Miseducation of Hafiza Khalique

What Pro-Palestine Students Confront when their Universities Turn against Them

By Lylla Younes

Photographs by Sylvia Jarrus

A posing woman with an embroidered scarf
Hafiza Khalique, a first-year student and activist who was suspended from New York University last fall for taking down posters of Israeli hostages

It was the fall of 2023, and Hafiza Khalique’s first semester of college was off to a rough start. The trip from her home in Detroit to New York University’s campus in downtown Manhattan with a pile of suitcases and her pet cat was just the first in a string of difficulties that would mount as the fall wore on. Unlike many of the students around her, whose parents had driven or flown in to help their kids stock their dorm rooms, 18-year-old Khalique arrived alone. The expenses quickly accumulated — cleaning supplies, new toiletries — and she burned through the cash she’d saved up working odd jobs in high school. At the end of September, she began to feel a stabbing pain in her abdomen, later diagnosed as endometriosis. Her student health insurance plan did not cover the costs of the medical tests she had to take, and she racked up hundreds in debt from trips to the doctor’s office.

But the worst came after October 7, when Hamas fighters, following years of escalating Zionist violence across Palestine, launched an attack on Israeli settlements, taking hundreds hostage. The Israeli military retaliated with a genocidal bombing and starvation campaign on the Gaza Strip which, at the time of writing, has claimed over 34,000 Palestinian lives. The atmosphere on campus instantly darkened. As shaky footage emerged online of entire apartment blocks in Gaza being plumbed into the earth, a litany of student groups at NYU published statements declaring their support for Israel. 

It was Khalique’s first encounter with Zionism. She’d grown up in places where solidarity with Palestine was taken for granted: in a Bangladeshi-American household in Detroit; in a school district that’s 97 percent students of color; and a short drive away from Dearborn, a suburb with one of the largest Arab-American populations in the country. The overwhelming support for the Israeli occupation at NYU deeply troubled Khalique and intensified the loneliness that had settled into her chest since she arrived in New York. She started fighting back in small ways against what she perceived as a growing Zionist campus culture, wearing a kuffiyeh to class and then tearing down the posters of Israeli hostages that had begun to crop up on the university’s grounds. 

“When someone’s kidnapped, you’d put up posters around the neighborhood that they were kidnapped in, not in another country,” she told me recently, explaining her rationale. “It was obvious that this was just propaganda used to justify the U.S. war machine, to say like, because of these hostages, you should be okay with this genocide.”

But the posters kept appearing in greater numbers. On her way to class in mid-October, she noticed that someone had taped dozens to the glass walls of the Stern School of Business. Her mind flashed with rage. A white man had just stabbed a Palestinian child to death in Chicago, and the Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza was in full force. She walked towards the posters and started tearing them down, one after the other, not minding that people on the other side of the glass had begun to stare. Satisfied that she’d made a dent in the display, she turned to head to class but stopped when she noticed another student had exited the building and started to join in. Then a third joined. She felt her purpose revived. Together, the three tore down more of the posters, disposing of the wad of paper and tape before parting ways.

That night, a friend messaged Khalique to ask if she’d checked YikYak, a social media application popular on college campuses. Someone had uploaded a grainy video of Khalique and the two other students destroying the poster display, and the friend was trying to get it taken down. But the video soon spread to Reddit, then to Twitter and Instagram, where it was picked up by the New York Post and Fox News. A petition calling for the students to be disciplined circulated online, drawing more than 10,000 signatories and the support of celebrities and prominent Zionist social media accounts. 

The following weeks were a blur of terror and boredom. Terror from the death and rape threats that poured into Khalique’s inbox and social media feeds; boredom from the long hours spent holed up in her dorm room, too afraid to show face on campus. Several of her professors denied her repeated requests for remote accommodation. A case worker from the university emailed her to schedule a meeting. “Please know that the focus of our meeting tomorrow is your wellbeing,” she wrote, adding in a follow-up that the university was not considering serious disciplinary action. But on November 13, a formal email appeared: Khalique was suspended, banned from on-campus housing for a semester and barred from participating in student groups. The Office of Student Conduct had reversed its previous decision, citing “consultation with relevant University stakeholders.”

