As a Jewish student, I found the Jewish student organization, Hillel, to be a place where I could go each Shabbat to reflect on the week, laugh off the tough moments and relax with beloved friends. I loved not only our close-knit group, but also the sense of energy and sacred trust that it created. I knew that I could count on those present at Hillel to be open and caring, true friends.
It is hard for me to imagine what it would be like if an undercover police officer were to secretly infiltrate Hillel. How could I go and pray with a group so disrupted? How could I create with others a sacred space in which to share ideas and feelings most personal? It is beyond my comprehension -- and would likely have undermined, if not ended, my ability to participate in organized Jewish life on campus.
Yet this is precisely the sort of heartbreak many Muslim students are going through right now. Just last week, news broke that the New York Police Department -- our city's finest -- was engaged in covert infiltrations of Muslim Student Associations well beyond the glow of our city lights.
These covert operations did more than simply sow the seeds of mistrust with a law enforcement agency that is typically the pride of New York; they fundamentally undermined the ability of a religious community to convene on campuses across the east coast and foster among its members a sense of safety, camaraderie, and well-being.
As a former co-President of Amherst College Hillel and a future rabbi, I am despondent. My heart goes out to the Muslim students whose greatest crime was going whitewater rafting with friends from their MSA or gathering to pray Jummah; breaking the Ramadan fast at Iftar or discussing a new book on Islam in America.
My heart goes out also to Muslim chaplains across the East Coast, many of whom I know personally and care about deeply. College is a time of transition -- and a time when chaplains play an essential role in supporting students. How can a campus chaplain claim to provide a safe space, when it is really one being monitored? How can an imam give students pastoral care and counseling when they are uncertain that the space in which they give it is one of confidentiality? Their roles have been fundamentally undermined.
The very logic behind this NYPD initiative raises my hackles. Is a religious community really free to assemble when it does not feel safe doing so? Is the NYPD truly fulfilling its mandate by alienating one of America's religious communities? My mind is as full of worry when contemplating these questions as the hearts of so many Muslim students, concerned about the safety of their campus communities.
The NYPD can do better, and it must. And the strategy for doing so seems clear. The NYPD should collaborate with rather than infiltrate Muslim communities on campus. And we should tell it so.
Think of the potential for good, rather than the current status quo of harm. Instead of using pretense to infiltrate MSA's using undercover officers, the NYPD could host an open house for Muslim student and staff leaders. It could demonstrate genuine good will and a desire to improve relations with law enforcement. It could hold sensitivity training sessions for NYPD officers -- and invite Muslim chaplains to lead them. And in turn, the NYPD could reasonably ask for help in fighting the extremism and potential for violence that exists in all communities.
If the desire of the NYPD is to encourage cooperation, alienation is surely not an ideal strategy. More importantly, though, the current policy is unconscionable. Rather than making us safer, it debases the sense of safety for Muslim students who simply seek to gather and feel the warmth of each other's company. The NYPD is better than this, and we must hold it accountable to its own high ethical standards.