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June 24, 2021 11:05 am
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Why I Resigned From the Professional Staff Congress (PSC)-CUNY

avatar by A. Jay Adler

Opinion

The B. Altman & Company Building housing the City University of New York Graduate Center in New York City. Photo: Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia.

I am an ardent, lifelong supporter of organized labor. In the past, I served on the executive board and two contract negotiating teams for the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild. In recent years, I have focused on other areas and done other work — so during my five years teaching as an adjunct in the English department at Queens College, CUNY, my participation in the City University of New York’s Professional Staff Congress (PSC) has been limited to membership and reading union communications (many of which over the past couple of years concerned contract negotiations and the COVID-19 pandemic).

I first learned of the PSC’s so-called “Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People” on the very day, June 10, that the union’s delegate assembly was scheduled to vote on it. Like much American campus activity that is part of the  malign campaign against Israel, it was a stealth act. Not primarily the supportive statement it labels itself to be, the resolution is really a malicious attack on the moral legitimacy and character of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people

News of the resolution came to me from an email blast, not by the PSC but rather from CUNY Rank and File Action (RAFA), a more radical, often dissident faction of PSC members.

RAFA, along with CUNY for Palestine and other, smaller groups, is leading the anti-Israel campaign within CUNY — which is aiming for a further BDS resolution in 2022, CUNY divestment from Israel, and a break in ties between the AFL-CIO and Histadrut, the Israeli General Federation of Labor.

According to Left Voice, a news service self-described as “part of the Trotskyist Faction” of the Fourth International, the resolution effort originated within PSC’s “anti-racist committee, international committee, and academic freedom committee.” All four principals of the PSC, including its president, newly installed after the retirement of 20-year leadership, voted against the much-amended-for-stridency final resolution, but it is instructive that they had been willing, according to Left Voice, to support language condemning the “massacre of Palestinians” by Israel.

The resolution passed by a wide margin, 84-34. When I finally read the resolution on June 14, after an email to the PSC membership from its new president, James Davis, announcing its passage, I composed and submitted the following resignation.

June 15, 2021

James Davis, President
Professional Staff Congress
61 Broadway, 15th Floor
New York, NY 10006

Dear President Davis:

I have read the text of the PSC’s Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People of June 10, 2021. I find it to be a remarkably one-sided, deceptive, and prejudicial account of the recent and broader historical conflict between the, now, State of Israel and the Palestinian people. It is offensive not only on a human level, but also a scholarly, historical level, so much so that I cannot in good conscience remain a member of an organization that chooses to represent itself, and me, in this manner. Accordingly, I am terminating my membership in the City University of New York Professional Staff Congress.

I will state, to begin, my lifelong support of two states for two peoples and my long opposition to the Israeli West-Bank settlement program. I state this opposition neither to curry favor with those against whom I argue nor with any concern that it may diminish my objections. Rather, I seek to make clear my own fundamental political position, against any distortion, and out of respect for the truth. I hold these positions in commitment to true peace and justice, justice that upholds the rights of both peoples, denigrates neither, and seeks practical solutions to real-world conflict. These are particularly important values for non-participants to the conflict.

You have written in your email message to the membership announcing passage of the Resolution that you “honor the diverse viewpoints and experiences of PSC members and will pursue constructive discussions,” but this resolution does not show that to be true. Indeed, there not only are “diverse viewpoints,” but also passions on this subject, easily stoked and indulged, and it is because people feel these passions for their commitments that they must also be committed to principles, and even to the idea that there are reliable and universal bases on which to arrive at principles. This is a commitment unfortunately under great challenge now, on the extreme political right and left.

I will address here only two points in the Resolution.

First, it refers to Israel as a “settler colonial state.” This is quite simply and literally false. It is also an antisemitic slander. Israel is the indigenous homeland of the Jewish people and has been for over 2500 years. It is the originating soil of the Jewish people, and along with the widespread, nearly two-thousand-year Jewish diaspora that followed oppressive conquest and what we would now call ethnic cleansing, there has been a continuous Jewish presence on the land all that time. There is overwhelming historical, cultural, and biological evidence of this connection. It is indisputable, except as malicious propaganda. The United States, in contrary example, along with the rest of the Western Hemisphere states, and states beyond, is a settler colonial state. Israel is not.

To call Israel a settler colonial state is not “criticism of Israel.” It is to deny a fundamental element of Jewish identity and is thus an attack on Jews, not only Israel. It is the latest in a line of antisemitic slanders that have sought to question the integrity of Jewish identity, from referring to Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans,” to denigrating those Jews who are citizens of other nations as “fifth columnists” or “Israel-firsters,” to claiming that Ashkenazi Jews are not really Jews at all but descendants of Khazars.

All of these calumnies seek to destabilize Jewish identity, to untether it from any national ground, to render Jews essentially and vulnerably diasporic, indeed rootless, in all places at all times. To participate in this antisemitic history is not progressive. For people to seek to shield themselves from charges of antisemitism, as do the framers of the Resolution, by declaring that they oppose antisemitism — apropos of nothing but the declaration — and to further define for themselves what is and what is not antisemitism is transparent sophistry. If, to cite Samuel Johnson, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” then the redefinition of words is the first resort of the totalitarian.

