‘What would Lisa Simpson do?’ Anti-Israel NYU protesters get unusual ethics homework

Pro-Palestinian staff group complains that 49-page workbook bars students from writing about ‘freedom of expression’; university says disciplinary process meant to be educational

File - New York City Police Department officers arrest anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian protesters outside a student-led encampment at New York University on April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Noreen Nasir)
File - New York City Police Department officers arrest anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian protesters outside a student-led encampment at New York University on April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Noreen Nasir)

NEW YORK (AP) — Would Lisa Simpson set up a tent at New York University to protest the war in Gaza? How would Principal Skinner respond if she did?

Hard to say, but some NYU students facing discipline for their actions during this spring’s anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian protests have been assigned a 49-page workbook that includes a “Simpsons”-based module on ethical decision-making. Some have been asked to write an apologetic “reflection paper” and submit it “in 12-point Times New Roman or similar font.”

Like colleges across the United States, NYU was the scene of protests over Israel’s response to Hamas’s October 7 massacre during the last weeks of the spring semester.

More than 100 NYU students were arrested when police cleared an encampment at the university’s Manhattan campus on April 22, and about a dozen more were arrested at a smaller encampment on May 3.

NYU’s school year has ended, but the university is requiring some student protesters to go through a disciplinary process that includes answering questions like “What are your values? Did the decision you made align with your personal values?” in a double-spaced reflection paper.

Others must complete a 49-page “Ethos Integrity Series” that asks students to rank their values from 1 to 42 and complete assignments like “write about how your values affect your daily life and the decisions you make.”

File – New York University students and anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian supporters rally outside the NYU Stern School of Business building, April 22, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

One section is based on an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Lisa uncharacteristically cheats on a test and is wracked by guilt. Principal Skinner, meanwhile, wants to keep the cheating under wraps so the school can get a grant. Questions in the ethics workbook include “What, if anything, could Lisa have done or thought about to make better decisions?” and “What are the potential and actual consequences of Principal Skinner’s decisions?”

An NYU group called Faculty & Staff for Justice in Palestine criticized the assignments in a news release.

Sara Pursley, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, noted that students completing the reflection paper are told they must not try to justify their actions or “challenge a conduct regulation.”

“Since they can’t write anything justifying their action, students seem to be banned from writing about personal values that might be relevant here, such as a belief in freedom of expression, the responsibility to oppose genocide, or the duty of nonviolent civil disobedience under certain circumstances,” Pursley said. “This seems rather ironic in an essay on integrity.”

NYU spokesperson John Beckman said the disciplinary process is meant to be educational.

“The point of these essays is to reflect upon how a student’s way of expressing their values might be having an impact on other members of the NYU community,” Beckman said. “We think that’s a worthwhile goal.”
He added, “Which is not to say that the specific assignments couldn’t be improved.”

File – NYPD officers stand guard at a plaza that was occupied by anti-Israel protesters outside New York University, May 3, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

Faculty members and staff from NYU’s Office of Student Conduct will meet in the fall, Beckman said, to consider “what might be done to improve the quality of the prompts for the reflection papers as well as the other educational assignments.”

Students at many US college campuses this spring set up similar encampments, calling for their schools to cut ties with Israel and businesses that support it, to protest the ongoing war with Hamas in Gaza. The protests, which has also spread to universities in Europe and around the world, began as schools were winding up their spring semesters and are now holding graduation ceremonies.

Israel and its supporters have branded the protests as antisemitic, while critics say Jerusalem uses such allegations to silence opponents. Although some protesters have been caught on camera making antisemitic remarks or violent threats, organizers of the protests, some of whom are Jewish, argue it is a peaceful movement aimed at defending Palestinian rights and protesting the war.

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages, mostly civilians, many amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

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