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July 18, 2021 7:22 pm

Leaving Union in Protest, Jewish CUNY Faculty Describe ‘Painful,’ ‘Personal’ Aftermath of Statement Condemning Israel

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

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

Weeks after the City University of New York faculty union passed a controversial resolution affirming its “solidarity with Palestine,” Jewish faculty on campus have continued to speak out about the vote’s impact on Jewish and pro-Israel members of the community, describing the pain and anger that followed. 

The June 10 resolution, passed by the public university system’s Professional Staff Congress union (PSC-CUNY), by an 84-34 margin, accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and crimes against humanity.

It also demanded that US President Joe Biden withdraw all US foreign aid to Israel, and called for the union to “facilitate discussions at the chapter level” in the coming months to consider support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Since a June 22 letter of response signed by several dozen Jewish studies faculty, a growing number of Jewish PSC members have left the union in protest.

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“For starters, I’ve never been a fan of union activism on issues that don’t affect faculty welfare,” Steven Greenbaum, a professor of physics at Hunter College, told The Algemeiner. “Now, this is personal.”

Greenbaum submitted his resignation letter to the PSC-CUNY on June 26, and expressed support for the June 22 letter, which argued that in advancing a process toward the endorsing of BDS, the PSC “appeals to freedom of speech only to silence it by advancing a movement that explicitly advocates for academic boycott of Israeli academics and those employed by Israeli institutions.”

Greenbaum is currently completing the process for his resignation to become effective.

“At the present time, you do not represent me,” he wrote in the letter to his union representatives. “My parents were survivors of Auschwitz. I know antisemitism when I see it, despite your tepid denouncement of such added to your resolution as an afterthought.”

“It is abundantly clear that the rising chorus of BDS support has brought on an epidemic of antisemitic violence,” he continued. “I cannot financially support a union that is at odds with my security and that of my Jewish colleagues and students.”

Greenbaum said he knew of at least six Jewish faculty at CUNY colleges who also resigned from the faculty union, which represents over 30,000 faculty and staff.

He argued the union statement had “created a climate of intimidation” for Jewish members of the campus community. “I never expected to feel that way in New York City.”

Leah Garrett, who directs both Hebrew and Jewish Studies and the Jewish Studies Center at Hunter College, submitted her letter of resignation to the PSC on June 22.

She said she viewed the union’s job as protecting workers, and concluded she could no longer support the body financially.

“My concern is the treatment of my Jewish students and faculty at CUNY,” she told The Algemeiner. “This has been a really rough road the past few weeks, and it’s been terribly painful for so many of us as we see that the majority of the union executive committees have voted for a mandate that I think hides a great deal of antisemitism.”

CUNY representatives did not respond to Algemeiner requests for comment.

In early June, in a statement condemning rising antisemitic harassment and violence following the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas, CUNY Chancellor Matos Rodríguez said that the university system “has not been immune to these tensions.”

“It is incumbent on all of us in higher education to commit to examining through our teaching the roots of antisemitism, extremism and hate, and dismantling the many manifestations of bigotry that have emerged and continue to spread,” she said. “Disagreement and discord may be inevitable features of our diverse and heterogeneous society, but hate is never acceptable.”

Other faculty member who have publicly resigned in protest include Jeffrey Lax, a professor at Kingsborough Community College, who claimed to the Jewish Journal that at least 60 others had joined him.

Robert Shapiro, a professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, told The Algemeiner that CUNY was in a “strange environment.”

“I did not expect to find Brooklyn College being listed as some place Jewish faculty and pro-Israel faculty might feel uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s strange and hard to figure out what to do.”

“It’s more complex than simply antisemitism,” he continued. “Its the use of the concept of intersectionality and arguing that if you’re really in favor of justice for your particular group or certain groups you have to be in favor of justice for everybody you feel is discriminated against or has been wronged in a particular way.”

David Brodsky, also a professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, charged the union with engaging in “classic antisemitic rhetoric.”

The PSC resolution had castigated Israel as a “settler colonial state” that has engaged in a “practice of dispossession” since its very establishment.

“Statements like it are indicative of a lack of knowledge of the history of antisemitism and how it plays into depictions of Jews and a Jewish state along the lines they did,” Brodsky told The Algemeiner.

“Most bigots are unaware of their bigotry,” he said. “And most bigots are not intending to be bigoted. Do most of my colleagues tend to be bigoted? No. I don’t think so at all. But I don’t think that stops them from playing into bigotry, antisemitism including.”

He said that the Judaic Studies department had added two courses for the fall semester to answer the resolution with “education and more speech” — one on the history of Zionism, and one called “Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred.” Both will be taught online, by Shapiro.

Several faculty have also discussed hope of fostering a more respectful environment in the coming semester, even if those on opposing sides of the Israeli-Palestinian issue are not likely to bridge the divide between them.

“One of the things I liked about my location at Hunter College was that the various student groups would convene … and you’d have the Hillel group right next to the Palestinian group,” said Greenbaum.

“To me, that’s New York. We coexist,” he said. “I don’t know that we’re ever going to see that again.”

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