“At least I still have my values intact. At least I’m not supporting a genocide.”

(An NYU spokesperson said in an email that he could not comment on specific students’ academic records, but that the university “holds academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas as central tenets.”)

Khalique’s case was an early example of what was to come. Over the past several months, university campuses have become sites of vicious reprisals against pro-Palestine demonstrations calling for divestment from arms manufacture and an end to partnerships with Israeli universities. From California to Texas to Georgia, university presidents have sent cops decked out in riot gear to sweep the encampments that students erected in solidarity with Gaza. Footage of young people getting brutalized — tear gassed, bloodied, and tased — and carried away in zip ties has become commonplace. At NYU, a cluster of tents that student protesters set up one morning in April turned into a nightmare zone at dusk, when hundreds of NYPD officers stormed the site, tossing metal tables in the air and tackling students who stood chanting with linked arms. These images reveal the lengths administrators will go to respond to public pressure and the priorities of powerful donors.

Most of the students interviewed for this story asked that their names be withheld for fear of repercussions from their schools or online vigilantes. Of the two students filmed tearing down hostage posters with Khalique, one has issued an apology and the other has not spoken publicly about the incident. These days, student organizers mask up at protests or wrap their faces in kuffiyehs for anonymity. Many refuse to speak with the press. Khalique said she understands why students are taking precautions, but she has no problem speaking out. 

“I don’t regret what I did,” she said over a phone call in December, two weeks after she moved back to Michigan. “I’m a very unapologetic person in what I do, and part of that comes from being an organizer. You can’t buy me out.”

Education Of An Organizer

In the few months that she’d been away at school, Khalique’s family had moved out of their long-time home in Detroit to a quiet suburb 15 miles north. When she greeted me there in late February, she was holding a squirming cat and wearing a kuffiyeh and a black T-shirt with the word “Dissenters” in red across the front. Her black hair, cropped above her shoulders, was mixed with a few streaks of blonde.

The new house is bigger than the one where she and her five sisters grew up on a colorful block in Detroit’s Banglatown, a working-class community of Bangladeshi immigrants that spills into the neighboring town of Hamtramck. She misses the warmth and familiarity of her old neighborhood, she told me as she poured water into a pot of tea leaves, but her parents are happier here. The family’s Detroit years were marked by financial hardship. Shortly before Khalique was born, an oil truck barreled into her father’s car, permanently disabling him. With her mother busy caretaking, the family relied largely on government assistance. In a family of eight, it was hardly enough to scrape by. 

A protest shirt and a keffiyeh
Khalique shows a T-shirt from Dissenters, a national anti-war organization

Khalique learned early on to question the decisions made by the adults around her. On her last day of eighth grade at Davidson Middle School, she left a long letter on the desk of the principal’s office, admonishing him for allowing his staff to positively influence the responses of a student survey. “Margaret Mead once said, ‘Children must be taught how to think, not what to think,’” she wrote in the letter. For high school, she attended Cass Technical, a historic magnet school near Detroit’s waterfront that had 2,400 students. Despite the building’s impressive glass exterior, conditions inside bordered on the decrepit, with a leaking roof and broken bathroom doors. The average public school in the U.S. has a student to teacher ratio of 15 to one; at Cass Tech, it was 24 to one. 

“The socialization that comes from that environment is kind of what brought me into movement work,” she explained.

When Covid struck in her sophomore year, she quickly picked up on the differences in the treatment of students at Cass Tech versus those in Detroit’s wealthier suburbs. In Grosse Pointe, Michigan, for example, kids were attending four hours of online class a day, as opposed to the eight hours in Detroit’s district. All those Zoom classes plus the time spent completing assigned work meant more than 10 hours a day in front of a screen. Khalique thought it was inhumane. She also disliked teachers’ expectations that students keep their laptop cameras on at all hours: Some students didn’t feel comfortable displaying their home lives to their classmates. She unloaded all these frustrations at an online school board meeting in the fall of 2021. 

“Detroit Public Schools Community District has, once again, failed the 50,000 children that they account for,” she said, before detailing the series of problems that she saw administrators perpetuating. She ended her speech by calling on her fellow students to speak out about the issues at their school and to reject the administration’s attempts to silence them. “Email them. Speak up about it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be this way. We can get things done.”

