Crisis at the 92nd Street Y

A recent controversy suggests the post-October 7th political landscape will pose existential challenges for Jewish institutions trying to maintain pro-Israel politics alongside a broad cultural mission.

Mari Cohen
November 8, 2023

The 92nd Street Y building in 2022.

Robert K. Chin/Alamy Stock Photo

After beginning her job this past August as director of the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y—a nearly 150-year-old Jewish community and cultural center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—the critic and scholar Sarah Chihaya quickly found that getting acclaimed writers and academics to participate in programming at the storied literary institution was no hard sell. “Everyone I talked to was like, ‘Yes, I would love to do it,’” she said.

This near-universal eagerness to work with the Poetry Center speaks to its celebrated history as a major New York City cultural institution. The list of literary giants that have graced the Y’s Kaufmann Hall includes Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda, and Norman Mailer, among countless others. “When you read there, you’re aware that just about every writer you’ve ever admired has gone before you,” the playwright Tony Kushner told The New York Times in 2013, on the occasion of the center’s 75th anniversary.

That legacy now appears to be in jeopardy following the Y’s abrupt postponement of a planned October 20th Poetry Center talk by the professor and novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who had signed an open letter in the London Review of Books two days earlier calling for an end to “the unprecedented and indiscriminate violence that is still escalating against the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza.” The Y, which released a statement pledging support for Israel the day after Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7th, has long been an officially Zionist organization—sometimes to the frustration of employees who disagree with this stance—but has generally left subsidiaries like the Poetry Center alone to book whatever speakers they choose. However, in a comment to the Times, the Y acknowledged that the decision had been made due to Nguyen’s “public comments on Israel.”

The postponement soon led to a cascade of Poetry Center event cancellations and staff resignations. On October 21st, the writers Dionne Brand, Saidiya Hartman, and Christina Sharpe announced on X (formally known as Twitter) that as “anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonial thinkers,” they had pulled out of their upcoming talk; the critic Andrea Long Chu, poet Paisley Rekdal, and writers Chris Kraus and Hannah Gold also canceled their respective events. The next day, Chihaya and senior program coordinator Sophie Herron—two of the Poetry Center’s three employees—resigned from their positions. By October 23rd, the Y confirmed to the Times that the Poetry Center had postponed its reading series. The future of the literary institution is now uncertain. (The Y declined to comment for this piece, instead pointing to the statements it had already made as reported in the Times.)

The Y has long straddled a dual role as both a Jewish communal institution and a prestigious cultural center serving a broader audience.

The Y, which was originally founded as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1874, has long straddled a dual role as both a Jewish communal institution and a prestigious cultural center serving a broader audience. In addition to the Poetry Center, the Y also hosts a distinguished dance center and music school. “I always understood it as the emblem of Jewish secular and religious intellectual life in New York,” said the writer Sarah Schulman, who recalled her grandmother attending Jewish cultural events at the Y and who has heard readings there by the writers Toni Morrison and Claudia Rankine. “It was the institutional embodiment of the great tradition of the New York Jewish intellectual,” said David Myers, a professor of Jewish history at UCLA and a former CEO of the New York City-based Center for Jewish History.

The controversy suggests that the post-October 7th political landscape will pose existential challenges for mainstream Jewish institutions like the Y trying to maintain traditional pro-Israel politics—which have generally hardened in the wake of the Hamas attacks—alongside a broad cultural mission predicated on diversity and free expression. In late October, the Y added a new policy to its website stating that it will continue “welcoming people who are critical of Israel, as long as they have not and do not actively call for the destruction of the State of Israel or question its legitimacy,” a move that could exclude a broad swath of potential speakers, both Jewish and not, who identify as anti-Zionist or support a political vision for future coexistence in the region that does not include Jewish statehood. Meanwhile, as protests calling for a ceasefire fill the streets, a traditionally left-leaning community of artists and writers is increasingly speaking up against Israel’s assault on Gaza, with many pledging not to appear at organizations that actively support the state.

“As the battle lines between the Palestine solidarity movement and the organized Jewish community become more starkly demarcated, there’s going to be a lot more scrutiny,” said Myers. “It’s going to take time to sort out what [Jewish organizations’] policies look like. In all likelihood they’re not going to be more open-ended—they’re going to be more closed.” Marjorie N. Feld, a historian at Babson College who has studied the history of American Jewish criticism of Zionism, said that such policies could result in a “self-imposed” marginalization of American Jewish organizations. “It’s really a loss for us when we can’t join in coalitions,” she said, saying moves like this “put American Jews in isolation.”

