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December 2, 2016 2:00 am

Revisiting CUNY’s Flawed Antisemitism Investigation

avatar by Manfred Gerstenfeld and Leah Hagelberg

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CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan. Photo: wiki commons.

CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan. Photo: wiki commons.

The recent official investigation into antisemitism at the City University of New York (CUNY) was so lacking in professionalism that we believe it requires a more focused analysis. This is particularly necessary because antisemitism both in its classic and its anti-Israel forms is also manifesting itself at a number of other American universities.

The CUNY investigation resulted from a lengthy letter of complaint written by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) to CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken and the CUNY Board of Trustees on February 22, 2016. The letter recorded a long list of antisemitic incidents on a variety of CUNY campuses, mainly attributed to the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) activist group. On March 6, 2016, CUNY’s chancellor commissioned an investigation into these allegations. Both of the investigators appointed, Barbara Jones and Paul Shechtman, are lawyers.

Their report was released on September 6, 2016. And it was fatally flawed.

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Firstly, the investigators should have understood that the key to a proper investigation into antisemitic incidents is the use of a well-accepted definition of antisemitism. They did not.

The United States State Department has a working definition of antisemitism, and in May 2016, the US government — together with 30 other Western countries — accepted the working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). This text is largely identical to the State Department definition.

CUNY also has a set of student conduct policies, known as the Henderson Rules. This text should have served as a secondary source for the investigators. The ZOA, in its reaction to the investigators’ report, pointed out that this rule book permitted the university to take disciplinary action against SJP as well as individual students involved in such antisemitic incidents. The investigators did not refer to these rules in their report, which was their second structural mistake.

The university had asked the investigators not to reinvestigate incidents that had already been the subject of scrutiny in the past. The way the investigators handled this, by not discussing in depth these events or even the conclusions of the prior university investigations, led to a third structural deficiency of the report. Without a full inventory of all major antisemitic acts at CUNY, one cannot hope to achieve a realistic picture of the gravity of the situation.

The IHRA definition calls incitement to violence against Jews an act of antisemitism. The CUNY report says that “some may take particular offense at SJP’s calls for intifada.” The investigators should have explained instead that a call for “intifada” is in fact a direct call for violence, and therefore is explicitly antisemitic — and that it also compromises the safety of students against whom it is directed. The investigators, however, claimed that “CUNY cannot ban the word, no matter how much they regret its use.”

Another trap into which the investigators fell was their use of false moral equivalence. One example of this is when the report points out that Jewish campus group Hillel does not allow partnership with organizations, groups or speakers that deny Israel’s right to exist. In other words, Hillel does not partner with antisemites as defined by the IHRA definition. The investigators equate Hillel’s attitude with that of SJP, which refuses to collaborate with any organization that does not denounce Israel. In addition, SJP has also been accused of ostracizing and threatening others groups, as well as calling for violence against Jews and Israelis in the form of intifada. Hillel, of course, does no such thing.

The main importance of the CUNY investigation is that its structural flaws and factual failures can guide future requests and reports on antisemitism on college campuses, as well as elsewhere. Maximum exposure of this great failure may prevent further botched investigations.

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