Khalique’s speech attracted the attention of Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan, a local youth organizing group that reached out and asked her to join. She quickly busied herself with a range of efforts, from the drafting of a student bill of rights to a campaign to lower the voting age to 16 to an overhaul of the district’s uniform policy. The enforced dress code, as she saw it, was just another way of policing Detroit’s students and subjecting them to rules that suburban kids didn’t have to contend with. 

​​“Everywhere I turned in Detroit, Hafiza was there organizing.”

“Everywhere I turned in Detroit, Hafiza was there organizing,” said Meenakshi Mukherjee, Khalique’s middle school science teacher and an active organizer in the Detroit-metro area. Her former student was never the biggest personality in the room and didn’t tend to center herself, Mukherjee recalled, but she never had a problem pointing out school policies that she found unfair.

Khalique became particularly interested in the issues of over-policing and surveillance, which were acute in her school district. The problem seemed racialized: Detroit Public Schools has the largest population of Black students in the state and is the only district in the state with its own police force. It didn’t make sense, she reasoned, that millions were being pumped into police surveillance but there wasn’t money for decent school lunches, functional desks, and new textbooks. During her senior year, she attended a conference organized by Dissenters, an anti-war youth group, in Washington, D.C. Multiple speakers drew parallels between the over-policing of U.S. schools and tactics employed by Israeli forces against Palestinians. Reading Angela Davis’ book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement further crystalized the connection for her. 

“We’ve seen over the past few months and also the past 75 years, the link between heavy surveillance policing and the occupation of Palestine,” she explained. “These struggles are linked and they are present globally.”

Over the course of her high school years in Detroit, Khalique fought power and won. The superintendent eventually dialed back the number of hours students in her school had to spend in online classes during the worst of the pandemic and the district repealed its uniform requirement. In those years, Khalique often found herself traveling to New York and D.C. for social justice-related work, and when it came time to pick a university, she decided she wanted to end up in one of the two cities. They were places of power and influence, where decisions carried weight beyond the halls in which they were crafted. She wanted to be close to that.

The University Strikes Back

Khalique arrived at NYU eager to set up a chapter of Dissenters and get deeper into anti-war organizing, but quickly realized that she was on very different turf. The buildings that lined Washington Square Park in the West Village were tall and their windows glimmered. The bathrooms, to her surprise, were fully functional — no broken stall doors, no leaky sinks — and the kids were rich. Many had never heard of FAFSA, the federal student aid program that covered Khalique’s school and housing expenses, which totaled around $100,000 per year between tuition, room and board, and fees. During class, she noticed her peers filling their online shopping carts with name-brand clothing. On a boat trip during freshman orientation, girls were dolled up in outfits suited for prom while she wore a plain yellow sundress. 

And the place was deeply Zionist. She first picked up on it when she was browsing the roster of student groups and noticed several had connections to the Israeli nation-building project. There was TAMID, an undergraduate club that “consults for Israeli startups and invests in publicly traded Israeli companies”; Realize Israel at NYU, which aims to “create a safe space to learn about the complexities of Israeli society”; and the Israel Journal, which focuses on “showcasing Israel as more than just conflict.” She also learned of the university’s popular study abroad program in Tel Aviv and its academic center built on land that Palestinians had been ethnically cleansed from during the 1948 Nakba. After October 7, many students expressed support for Israel’s war effort at campus events and through social media. 

“If that was how hard it was for me, imagine being a Palestinian at NYU,” Khalique said.

The university administration quickly made its priorities clear. On October 8, NYU President Linda G. Mills sent a school-wide
email condemning Hamas’ attack and offering support to the affected, but as the death toll in Gaza steadily climbed, NYU’s Palestinian students were met with silence. In late October, Mills announced a new 10-point plan which, despite its stated goal of protecting the community’s “safety and wellbeing,” had the effect of flooding campus with thousands of NYPD officers and increasing surveillance of events and people the university deemed to be pro-Palestine. Khalique’s suspension, which took place two weeks after the plan’s release, sent shockwaves through the university. 