The day after Hamas’s October 7th attack,
the 92nd Street Y posted a message on its website from Rabbi David Ingber, the senior director of the institution’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life. Ingber’s statement did not explicitly endorse any military response, but it called on the “international community to stand united in unequivocally condemning this terrorist organization and holding them accountable for their heinous actions” and urged Jews to “come together as one unified Jewish community” to “stand today with our brothers and sisters” in Israel. Around that time, the Y also placed an Israeli flag in its lobby. In the following weeks, as Israel unleashed an unprecedented bombardment on Gaza, the institution hosted events like an “Israel unity concert” where children could write letters to Israeli soldiers, and panels on the ongoing hostilities that included former Israeli ambassador to the US Itamar Rabinovich and former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid. On October 30th, Ingber released an additional statement, in which he nodded to the deaths of civilians in Gaza—“Our hearts are heavy with the loss of all innocent lives, whether Palestinian or Israeli, Jew or non-Jew”—but did not explicitly criticize Israel’s actions. He wrote that the mounting death toll “makes this an excruciatingly painful moment for all who believe in the infinite worth and dignity of all human beings on the one hand and Israel’s right to defend itself on the other.”

Such a stance isn’t new for the 92nd Street Y, which has long made it clear that while the organization is open to criticism of Israel, it expects such critiques to come within a context of unwavering support for the state. In a May 2022 interview with JTA, Seth Pinsky—the Y’s current CEO—responded to a question about how the institution planned to engage with young Jews critical of Israel. The Y, he said, had “always been strong believers in the importance of the State of Israel and the existence of the State of Israel . . . Going forward we certainly believe that it’s important for us . . . to continue to show, in spite of questions that we might have about one policy or another, our support for the country.” In November of that year, after Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election as Israel’s prime minister, buoyed by an extremist right-wing cabinet, the Y hosted him for a webinar.

Jason Rosenberg, who worked at the Y in various capacities from 2015 to 2021, spending the latter three years as the program manager of communications for the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, said that this political environment could sometimes be inhospitable for employees with differing views on Zionism. When he spoke out in support of Palestine on social media during a bombardment campaign on Gaza in May 2021, he said, human resources called him into the office and warned him that members of the institution’s board were looking at his tweets. If not for the Y’s strong employee union, “I think I would have been fired,” he said. That same year, Rosenberg helped organize a book launch for Schulman’s ACT UP oral history Let the Record Show. Right before the event page went live on the website, he said he received a call from the Y’s public relations team chastising him for not getting their approval before booking Schulman because of her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. According to Rosenberg, the team implied that if they had been consulted they would not have approved the event. (The event went forward, and Schulman said she was not aware of any pushback from the organization at the time.)

The Y has frequently featured speakers whose politics on Israel don’t align with the organization’s—even when such decisions have resulted in outside pressure campaigns. 

In general, however, the Y has frequently featured speakers whose politics on Israel don’t align with the organization’s—even when such decisions have resulted in outside pressure campaigns. In 2013, the Y hosted the novelist Alice Walker, an outspoken BDS activist. Despite complaints from the right-wing Jewish press and a small pro-Israel protest outside the event, it went forward. (Walker has also promoted antisemitic ideas, including the work of British conspiracist David Icke, but most of the backlash focused only on her positions on Israel. Her affinity for Icke didn’t receive widespread attention until 2018, when she recommended one of his books in a New York Times interview.) Throughout 2013, the pro-Israel group JCCWatch hosted regular protests against the Y for inviting speakers like Walker as well as the founder of the liberal Zionist lobby J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami. The Y seemed “intent on ignoring the protests,” Rachel Cohen reported for The Daily Beast’s “Open Zion” blog at the time.

The Poetry Center in particular has long operated with significant independence from the larger organization. Nguyen himself gave readings through the Poetry Center in 2017 and 2021, despite having endorsed the BDS movement in 2016. “People with a wide range of voices, of nationalities, of political opinion have visited the Y,” said Herron, the former senior program coordinator, who worked for the Y for nine years before resigning on October 22nd. Typically, Herron said, the Poetry Center was not required to seek approval for the speakers they invited; they simply booked events and reported them to the rest of the organization. In the days after October 7th, as stories circulated of global repression of pro-Palestine speech, Chihaya—the former Poetry Center director, who was still new to the organization at the time—said she asked Herron whether there was a chance any speakers would be disinvited. Herron told her that wouldn’t happen. “I really did not think that they were going to cancel or postpone [events] without [setting an alternate] date,” Herron said.

