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February 21, 2022 5:10 pm
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‘We Can’t Shut Off One of Our Identities’: Jewish SUNY Students Decry ‘Exclusion’ From Sexual Assault Awareness Group Over Zionism

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

The Old Main at SUNY New Paltz in New Paltz, New York. Photo: crz4mets2 via Wikimedia Commons

Jewish students at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz have called for the administration to take action after Jewish members of a sexual assault awareness group were excluded for supporting Israel, decrying it as a “pure and simple” act of antisemitism.

Earlier this month, third-year student Cassandra Blotner was told to leave New Paltz Accountability (NPA), a group she co-founded, over a pro-Israel social media post, the New Paltz Oracle first reported. Another third-year student, Ofek Preis, left NPA after facing pressure over her support for Israel and when the group resisted meeting with the New Paltz Jewish Student Union.

The episode has sparked a contested debate on campus, with the university initially telling The Algemeiner it was taking the episode “seriously” and calling on student organizations to practice inclusivity.

SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian went further on Thursday, noting that “excluding any campus member from institutional events and activities on the basis of differing viewpoints on such matters is a traditionally defined form of antisemitism.”

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“Any such exclusion … is incompatible with our campus values and the learning and inclusion goals of a public university like ours,” Christian said in a statement.

Speaking to The Algemeiner on Thursday, Blotner and Preis both emphasized that advocacy against sexual violence on campus was too important to fall prey to divisions over support for Israel.

“The idea of an anti-Zionist sexual assault club and a Zionist sexual assault club doesn’t make sense,” Preis said. “Everyone in the student body is going to be split on, ‘do we fight sexual violence with these people or with these people?’ The whole point was that all survivors and all people who support the cause should be able to participate together.”

“We can’t just shut off one of our identities,” Blotner added. “We’re both always going to be survivors, and we’re always going to be proud to be Jewish and Zionist, and I just wish people weren’t trying to make us choose between one or the other.”

Blotner revealed that sharing her story had exposed her to cyberbullying and threats on an anonymous social media platform, and called on the administration to do more to “stick up” for the pair.

“I don’t want people to see what happened to us and then be afraid to express that they’re Jewish and that they’re a Zionist, or that they’re Israeli,” Blotner said. “I’m not going to stop posting my opinion on that, I’m not going to start hiding the fact that I’m Jewish — it’s my favorite thing about myself.”

The episode has also underlined the need for further conversations around antisemitism and how students define their Jewish identities, both agreed.

“The student body on our campus needed to be more conscientious of their own bias, of how they mistreated the survivorship aspect of it. And then the university needed to be conscientious of their bias in how they spoke about anti-Zionism,” Preis said. “It was like a big lesson of how much we’re all still learning, and we need to keep learning and keep educating ourselves and also take these opportunities as a chance to educate others.”

A student-led group that advocates stronger policies against sexual abuse on campus, the NPA has issued a pointed response to its critics — defending the exclusion of pro-Israel members as part of a stance against “all forms of oppression and exploitation.”

In Wednesday’s statement, SUNY New Paltz President Christian said that NPA was not recognized as an official campus organization, “which limits the College’s ability to respond to their actions.”

“If the group were [Student Association]-recognized, we would have additional options for holding them to the higher standards we expect of all sanctioned student organizations,” Christian maintained.

The campus discussion continued with an open letter by the Jewish Student Union (JSU) appearing in the Oracle on Thursday, which recounted the exclusion of Blotner and Preis for their “unapologetic Zionism.”

“We will not mince words: this was an act of antisemitism, pure and simple, and the members of NPA should be ashamed of themselves and held fully accountable,” the JSU said.

The JSU rejected an earlier Feb. 11 statement by President Christian, which said the administration was still looking into the situation and weighing next steps.

“Nothing about this situation is ‘complex.’ Nor was this a case of mere ‘bias’ – this was visceral hatred directed at a person solely because of their identity,” the JSU wrote. “The opaquely antisemitic often use anti-Zionism as a supposedly acceptable way to cover their Jew hatred. It is not acceptable. We, the SUNY New Paltz community, have allowed this cancerous rhetoric to spread, unchallenged.”

Continued the letter, “Open up a dialogue with your Jewish neighbors, classmates, and peers. Learn about Judaism and what it means to be Jewish from those who know best. Learn just how ingrained antisemitism is in our campus community and country, and work to rid yourself of it. We need you to learn, and to act — our lives depend on it.”

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