“Students were put on probation for writing  the names of slain Gazan children  on a chalkboard” 

“The charges Hafiza faced were absurd and unjustifiable,” said Alia ElKattan, a PhD student in NYU’s Graduate School of Arts & Science. She noted that students are not even allowed to tape posters to the glass walls of the Stern building — making Khalique’s suspension for ripping them down seem even more capricious. (Dylan Saba, a lawyer with Palestine Legal who represents student organizers and sat in on Khalique’s suspension hearing, told me the same thing.)

In the following months, the university continued to discipline students and faculty for protesting Israel’s genocide. Administrators canceled pro-Palestine events for “security concerns,” and, without warning, added a filter to students’ email inboxes to move Palestine-related content into spam folders. A group of students was put on probation for writing the names of slain Gazan children on a chalkboard. In mid-December, a group of students and faculty organized a reading of Palestinian poetry in the atrium of Bobst Library. Most of the students wore masks or kuffiyehs, but the university somehow learned their identities, and they were called into disciplinary hearings. 

A group of more than 260 university faculty detailed these events in an open letter to NYU’s administration in February. “Over the last several months, you have sent many letters to the NYU community affirming … ‘our university’s standing as a place of reflection, free expression, shared respect and security,’” the letter read. “But the university’s actions convey a different message: that those of us who take a principled stand against this violent war will be reprimanded, threatened, and disciplined.”

Like many other top-tier private universities, NYU has a board, powerful alumni, and an investment portfolio deeply tied to Israeli interests. The school’s $6 billion endowment has investments in Caterpillar, General Electric, and Lockheed Martin — all of which sell technology to the Israeli military. In 2018, the school’s student government passed a resolution calling for the university to divest from these companies, but an NYU spokesperson said at the time that the ruling was “at odds with the Trustees’ well-understood position that the endowment should not be used for making political statements.” Larry Fink, the CEO of asset management firm Blackrock, which has billions invested in arms manufacturing, sits on the board, as does Fox News anchor Maria Bartiromo. (In an email, a university spokesperson said the endowment was largely “managed by individual fund managers who co-mingle NYU’s funds with those of other investors and whose investment decisions are not directed by NYU.”)

“These are institutions that hold themselves out as very important paragons of achievement and learning, but a lot of times they’re just like hedge funds with research departments attached to them and a PR office,” Saba said.

A woman poses and smiles while her parents on either side face away
Khalique stands with her parents outside of their home in Michigan in April

As at other schools, alumni demanded the school take action against antisemitism, but antisemitism seemed to be conflated with pro-Palestine activity. Last November, the NYU Alumni Club of Israel said in a letter that it would suspend “any cooperation” with NYU until the university cracked down on students for, among other things, being part of Students for Justice for Palestine, or using the phrase “From the River to the Sea.” (Others were happy with the school’s crackdown: in October, Fink said that NYU had been “loud and specific and immediate” in stopping campus behavior deemed antisemitic.)

In the meantime, students and faculty were being disciplined for reasons they couldn’t parse. Amin Husain, an adjunct professor who teaches courses on art and activism, was suspended not even an hour before one of his classes began. When he asked why he was being summoned into a disciplinary hearing, he recalled, an administrator floundered before pointing to social media posts from Decolonize This Place, an art collective that he helped found to fight colonial tendencies in the city’s art institutions. 

Hala Al Shami, a Palestinian masters student, was filmed taping pro-Palestine signs on top of posters of Israeli hostages. She was subsequently doxxed, her inbox a deluge of death and rape threats. Afterwards, the university said she would have to carry out her duties as a teaching assistant online, for her “personal safety,” but the graduate student union intervened to block these measures: Per her contract, administrators are not allowed to change Al Shami’s work conditions without just cause. Were it not for the union’s support throughout the disciplinary process, she recalled, she may have had to leave New York. 

“I don’t feel like I have any power as a student, but I do feel like I have power as a worker,” Al Shami said.

As an undergraduate, Khalique didn’t have the support of a union. At her student conduct hearing last October, an administrator berated her and refused to consider that the removal of the posters could be anything other than barefaced anti-Jewish hate. The student conduct officer was “really interrogating Hafiza about her motivations, and was not accepting the political explanation” that she considered the posters war propaganda, said Saba, who sat in on the meeting. “He seemed already convinced that this was motivated by antisemitism.”

