May 19, 2024
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May 19, 2024
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The Fight Against Antisemitism at CUNY Causes Debate in Jewish Community

In an effort to deal with the problem of continued antisemitism at the City University of New York (CUNY), those involved in the Jewish community have come to different conclusions about the situation, ways to counter it and how it got to this point.

The university and its 25 campuses have been embroiled in recent years in controversy resulting from activity supporting the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. New York is one of 35 states that require their pension fund to divest from any company that participates in BDS, a movement considered antisemitic by most Jewish organizations and the State Department and that has been overwhelmingly condemned by Congress.

Despite that, the Professional Staff Congress, the faculty’s union, has endorsed the BDS movement prompting six professors, five of whom are Jewish, to resign. Their case seeking to overturn a part of New York’s Taylor Law and allow them to represent themselves in contract negotiations separate from the union was turned down by a lower court but is under appeal in federal court.

The last two commencement addresses at the CUNY School of Law were largely devoted to attacking Israel. The New York State Division of Human Rights launched an investigation in February of the law school over allegations it discriminates against Zionist Jewish and Israeli students because of faculty’s formal support for BDS.

CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez had put out a statement after the law student association voted to endorse BDS, noting it ran contrary to state law and the university could not participate in or support BDS.

There have also been numerous reports of students and staff becoming targets of antisemitism.

In response, CUNY announced several months ago that a virtual portal would be available for reporting antisemitism and discrimination, but some felt it actually may encourage antisemitism by posting a link to the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism (JDA), which critics say contains misleading and false information about Israel.

However, S.A.F.E. CUNY (Students and Faculty for Equality), a nonpartisan organization that advocates for Zionist Jews discriminated against by CUNY and its faculty staff union, had criticized the portal in a tweet, noting the university “outrageously touted” it “as a major step towards addressing antisemitism.”

S.A.F.E. CUNY has also sharply criticized the appointment of Saly Abd Alla, the former director of civil rights for CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) in Minnesota, who is listed on the page as CUNY’s top diversity officer, essentially overseeing the portal.

It has said that four pro-Zionist professors are under investigation by the university because they filed complaints alleging antisemitism and that CUNY is using the JDA as backing. Jeffrey Lax, a professor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn for almost 20 years and founder of S.A.F.E. CUNY, is one of the six involved in the suit seeking to negotiate outside the union. He confirmed that he and Michael Goldstein, an administrator and adjunct business professor at Kingsborough who has long been a target of antisemitic harassment, were two of the four being targeted for dismissal, but he told The Jewish Link the other two were out of the country and he could not reveal their identity without their permission. However, he noted their stories were horrific.

In a tweet acknowledging he was one of the four, Lax wrote: “I said from the very beginning that I may have been the first one they did this to, but I would be FAR from the last. And here we are. 1930s Germany style purge of academia.”

Because the Jerusalem Declaration defends “opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism” and declares BDS and Israel criticism as “not, in and of themselves, antisemitic,” Lax believes it has provided the ammunition for the university to use to get rid of him and the others.

He also cited the composition of the newly established Jewish Advisory Council and claimed that Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and Hillel “were throwing Jews under the bus” by allowing the JDA to be included.

Lax said he is especially upset with Vernikov, who he claimed “has engaged in ad hominem attacks of me and makes fun of me with lies even though it’s known that for eight years I’ve been in this fight for the Jewish people.”

He was uplifted by the many defenders he has online.

Vernikov, a Brooklyn Republican, said in an interview that there was no evidence that attempts were being made to fire Lax or the others. She said Lax repeatedly asks to be included in meetings where only officials are allowed.

She cited her record, pointing out that she negotiated for antisemitism staff training at CUNY and for the portal for reporting antisemitism, among other initiatives, including helping to organize a long hearing last year by the New York Council Committee on Higher Education in which students and staff gave chilling accounts of their experiences. Vernikov also pulled $50,000 in funding from the law school.

“We’re having conversations about a lot of things,” said Vernikov. “I’m speaking to the mayor’s office and one of my topics is CUNY. I’m constantly dealing with this. Just because I’m not yelling and screaming doesn’t mean nothing is being done. I’ve had a lot of follow-up meetings with the chancellor. We need to have a specific person to deal with the complaints [on the portal] and to follow up with those complaints. But these things are not done overnight.”

Ilya Bratman, executive director of Hillel at Baruch College in Manhattan and several other campuses at CUNY and a member of the advisory council, called information coming from S.A.F.E. CUNY implying both he and Hillel don’t fully support Zionist Jews something out of “bizarro world.”

“I am an Orthodox Jew who came here from the former Soviet Union,” he said. “It’s just upsetting that other Jews would go out of their way with such intent and malice to destroy another Jew.”

Bratman also said there was no evidence anyone was being targeted for firing. He defended working with Rodriguez, who he pointed out has signed memorandums of understanding with Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University, visited Israel with 12 CUNY presidents and deans, and plans another mission in the fall to improve the campus climate for Jewish students.

Bratman, who served in the military for eight years and has a combat disability from service in Iraq, asked: “How many of these Israel-haters or these other haters have ever given a drop of blood for this country? I am a Jewish patriot who has given 15 years to the Jewish people. This is why there’s no third Temple and why the Messiah hasn’t come.”

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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