The Activist Next Door
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Rose Asaf shows up.
Whether it’s NYU Against Fascism’s protest against an alt-right speaker hosted by the NYU College Republicans, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s surprise visit to Weinstein Residence Hall or the Student Labor Action Movement’s occupation of Elmer Holmes Bobst Library last year, Asaf makes it her priority to support other students doing activist work on campus.
“When students are putting in these unpaid hours to try to make NYU a better place, [the most important thing is] to show up, you know?” Asaf said. “Show up for them if you can.”
And she does just that. Her weekly schedule includes a full set of classes, an on-campus job and seven to nine club meetings; she’s a student senator-at-large, a member of the NYU Democratic Socialists of America, the co-founder of Jewish Voice for Peace, a member of SLAM and of Students for Justice in Palestine, editorial co-director for the NYU Politics Society and an occasional reporter for WNYU — not to mention an attendee of the various protests that come together sporadically during the semester.
”It’s great to keep busy,” she said. “I’m glad I’m putting the energy I have to things I care about. But there’s a flipside to that which isn’t immediately visible. I’ve struggled with mental health issues for a large part of my life, and I think that’s important to include because self-care needs to come first.”
She also admitted that she needs to work on her habit of apologizing for taking up space — something that happens all too often.
“I’m full of self-doubt,” Asaf said. “It’s totally a Jewish thing.”
That doubt disappears when she’s doing the work that she’s passionate about. At Palestinian Culture Night, an event organized by several student organizations to, as Asaf put it, “communally resist the erasure of Palestinian identity,” she bounced around the room, talking at length with attendees and introducing herself to anyone she didn’t already know, which was very few people.
Asaf is clearly most comfortable in talking about the work being done on campus, making sure to mention NYU Dream Team, the Governing Committee on Minority and Marginalized Students, the Black Student Union, NYU Sanctuary and the Asian Pacific American Coalition (“and I’m of course leaving people out”) as examples of the groups that inspire her and amaze her.
The way she situates herself is simple: “I like to target my own communities, and I like to use my voice where it matters and not use my voice in spaces where it doesn’t matter.”
She knows where her voice matters, and she is impactful. A close friend of Asaf’s since their first year at NYU, Benjamin Zinevich-Rodríguez is familiar with her journey.
“Rose is fantastic at organizing,” he said. “She may love to say how much of a mess she can be, but I’ve never gotten to know anyone else so closely that can snap an event or organization into shape.”
In creating Jewish Voice for Peace, an NYU club that she co-founded this year, she has turned from national politics (having led the NYU for Bernie efforts during the democratic primary and registering over 5,000 new voters) to, as she puts it, hyperlocal activism. She prioritizes this specific form of activism over anything else.
“It should be based on where you have access, and what you should and shouldn’t be speaking on,” Asaf said. “It’s my job to give support to my friends who are advocating for other issues to which they can speak directly … These are issues that personally impact them. And it’s the job of people who have access to these spaces, who harbor these negative sentiments about people, it’s my job to address that and to try to work with my own community, to take a more justice-oriented stance.”
Although the Bronfman Center — NYU’s primary Jewish institution — did not allow JVP a place to exist due to differing political beliefs, Asaf was not discouraged from activism in this field. She cites religion as one of the most important reasons why she does what she does, exemplified by the Star of David that she wears around her neck every day.
“Judaism has such a beautiful history of being radical and justice-oriented,” she said.
Asaf said it’s that very notion that motivates her to stand against the dominating ideology within the Jewish community of being pro-Israel.
“I realize that I have access to a lot of spaces that, let’s say, a Palestinian person wouldn’t have access to,” she said. “So it’s my duty to go to these spaces where other people don’t have access and say hey, listen, you need to start listening to people who have grievances with the way that people in our community have been behaving because we are part of an interconnected network of groups of people all over, and my community — my Jewish community — knows oppression way too well.”
While Asaf entered NYU with an interest in American politics — her two majors are, fittingly, American Studies and Politics — after spending a summer in Washington, D.C. and interning first at the Senate and then at the House of Representatives, she realized that federal politics was not the space she wanted to exist in. After all, as she puts it “DC, especially Capitol Hill, is not the place for an activist.”
Still, she’s considering jumping back on the campaign trail after graduating in 2019.
“If there’s another figure who is calling for what I believe is genuine justice, I might consider [doing] that type of work,” Asaf said.
Disclaimer: Benjamin Zinevich-Rodríguez has written an editorial piece for WSN before.
A previous version of this article stated that the occupation of Elmer Holmes Bobst Library last year was by the Incarceration to Education Coalition, when in fact it was the Student Labor Action Movement. The IEC occupied the Kimmel staircase two years ago.
Email Jordan Reynolds at [email protected]