May 26, 2024
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CUNY Slammed for Antisemitism

At a seven-hour hearing with no breaks, students at the City University of New York (CUNY) told harrowing tales of being subjected to antisemitic harassment by fellow students and faculty—in some cases opting to go virtual for their own safety—and of faculty resigning from a professional staff union because of its anti-Israel stance, and even being forced out of the university itself. These incidents were presented during testimony regarding CUNY’s treatment of Jewish students and faculty at a hearing of the New York Council Committee on Higher Education.

During the hearing last Thursday, “Examining Antisemitism on College Campuses,” the university was lambasted by the committee for its lack of action in protecting Jews on its 25 campuses but was particularly irked by the failure of Chancellor Félix Matos Rodriguez to attend the June 30 hearing after a previous hearing was canceled when he told them he had a scheduling conflict.

Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, a member of the higher education committee and council’s Jewish caucus representing District 48 in Brooklyn, noted, “Antisemitism at CUNY has been pervasive” and questioned why “the chancellor of CUNY, the top guy, the man in charge under whose guidance this antisemitism takes place” failed to appear. She termed the call received the previous evening informing the committee he would not appear “cowardly.”

“Him not showing up shows us he doesn’t care about the painful trauma you experienced,” said Vernikov. She added that if this had happened to any other minority group, Rodriguez “would never get away with not showing up.”

However, three administrators did appear via Zoom and were grilled during the first half of the hearing: Glenda Grace, senior vice chancellor for institutional affairs, strategic advancement and special counsel; Robin Garrell, president of the CUNY Graduate Center; and Denise Maybank, vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment.

The hearing was called in response to a rising tide of antisemitic incidents at CUNY, including the CUNY School of Law’s student government and faculty endorsement of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel and the law school’s student commencement speaker’s address devoted to criticizing Zionists and Israel.

That commencement speaker, Nerdeen Kiswani, was named in 2020 as “Antisemite of the Year” by stopantisemitism.org. and has posted on Instagram and taken down photos of herself with known terrorists. She is founder and director of Within Our Lifetime, a New York City anti-Israel activist group that was banned from Instagram for violence-inciting hate speech and where she has glorified the Intifada. As a result, Vernikov has also pulled $50,000 in discretionary funding earmarked for the CUNY Law School.

Councilman Eric Dinowitz, representing the Bronx’s 11th District and chair of the higher education committee and Jewish caucus, related statistics about the rise of antisemitic hate within the city and across the country coming from the progressive left, scapegoating Jews under the guise of social justice using classic antisemitic tropes of wealth and power and conflating the Israeli-Palestinian situation with Jews, and the “replacement theory” of the far right that Jews are conspiring to bring in non-White people to the United States to replace Whites.

“No one is born with hate in their heart,” said Dinowitz. “It must be learned and given safe spaces and college campuses are that safe space.”

He highlighted incidents where some of the victims were too afraid to appear virtually or in person, of a group praying mincha being called a “dirty Jews” by a passing student, religious males covering up their kippahs with baseball caps, calls for Jews to be murdered, references to Hitler and swastikas being drawn and questioned the lack of response from the administration. He requested the university provide data on such incidents within 60 days.

The committee also requested the university adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which is a non-legally binding resolution adopted by its 31 member countries, including the United States, in 2016, which states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and cites several examples, including the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.

Numerous students and faculty appeared live or in person to testify, along with leaders of Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Zioness and AMCHA, which documents antisemitic incidents on American campuses.

Councilman Kalman Yeger representing the 44th District in Brooklyn said he and many family members had attended Brooklyn College but CUNY has since become “a bastion of antisemitism” where Jewish student lives and safety were being jeopardized through the actions of certain BDS supporters using Israel to cover up their “vehement” antisemitism.

Throughout the hearing there was talk of intimidation by groups, particularly Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), toward other student groups that has led to Jewish organizations such as Hillel being iced out of campus activities. SJP has also interrupted Jewish activities.

Grace said as an institution of higher learning CUNY “takes pride” in promoting free speech and academic freedom and when pressed on the issue noted, “CUNY unequivocally denounces antisemitism,” and that positions taken by student government organizations or faculty unions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the campus leadership or policy. She made a point of noting that Rodriguez had put out a statement after the law school student resolution that BDS is contrary to state law, which requires divestment from any company refusing to do business in Israel.

The CUNY Professional Staff Congress (PSC) passed a resolution calling Israel “a settler colonial state,” prompting the resignation of up to 300 of its members. Vernikov questioned PSC president James Davis, who testified virtually, on whether the union had ever passed a resolution condemning another country besides Israel for human rights abuses, including Iran, North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia. The only definite affirmative answer she got was for Russia.

Yeger criticized the PSC for singling out Israel for allegedly practicing apartheid, which Davis called a “reasonable inference” based on a report from Human Rights Watch issued last year that has been rejected by the U.S. State Department.

Yeger said over the last year it has become more “dangerous” for Jewish students at CUNY and asked Davis, “Do you think it makes it safe for CUNY students when teachers are calling Israel an apartheid state?”

By Debra Rubin

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