Yet on October 19th, Pinsky, the Y CEO, met with the executive committee of the organization’s board to discuss whether to go forward with Nguyen’s event, according to the Times. On the 20th, Poetry Center executive director Bernard Schwartz was told to call Nguyen to postpone. The Y did not specify in their statement to the Times which “public comments on Israel” had prompted the cancellation, but Nguyen—who declined to comment for this articletold the Times that he assumed the organization was responding to the open letter he signed in the London Review of Books, which called for a ceasefire, criticized Israel’s “crimes against humanity,” and cited Israeli genocide studies scholar Raz Segal’s claim (made in Jewish Currents) that Israel’s actions are “a textbook case of genocide.” The letter, published on October 18th and signed by 750 writers and artists—including other prominent literary figures like Sally Rooney, Edwidge Danticat, Ben Lerner, and Laila Lalami—expressed “grief and heartbreak” for both Israeli and Palestinian civilian victims and said that neither Israel nor Palestinian “armed groups” could be “justified in targeting defenceless people.” In an Instagram post sharing the letter that same day, Nguyen wrote, “I hope there is a moral consensus that killing civilians is wrong, whether Hamas does it or whether Israel does it.” He added that “there is no doubt that Israel has killed more civilians and Palestinians than vice versa, historically since 1948 and the present” and that “the effect of [current] Israeli policy [in Gaza] is the inevitable death of civilians.” In the post, he also reaffirmed his support for the BDS movement.

Herron was “shocked” at the Y’s decision. “[The idea] that someone having an anti-war stance would be grounds to disinvite them—what?” they said. Ultimately, that afternoon, Herron, Chihaya, and Schwartz arranged to move Nguyen’s event to the bookstore McNally Jackson, where he spoke to a standing-room-only crowd that night. Chihaya said that it was especially “jarring” that it was Nguyen who was disinvited, since the Vietnamese American writer’s talk was about his new memoir, A Man of Two Faces, which she describes as focusing on his “personal story as a refugee and as the child of people who were immeasurably damaged by the trauma of war and the violence that war wreaks on civilians.” For his talk to be deemed off-limits made her question the institution’s future. “If in the moment, we’re not allowed to talk about the harm that this type of violence has on generations of civilians,” she said, “then what does it mean to have people come and talk? What will they talk about?”

“We had an understanding that if the Y took a stance that made it impossible to run the Poetry Center, we would leave.”

Ultimately, Chihaya and Herron felt that it was not possible to continue their work under such conditions. “We had an understanding that if the Y took a stance that made it impossible to run the Poetry Center, we would leave,” Herron said. Schwartz, the only remaining employee, declined to comment about whether he was still employed at the Y, but he has been publicly critical of the decision to postpone Nguyen’s event, telling the crowd at the relocated reading that the decision was “unacceptable.”

The postponement reverberated through the literary community, and among writers who were slated to speak in the Poetry Center’s upcoming season. Some writers who have decried the Y’s position have focused specifically on its affront to free speech. In an open letter published in Lit Hub on November 3rd, 33 people who had previously participated in Y programming as “writers, artists, teachers, and students” said that they “strongly believe that intelligent persons can disagree on the war” but that the Y must “recommit to its core values of intellectual pluralism and free speech before it does irreparable harm to its reputation and legacy.” Others have more specifically cited the substance of the Y’s position on Israel. Even before the cancellation of the Nguyen event, hundreds of writers had signed a letter of “solidarity with Palestine,” which declared that “any form of Palestinian resistance is in no way equivalent to the daily violence of ‘Israeli’ settlers, the [Israeli army] and the entire ‘Israeli’ state apparatus” and called on writers to boycott the Y and other literary institutions that had professed explicit support for Israel in the wake of October 7th. (The letter has since added the cancellation of Nguyen’s event to the list of reasons to boycott the Y and has received thousands of signatures.)

The critic Andrea Long Chu, who had an event scheduled for December on the state of contemporary criticism, told Jewish Currents that the Y’s statement on Israel had given her “pause” and she had considered whether to cancel her event, but was waiting to check in with other speakers about their plans; when the Nguyen event was canceled, it “forced everyone’s hands.” Chu announced the cancellation of her event on X on October 21st. She acknowledged that for her, speaking at cultural institutions has long involved ideological compromises with organizations that don’t share her politics. “In a way it’s a condition of cultural programming within nonprofits or educational institutions—places that are getting money from people who have a lot of money for bad reasons,” she said. But she argued that at a time when political conflicts about Palestine are playing out openly, it’s important to take a stand. “This is a moment where there are certain strings, and if you tug at them, the illusion of consensus will disappear,” she said. “When that happens it feels necessary to try and meet the moment.”

The number of writers pulling out, as well as the resignation of most of the staff, led the Y to put its entire literary series on “pause,” as it told the Times on October 23rd. Writers who have worked with the Poetry Center say that it would be a loss for the literary community if the center doesn’t survive as a result of the Y’s position. “I get very enthusiastic about the work we did and there’s a level of sadness I haven’t been able to parse just yet,” said the poet Ricardo Maldonado, who worked at the Poetry Center for 16 years until he left earlier this year. “It was a very special place. I learned how to write there, how to be a poet and a translator in community, in ways that I never knew were possible.”

