Jewish Students Decry Spying on Muslims

Community Leaders Side With NYPD in Civil Liberties Fracas

NYPD Anger: Jewish students are speaking out in support of Muslim students targeted for surveillance by New York police.
getty images
NYPD Anger: Jewish students are speaking out in support of Muslim students targeted for surveillance by New York police.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published March 01, 2012, issue of March 09, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Jewish students have voiced solidarity with their Muslim counterparts following new revelations that the New York City Police Department collected intelligence on Muslim groups at several college campuses in the northeast corridor.

Student groups at several targeted colleges said they stepped up to defend their classmates in the face of surveillance that tramples on the rights of all students.

“The idea of religious students from any religion being surveilled I think was offensive to the [Jewish] students,” said Rabbi Mike Uram, Hillel director at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a sign of a possible generational divide, most Jewish communal leaders, even some who work in coalitions with Muslim groups, defended the police effort.

The revelations are the latest in a lengthy series published by The Associated Press, starting last summer. The stories, which have already won a prestigious George Polk Award, revealed extensive spying by the NYPD on Muslim communities in and outside New York City.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly both responded to early stories by asserting that the department acted only after getting leads about possible crimes, though the latest stories suggest otherwise.

In reports published in recent weeks, AP revealed that the NYPD had collected intelligence on Muslim student groups at many colleges. It also reported that the department had sent investigators to create files on mosques in New Jersey and Long Island.

Aside from Penn, Muslim student groups were probed at Yale, Columbia, New York, Syracuse and Rutgers. They were also targeted at several campuses of the state and city universities of New York.

Muslim organizations, noting that the institutions and individuals subject to police monitoring and data gathering were suspected of no crimes, have decried the department’s activities as ethnic profiling.

Following the revelation of intelligence gathering on Muslim students at Penn, three elected student leaders at the campus Hillel issued a statement in support of Muslim students at the school. The statement did not explicitly condemn the NYPD’s tactics or name the Muslim Students Association, the student group targeted by the surveillance.

“Given the recent findings of the NYPD’s monitoring of Muslim students, we, as leaders of Hillel and Penn’s Jewish community, stand firmly in solidarity with our brethren,” the Hillel leaders wrote. “We hope that the university will work to further prioritize the security and rights of all religious students.”

One of the statement’s signatories, Alex Jefferson, president of Penn’s Hillel, said that the gesture had already helped build bonds between the communities and that Muslim students and Muslim student leaders had expressed their appreciation.

“There’s a lot of Middle East politics at play on Penn’s campus, and we felt that this was a nice opportunity, absent any politics, to really express solidarity with another religious group and build a nice bridge,” Jefferson said.

At Columbia, Jewish student leaders have participated in public and private meetings with Muslim students and university officials to address the surveillance.

“We want to have a united student response on campus, because it’s an issue for Muslim students today but it could be an issue for a different group of students tomorrow,” said Daniel Bonner, student president of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel.

Bonner added, “We also understand the position that the NYPD is in and want to be as respectful of them as we possibly can.”

In the Columbia Daily Spectator, David Fine, editor of Columbia’s Jewish student journal, the Current, wrote an op-ed condemning the NYPD’s intelligence gathering. “Students should be able to express extreme views without the fear of ending up in a police file or report,” Fine wrote.

At New York University, where police also gathered intelligence on Muslim students, the Jewish community has not released a public statement.

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, a university chaplain and rabbi of the campus’s Bronfman Center, said that Jewish students and faculty are attending and speaking at public events on the issue. In an email, Sarna said that the community is “showing our support for the Islamic center in our ongoing friendship.”

If true, the revelations mean the NYPD may have systematically violated the rights of Muslims and others, civil rights advocates say. The NYPD’s 1985 Handschu agreement, meant to address abuses in police probes into Black Panthers and other radical groups, broadly prohibited infiltration of political and other groups.

The agreement was significantly loosened after the September 11 terror attacks. But police are still supposed to maintain records of surveillance only if they relate to terrorism or other criminal plots, advocates say. The NYPD insists it acted within the law.

Despite the outcry on campus, most Jewish community leaders have defended the NYPD and the city in the face of the investigation. In an op-ed published in the New York Jewish Week on February 7, before the publication of AP’s most recent stories, three officials at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York defended the police department.

“Every day, the NYPD Counterterrorism and Intelligence Divisions develop concrete steps to protect New Yorkers,” the officials wrote. “The Jewish community and all New Yorkers are fortunate to have Commissioner Kelly, and his team of consummate professionals, to keep us safe.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which works to forge alliances with Muslim groups, was also sympathetic to the city’s position.

Schneier said that Bloomberg’s support for the controversial effort to build an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan should afford him the benefit of the doubt on the surveillance issue.

“It’s just remarkable to me how quickly people forget,” Schneier said. “There was no greater champion of the New York Muslim community, of Muslim Americans in general, during the most heated controversy, than Michael Bloomberg.”

Other Jewish leaders sharply defended the police practices. In a press release, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a right-wing Jewish Democrat, said he was “outraged” by criticism of the surveillance techniques.

“The NYPD officers are doing their jobs precisely the way New Yorkers expect them to,” Hikind said. “It’s outrageous that some officials are willing to use this issue as a political football. Handcuffing the police would be disastrous.”

Some Jews were caught up in the surveillance activities, possibly because they are immigrants from the Middle East. A 2007 police document included dossiers on kosher butchers in Great Neck, N.Y. The dossiers include the name, address, phone number and picture of the establishment, alongside the owner’s ethnicity. A handful of kosher butchers serving the Iranian-Jewish community in Great Neck were listed. In comments beneath the listings, officials noted the number of Iranian Jews working at each location.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at or on Twitter @joshnathankazis

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.