It’s a close contest, and there is a bit of 2014 left, but this year’s award for higher education hypocrisy surely must go to eight signatories of the latest anti-Israel petition to emerge from our universities. The petition itself, signed by members of the faculty of New York University, is the standard call to punish corporations that can be connected in some way to Israel’s activities in the West Bank or Gaza. What’s striking about this one is that eight of the signatories, more than ten percent of the present total, are affiliated with NYU’s satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. NYU’s Abu Dhabi outpost, “wholly bankrolled by the oil-rich Abu Dhabi government,” opened in 2010, and its permanent campus, located alongside an “idyllic resort” under development on Saadiyat Island, was completed in 2014.
So I wonder when these eight faculty members, who pompously stand on NYU’s “long and proud tradition of demanding that the university live up to its professed values,” will be renouncing their affiliation with the government of the United Arab Emirates. As Freedom House observes in its 2014 report, the UAE bans political parties, and “criticism of the government, allies [and] religion” is prohibited by law.
The UAE also has a labor problem. UAE’s mostly foreign workers do not have the right to organize, bargain collectively, or strike. Expatriate workers can be banned from working in the UAE if they try to leave their employer prior to at least two years of service. NYU responded to this difficulty by issuing a statement concerning labor values they expected to be adhered to in the building of the campus. Nonetheless, some of the workers who built the campus “lived in squalor, 15 men to a room.” Almost all had to pay a recruitment fee, consisting of about a year’s wages, for the privilege of getting the job, then worked 11 to 12 hours per day. Workers with the temerity to strike were arrested, beaten, and deported. But it’s a lovely campus, and I am sure the faculty members who want NYU to live up to its values are enjoying it. Who can begrudge brave and hardworking anti-Israeli petition signers their day at the beach? Besides as the signatories of this letter—who include three of the faculty members who signed the anti-Israel position—explain, “our partners are trying to do their best.” Moreover, many of the NYUAD faculty discuss “the complexities of labor in the Gulf” with their students, which is undoubtedly a comfort to the workers, who, because they were not allowed to hold onto their passports and sometimes not even to have their own bank cards, had little hope of escaping their employers, much less bettering their conditions.
It’s nice, though, that NYU’s Abu Dhabi faculty feels able to discuss labor “complexities” since, according to Freedom House, faculties at Western universities typically “take care to not criticize the UAE government or its policies out of fear of losing funding.” There are other incentives for silence as well: “in 2012, several academics critical of UAE government policies were dismissed from their positions and either arrested or expelled from the country.”
But it is commendable that these faculty members, busy enjoying a campus built by indentured servants, and the hospitality of a government that honors neither academic nor political freedom, have found time away from kayaking in Saadiyat Island’s lovely mangrove lagoons, to demand that NYU break with Israel and live up to its values. Some would call this breathtaking hypocrisy. I call it the quintessence of the academic anti-Israel movement.