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Thursday, January 27, 2022
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The climate for Jewish students has become so hostile at the City University of New York (CUNY) that many fear admitting they are Jewish.

“In a university with thousands of Jewish alumni and where Jews were allowed and welcomed for generations, we want our students to feel wonderful, not negative,” Ilya Bratman, the executive director of Hillel at Baruch College in Manhattan told The Jewish Link. “Students are afraid to admit they are Jewish and we just can’t have that.”

The latest incident contributing to the wave of hostility is a statement from the CUNY School of Law’s Student Government Association, which passed a resolution endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and targeting Hillel, among other campus groups. Bratman said “the egregious” resolution’s specific reference to Jewish organizations working to support civil discussion and education and citing them for supporting murder and enslavement “is filled with lies” and is an anathema to an academic institution whose mission is to promote research collaboration with other institutions and education.

“It’s an absolute double standard,” he said. “These student groups never propose anything against North Korea, China or Iran, who are egregiously committing crimes against their own people. What we do see is an egregious attack on the one Jewish state. Therefore, it can only be seen as antisemitism. It is like you are saying you are waging a battle against the Jewish people.”

It is just one of many incidents from social media posts to classroom discussions on the Middle East that have taken a threatening turn for Jewish students.

“Faculty members have to be responsible in what they say and do in the classroom,” said Bratman. “They must be fair and balanced and not indoctrinate students. They have the ability to cause harm.”

The law student resolution passed on December 2 has elicited outrage from Jewish groups, staff and alumni and a response from CUNY Chancellor Matos Rodriguez.

“To be clear, CUNY cannot participate in or support BDS activities and is required to divest public funds from any companies that do,” he wrote in a statement. “The resolution also states that CUNY and the CUNY School of Law are complicit in censoring Palestinian solidarity organizations and in committing war crimes against the Palestinian people, a characterization that we completely reject. It also calls on the university to end all academic exchange programs with Israel, which is contrary to a university’s core mission to expose students personally and academically to a world that can be vastly different to their own, particularly through international exchange programs.”

Rodriguez also stressed that the association’s statement does not represent the views of the university and that he believed the best way to expand on work already being done across campuses is “to encourage dialogue, tolerance and civil engagement.” In particular he cited the campus-wide initiative led by the Center for Ethnic, Religious and Racial Understanding at Queens College that trains students to engage in tolerance and civic engagement when dealing with difficult and potentially divisive issues.

However, many in the Jewish community, while welcoming the chancellor’s statement, feel it does not go far enough and the university needs to be more proactive in implementing its own programming and initiatives to counter the rising antisemitism on campus.

“It’s a pro-forma response,” said Dr. Azriel Genack, distinguished professor of physics at Queens College and a leader of the CUNY Alliance for Inclusion (CAFI), a faculty group that seeks to encourage mutual respect and engagement on discussions regarding the Middle East and a university free of harassment.

“He hasn’t taken on the issue of special animosity toward Jews,” Genack told The Jewish Link in a phone conversation. “This year there are many signs that it has gotten much worse.”

CAFI began ramping up in the aftermath of a resolution passed by its Professional Staff Congress this summer calling Israel “a settler colonial state.”

That resolution has prompted the resignation of many professors from the union, and had been condemned by staff, students, politicians and Jewish organizations as antisemitic. About 500 faculty members have signed its statement calling on the university to take a more proactive stance in quashing antisemitism by supporting reasonable engagement on the Middle East, according to Genack.

It comes on the heels of a resolution passed by the CUNY Student Senate in April rejecting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism in favor of one put forward by CUNY Students for Justice in Palestine, CUNY Law Student Government and the Jewish Law Students Association, which is aligned with the Jewish Voice for Peace, which is considered anti-Israel by much of the organized Jewish community.

Anyone, including students, other staff, alumni or concerned individuals, may sign the CAFI statement. CAFI’s mission statement notes: “Watching the latest needless suffering of Palestinians and Israelis, we suffer with them. A just and lasting peace can only emerge by building trust through mutual respect and by recognizing the aspirations of two peoples, both with legitimate claims for a sovereign homeland. We recognize the aspirations of the Palestinian people and we support Israel’s right to exist in peace and to protect its citizens. Denying Israel the right to defend itself from thousands of rockets launched by Hamas is to deny its right to exist.”

Genack said the law students’ action is the latest manifestation of the centuries-old antisemitism cloaked in guise of victimhood.

“Hostility toward Jews has taken many different faces over the centuries,” said Genack. “Its present face is anti-Zionism. … The hostility is expressed through anti-Zionism…This is a deep problem that [the chancellor] needs to address. Right now across our campuses students feel they can’t exist as Jews.”

In particular, students at the law school seem to be threatened if they express support for Israel, said Genack. “The law school seemed to have taken a wrong turn,” he emphasized. “Instead of promoting justice it is promoting injustice.”

Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, a nonpartisan pro-Israel organization dedicated to combating antisemitism, especially on college campuses, praised Rodriguez for condemning the law students’ resolution, calling it “a step in the right direction.” However, in a statement to The Jewish Link, she expressed disappointment he did not condemn the organization’s antisemitic agenda.

“Attacking Jewish organizations and trying to shut down study-abroad programs makes clear that this has nothing to do with human rights, justice or dialogue,” she said. “It is an attempt to isolate the Jewish community on campus, undermine academic freedom and prevent students from traveling to Israel to broaden their education and make up their own minds. We expect that CUNY law and the larger CUNY system will take further steps to address hate within the university as a whole.”

To sign the CAFI statement and learn more about its efforts, go to www.cunystatement.com.

By Debra Rubin

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