Despite the backlash to the cancellation of Nguyen’s event, thus far the Y appears committed to its new bounds on speech. While it’s not clear exactly how the Y plans to enforce its policy against speakers who question Israel’s “legitimacy,” or how this would apply to someone with Nguyen’s positions, pro-Israel organizations have long accused those who argue that Israel should not be specifically defined as a Jewish state—including those who support the BDS movement or call for one democratic state in Israel/Palestine—of “delegitimization” of Israel. In a 2004 piece laying out what he called the “3 D’s” of antisemitism, the former Israeli and Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky defined the “delegitimization” of Israel as “when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied.” In practice, Jewish Currents editor-at-large Peter Beinart wrote in 2021, this language “could be used to declare [an] activist antisemitic for supporting equality under the law in Israel-Palestine rather than a state that favors Jews over Palestinians.”

Despite the backlash to the cancellation of Nguyen’s event, thus far the Y appears committed to its new bounds on speech.

There’s ample precedent for how such policies have played out within Jewish organizations. The Jewish campus organization Hillel International, for instance, has “standards of partnership” that prevent its chapters from hosting speakers that support the BDS movement, or that “delegitimize” or “demonize” Israel. In practice, these policies have long limited speech. In 2012, Jewish students frustrated with how Hillel’s policies curtailed their ability to invite Palestinian student groups to events formed the “Open Hillel” movement, aimed at encouraging students to create their own independent Jewish communities outside of the Hillel International umbrella. In 2015, when Open Hillel organized a speaking tour of four Jewish veterans of the civil rights movement to visit campuses and discuss parallels between American racial discrimination and the Israeli occupation, most Hillels declined to sponsor the talks, leading one Muhlenberg College Hillel leader to resign in protest. When Swarthmore College Hillel, which had declared its intention to buck the Hillel International policies, decided to co-sponsor the event anyway, Hillel International threatened legal action over the use of the name “Hillel,” and Swarthmore disaffiliated. In 2017, the Ohio State University Hillel expelled an LGBTQ Jewish student group that operated under its umbrella—pulling funding and staff support—because the group co-sponsored a fundraiser for LGBTQ refugees alongside 16 other groups including Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS. “Hillel’s conservative stance on Israel drives away young Jews with more progressive positions and leaves students like me conflicted about participating,” wrote Middlebury College student Sarah Asch in the Jewish student publication New Voices at the time, adding, “In order to ‘support Israel,’ Hillel has thrown out timeless Jewish traditions like debate, discussion, and asking questions.”

Rosenberg said that under the new Y policy, he worries that even some of the programming he oversaw during his tenure at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life would no longer be acceptable at the organization. In 2019, the center hosted a Purim event featuring the Jewish comedian Jess Salomon, who recently posted on her Instagram that she “doesn’t believe in a Jewish state where a Jewish majority has to be maintained” because maintaining a majority “requires ethnic cleansing and other repressive measures”—a political line that could be construed as questioning Israel’s legitimacy. “She would definitely not be invited to the Y at this moment,” Rosenberg said. He also surmised that artists he once brought in for queer Jewish programming might no longer want to participate in an organization they see as endorsing censorship: “It’s not only about the Y suppressing voices, it’s that thought leaders might not want to speak at the Y because of it.”

Lila Corwin Berman, a historian at Temple University who has studied the history of American Jewish institutions, said that she believes that the Y was reacting to an “immediate trauma that many American Jews felt after October 7th,” and a sense of “clarity” regarding the “immoral[ity]” of Hamas’s attack on civilians, resulting in them drawing “wider fences than necessary” that kept out those like Nguyen who had in fact condemned the attacks. She suggested that their position might change as October 7th recedes and Israel’s response in Gaza plays out: “I don’t know how long that horrific moment remains as a litmus test.” She said that October 7th could be a calcifying moment for American Jewish politics, similar to the Six-Day War in 1967—when seeing Israel defeat the armies of neighboring Arab states helped create lasting enthusiasm for Zionism among American Jews—but it’s also possible that “things could loosen up quickly.”

Schulman said that the growing popular movement against the war on Gaza might make it hard for the Y to stick to its current position. “A debate that was repressed for decades is now popping up and it’s causing incredible polarization in every institution,” she said. While she believes it’s “tragic” that the Y would choose to cancel Nguyen’s event, she said it’s a positive development that discussions about institutional investment in Israel are emerging into the open. “It’s not a viable position as more and more people are saying no to [Israel’s] brutality,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to go in their favor. I think they’re going to have to back off.”

Herron said they hope the Y reconsiders, for the sake of maintaining “the existence of a Jewish community arts organization to nourish anyone who comes in the door. I look forward to a time when it’s again a place for nuanced and challenging dialogue and free expression.”

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.