Khalique was suspended, banned from on-campus housing, and stripped of her scholarships. Without the funds to afford New York rent or a reason to stay in the city, she returned to Michigan after just three months away, out of school and a job. 

“I Lost Nothing”

During my visit, Khalique and I sat on the Detroit riverfront and shared a pizza from a popular spot in Banglatown. It was a classic Detroit deep dish with a Bengali twist — a sweet, tandoori-flavored tomato sauce. The sky was clear and it was unseasonably warm. We shed our layers and chatted about the pending lawsuits that she hopes will clear her academic record, one of which charges the university with violating a state law by not abiding with its own rules and procedures. 

Since October 7, Palestine Legal and other legal advocacy groups have received hundreds of requests from students and faculty who have been disciplined for speaking up about Israel’s genocide. In many cases, universities lashed out after students were doxxed and smeared, their stories picked up by right-wing media outlets that paint pro-Palestine speech as dangerous and deserving of retaliation. While public university students enjoy more robust due process rights, Saba said, those in private institutions are largely at the whims of their administrators, themselves reacting to pressure from wealthy donors or being hauled in front of Congressional committees. In disciplinary hearings, it’s the word of the university and its power brokers against individual students — often undergraduates, often Arab or Muslim.

“They’re just like hedge funds with research departments attached to them and a PR office”

“Even if I lost this university and my housing and my first year of college, at the end at least I still have my dignity. At least I still have my values intact. At least I’m not supporting a genocide,” Khalique paused, considering her own words. “It may seem like I lost everything to the public, but really, I lost nothing to myself.”

Full from the pizza, we began to walk along the boardwalk, the same one where she spent so much of her childhood summers riding her bike and playing with her sisters. I asked if I could take a photo of her. The wind had picked up, and she shouted over it that she looked bald. The haircut was a rash decision to change her appearance when the doxxing was at its height. She still wasn’t used to it. “No you don’t!” I shouted back.  

I asked Khalique what she will do if things go as planned, if she reaches a settlement with NYU and has the opportunity to transfer somewhere else. “I’ll go somewhere in Europe,” she told me, “maybe the U.K.” My face betrayed my surprise, and she laughed. “This country has been so traumatizing for me, I have to go somewhere else!” It’s the first time she had said it out loud. It suddenly occurred to me that for all her composure and good nature, Khalique is very young, only at the beginning of adulthood. She easily lists the details of her ordeal, but is careful not to dwell on the emotional side of the past several months. Her elder sister Amina is more forthcoming. 

“It just upended her entire life and that’s been really hard to watch,” she said. “Our family is really here for her, and I wish there was more that we could do.” 

The next time I saw Khalique was in New York. I had taken a car to NYU before daybreak on a brisk morning in late April to cover an encampment going up outside the Stern School of Business, the same building where she had been filmed tearing down hostage posters. I snapped some photos as students fumbled with tent poles and unfurled banners in the near darkness. Campus security milled about, whispering into their walkie talkies. Everyone’s nerves seemed to dissipate as the day progressed, with thousands of New Yorkers assembling on the street outside the encampment to show their support for the students.

As I took video of the afternoon rally, I spotted Khalique, dressed in a hooded black rain jacket with which she was trying, unsuccessfully, to hide her face. “I’m not supposed to be here,” she told me, laughing. She had booked a flight the previous night on impulse after hearing from an organizer that NYU students were planning an action. Back in Michigan, she’d sworn she wanted nothing to do with NYU after her suspension, but ever since protest camps began popping up at universities across the country, she’d changed her mind. Whereas after her doxxing, classmates had been hesitant to affiliate themselves with her, she was now received as something of a movement icon, one of the first examples of the repression that students have since grown less afraid of.

Over the following days, she texted me a series of photos from that night. In one, her middle finger, irradiated by the camera’s flash, is held out towards a cluster of officers from the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group. In another, a protester blocks one of the buses that had been called in to haul more than 120 students and faculty members to jail. A third features the wooden wall that the university hastily erected around the emptied encampment site after the cops cleared it out. She wasn’t going back to Michigan just yet, she told me. There were organizing meetings to attend; comrades who needed support; a project to continue.

Lylla Younes is an investigative reporter and writer based in Brooklyn.