, what many Jewish peace activists and Israelis,” they said, “including the editorial board of Israel’s largest newspaper, have voiced over the past week in response to the violence.”
“My intent was to call attention to the lack of coverage about Palestinians and to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Workman said, “a crisis that has only escalated exponentially since I sent that email on Tuesday.”