The decision by the City University of New York (CUNY) to enter into an Advisory Council on Jewish Life with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC) and other Jewish leaders is either letting the campuses’ Jewish communities know they are “valued and protected,” an “effective” way to combat antisemitism, or is “gaslighting” them.
The comments are a reflection of the wide divergence of opinion about CUNY’s efforts to stem a wave of antisemitic incidents targeting students, staff and faculty in recent years at some of its 25 campuses, much of it rooted in the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
On May 11, CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez and Foundation to Combat Antisemitism (FCAS) Executive Director Matthew E. Berger hosted a “Paint the University Blue” event at Queens College in partnership with #StandUpToJewishHate, FCAS’s campaign to raise awareness about antisemitism through the wearing of blue squares or posting or sharing its blue square emoji.
It also served as a launch for a social media effort encouraging the campus community to join the campaign. In attendance were students from Queens College Hillel, the New York Board of Rabbis and the JCRC. During the event Rodriguez announced the collaboration with the JCRC on the council. “We will not waver in our dedication to fighting antisemitism, and we want our Jewish students, faculty and staff to know they are valued and protected at our University,” said Rodriquez in a statement.
However, S.A.F.E. CUNY (Students and Faculty for Equality), a non-partisan organization that advocates for Zionist Jews discriminated against by CUNY and its faculty staff union, criticized the collaboration in a statement calling it “demoralizing to observe JCRC allowing itself to be used as a cover for CUNY’s continued systemized antisemitism.”
Jeffrey Lax, an Orthodox professor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn and a founder of S.A.F.E. CUNY, elaborated further on the organization’s response when contacted by the Jewish Link.
He said although S.A.F.E. CUNY has been on the front lines of defending those targeted by antisemitism and challenging antisemitic actions at the university he was taken aback by the fact that the “JCRC walks into a negotiation with CUNY to purportedly address our problems and doesn’t even contact us to ask us what it has been like?”
Additionally, Lax said S.A.F.E. CUNY had sent multiple emails to both the chancellor, the JCRC and others asking to participate in a council designed to address Jewish life on campus, which have all been ignored.
Lax is among the professors who resigned from the university’s Professional Staff Congress (PSC) after the union called Israel “a settler colonial state” and one of six professors in a federal case challenging New York’s Taylor Law, which forces them to be represented by the PSC because they believe the union is hostile toward Jews.
“When our saviors collaborate with our oppressors you know that gaslighting is happening on many levels and through many allies of CUNY who care more about their status than they do about Jewish suffering,” said Lax, adding he was particularly angry about the JCRC’s role in helping CUNY “gaslight” the Jewish campus community.
However, in response to the allegations made by S.A.F.E. CUNY, JCRC Executive Vice President and CEO Gideon Taylor said it believes in “open dialogue and genuine engagement” as effective ways to bring communities together and address antisemitism.
“For many years, JCRC-NY has worked with administrators, faculty members as well as Jewish groups and Jewish individuals across CUNY campuses and some are members of groups and others are not,” he noted in a statement to the Jewish Link. “However, we cannot speak to the membership or agenda of any group we’re not affiliated with, including safecuny (sic).”
Additionally, Taylor said the JCRC “strongly supports” the many educational and logistical measures CUNY has taken for the last several years to combat hate and antisemitism, including anti-Zionism, and said it believes CUNY’s efforts were “sincere” and undertaken “in good faith.”
He noted CUNY officials have joined the JCRC on study tours to Israel and the West Bank, built connections with Israeli academic institutions and learned about the complex realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The challenge now facing CUNY leadership is how to encourage constructive discussions about this issue while ensuring that passionate debate never devolves into overt or veiled forms of antisemitism, the delegitimization of Israel, or the demonization of Jews at CUNY and around the world,” said Taylor, adding that although there is much to be done, the JCRC will continue to work intensely to ensure CUNY would remain a welcoming place for Jewish students and there is “open and appropriate” dialogue surrounding Israel.
S.A.F. E. CUNY took issue, however, with the JCRC taking on its role while the head of discrimination at the university is a BDS activist and former Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) director, where the university’s discrimination portal still lists the “antisemitic, CAIR-endorsed Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism,” and CUNY “has just completed a total expungement of all Jews from its 80-member senior leadership.”
Saly Abd Alla, the former CAIR director of civil rights in Minnesota is listed on the portal’s page as CUNY’s top diversity officer. CAIR has been labeled by critics as an antisemitic group.
Queens College was described by its Hillel executive director, Jenna Citron Schwab, as “sort of an outlier.”
“It is known as sort of unique,” she said. “It is known as a safe, inclusive Jewish community.”
Queens College is one of 40 institutions of higher learning nationally that has participated in Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative, which collaborates with university and college administrators to raise awareness and take action to ensure a positive campus climate for Jewish students free of harassment or marginalization. At 4,000 students, it has the largest Jewish population among CUNY’s campuses and at the “Paint the University Blue” event, blue square pins and stickers were given to students alongside information about what antisemitism is and how to spread awareness.
Students and campus community members were also encouraged to post the blue square emoji on their social media profiles to express their support for the fight against antisemitism. A toolkit has been distributed to all CUNY colleges so that they can join in the effort from across the city.
Citron Schwab said she has a sense that students on campus sometimes feel that others “just don’t know who Jews are.”
She added, “They want to make sure their friends and professors and the campus community knows who they are. Students ultimately want to feel comfortable and accepted on campus and they feel most welcome when Jewish life is welcoming and accepting. Students need to know they have a home at Hillel and have a community to turn to in good times and in bad times.”
In light of the spate of incidents on other campuses Citron Schwab is grateful that Queens College is a bastion of relative calm, but added, “We are all challenged by antisemitism. It scares us very deeply and one of the things we need to consider is that we don’t let it put out the bright light of all the incredible things we do and our students do on our campuses.”
Debra Rubin is a staff writer at The Jewish Link.