May 28, 2024
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NYC Council Holds Hearing on Antisemitism at CUNY

The chair of the New York City Council’s Jewish Caucus introduced a resolution this week pushing the City University of New York (CUNY) to keep statistics about acts of antisemitism and other bias incidents and develop educational programming to counter them. The introduction was made at a hearing, scheduled by the council’s higher education committee, by Councilman Eric Dinowitz.

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, 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.

In a phone interview with The Jewish Link, Dinowitz said he wanted to find a framework to identify and address the problem.

“We are not going to solve the problem by yelling louder than somebody else,” he said. “It’s not a question about a particular speech or person. It’s about systemic issues that allow antisemitism to be practiced on our college campuses. When we see that antisemitism at CUNY or throughout the country exists, we have to make sure it is identified and proactively addressed.”

The hearing featured students, faculty and Jewish organizations, including Hillel and StandWithUS. Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, also a member of the higher education committee and Jewish caucus, said she approached Dinowitz months ago about holding such a hearing after the law school’s faculty endorsement of BDS. A previous hearing scheduled for June 8 was postponed because CUNY’s chancellor, Felix Matos Rodriguez, had a scheduling conflict.

“Basically our goal is to expose and bring about necessary changes,” she said in a phone interview. “We are looking for real action from CUNY in general, not just the law school.”

Rodriquez had put out a statement after the law student association’s pro-BDS vote that noted it ran contrary to state law.

“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.

Dinowitz, a Democrat representing District 11 in the Bronx, and Vernikov, a Republican representing District 48 in Brooklyn, both said they were saddened but not surprised by the incidents of antisemitism at CUNY.

“I am heartbroken every time there is antisemitism and Jewish hate crimes,” Dinowitz said, adding that it comes from the far extremes of the political spectrum, masked on the left as social justice, while on the right, hatred of Jews is embedded as part of its philosophy. He emphasized the mainstream of both parties are supportive of Israel and the Jewish people.

“What is shocking is that college is a place where people are supposed to be able to debate ideas, but students are facing harassment for their positions on Israel or their perceived position on Israel because of their religious identity,” he noted.

Vernikov said the unanimous law school faculty vote to support BDS is particularly troubling because it creates the illusion that the institution supports BDS.

“We are wondering how this plays out in reality,” she said, “Does this mean students from Israel cannot attend? Does it mean a professor from CUNY law school cannot teach if he or she supports Zionism? I believe it is ripe for a lawsuit against CUNY School of Law unless the law school states unequivocally it accepts students from Israel and accepts professors who support Israel.”

It is believed CUNY has the only law faculty in the country that has voted to support BDS.

Vernikov said she feels “very passionate” about the issue personally and the large number of Russian-American and Orthodox Jews in her district have let her know they want action taken.

In response to the faculty vote, she pulled $50,000 in discretionary funding earmarked to the CUNY Law School.

“We have some recommendations on what we’d like them to do, “ said Vernikov. “We are looking for real action from CUNY, and not just in the law school.”

Dinowitz, a former special education teacher whose students were virtually all minority, said he has long spoken about the value of education and bridging gaps between communities. His own teaching experience taught him the importance of developing an understanding of other cultures.

“I’m looking to explore bridges between communities,” said Dinowitz. “It’s important to build those bridges so we can have conversations without the vitriol that so often permeates our conversations.”

However, his concern revolves around the inherent motivation behind conversations centered around social and emotional justice.

“We can have those conversations about certain disagreement, but is the underlying cause antisemitism?” he questioned. “Certainly, facts are very challenging for some people.” While he said there is always room for debate on policy, “It is when you ignore facts and history that it becomes very difficult to engage in meaningful dialogue with people. Then it becomes something else.”

By Debra Rubin

 

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