But the offenses of the Resolution are not only conceptual.

The resolution also engages in the most blatant misrepresentation of facts. To engage just one, the second clause begins, “Whereas, beginning on May 15, 2021, the escalating violence against Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Gaza killed hundreds of Palestinians….” This is a curious choice of date to begin, as the resolution so states, as there was violence during this most recent conflict before that date that thus goes unmentioned in the Resolution. In fact, only three days earlier, on May 12, Hamas fired over 1000 untargeted rockets at Israel — rocket attacks that killed 8 Israelis…

You should be feeling discomfort right now something like embarrassment.

The resolution is propaganda and distortion, displaying no regard whatsoever for facts, let alone truth. It aims not to resolve conflict, but to exploit a tragic conflict of two peoples that is independent of American social history to the purposes of a domestic ideological agenda. It isn’t worthy of further comment beyond this one: it is the product of an academic faculty union. The intellectual and scholarly principles it betrays are too sad, in this light, to list. At a time when the forces of illiberal cultural reaction daily and frightfully threaten American democracy, what might pass for progressivism, in salutary response, deserves far better representation than this.

I terminate my membership in the PSC with great regret. Raised in a union family, I have been an advocate of organized labor all my life. Indeed, my father, a refugee from pogroms and famine in Ukraine, who operated a sewing machine stitching furs in the garment district of Manhattan for forty years, was an ardent union member before me. Those who know their union history will recall that garment workers unions of the 1920s and 30s were riven with dissension over the influence of the Soviet-directed CPUSA, none more so than the furriers’ unions. Many in those days — many Jews — considered the CPUSA and the Soviet Union itself to be progressive. There is a record of the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews and its progressivism. One can look it up.

Sincerely yours,

A. Jay Adler
Adjunct Professor of English
Queens College, City University of New York
Professor of English, Emeritus, Los Angeles Southwest College

The limited scope of my letter was purposeful, addressing the two primary tactics of the anti-Israel campaign: delegitimization and factual distortion. The latter typically employs an argumentative technique known as the Gish Gallup, which consists of overwhelming opponents with waves of distortion and inaccuracy, so much so that respondents may hardly know where to begin in responding — or, more to the point, returning intellectual clarity and order to a discussion in which any vision of a possible truth may have been lost for the audience.

A long, complex history such as that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ripe for sowing this kind of confusion. Indeed, anti-Israel campaigners have developed a meme that is now sweeping across their political landscape, a new corollary tactic employed to capitalize on Gish Gallup confusion — dismissal of any assertion that the conflict is “complicated.” It isn’t complicated, they argue. It’s simple, simple as the self-affirming clarity and virtue of sweeping moral judgment.

The first of the two tactics also employs confusion. It confuses the sense that persistent and ongoing dispute in public discussion is over the terms of any possible future resolution to the conflict. These are the sorts of details and points of difference that preoccupy negotiators and developers of peace plans — and the aggrieved parties to a conflict who may actually be trying to achieve an end to grievance. But the forces of this international campaign, reflected in the PSC resolution, are not engaged in this kind of debate. The only resolution for them is the delegitimization of Israel, in a fundamental challenge to its right to exist as a Jewish state. That is what the persistent charge that Israel is a “settler colonial” state is about. I have analyzed this challenge in depth previously for SPME, in “Academic Boycotts and Re-Colonization by Theory.”

This is really the most disingenuous and reprehensible truth about resolutions such as that of the PSC, and of the campaigners behind it, especially acting as non-participants to the conflict: it is their disguised intent not actually to resolve but rather to perpetuate the conflict, with the goal of victory for one side. I addressed this contradiction between professed values and practical goals, in “The ‘Peace and Justice’ Charade.”

I and others have been urged to continue speaking out, from within the union. But why was there not adequate opportunity to do that before the resolution was passed? We are not, I am also told, alone in the union membership across CUNY. If that hopeful message is true, then those sympathizers need to begin to speak out themselves, openly, loudly, and forcefully — because for now, clearly, the activating passion, as is often so, is on the wrong side.

There is a concurrent public petition and a range of CUNY-related organizations involved, with efforts ongoing. Opponents of the resolution seem now in the very defensive position of trying to ward off BDS, and this current awful resolution under current circumstances seems bound to stand for some time to come as the expression of the faculty union of the largest urban university system in the country.

It is hard to speak out now. The favored rhetorical pose among political contestants these days, across all spectra, is to claim, amid dominant forces, to be beleaguered in their free speech. Some of these claims are actually true, and some of them, conflicting, can be true at the same time. It is true that in American universities in 2021, it is hard to speak out in support of Israel. It is especially hard to be liberal or progressive and speak in support of Israel because the prevailing winds blow otherwise. One will be met with judgments that challenge one’s liberal commitments and progressive vision. One may be led to question one’s personal virtue in a political geography in which social virtue is the mountain all clamber to ascend. The internally felt pressure to stay quiet and keep one’s head down is always great. There is nothing new about that.

Overcoming that pressure is once again part of the struggle.

The author is Adjunct Professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York, and Professor of English, Emeritus, Los Angeles Southwest College.

A version of this article was first published by SPME.

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