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June 3, 2022 2:07 pm

New York City Council Announces Investigation of Antisemitism at CUNY

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

CUNY School of Law in New York City. Photo: Evulaj90 / Wikimedia Commons.

The City University of New York (CUNY) will be the focus of New York City Council’s recently announced investigation of antisemitism in higher education.

The body’s Council on Higher Education Committee will begin hearings to assess reports of widespread antisemitism in the university system on June 8, the New York Post reported. The news comes just several days after City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov disappropriated $50,000 of funding for CUNY Law School over its vote to endorse the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, which denies Jews the right to self-determination and aims to isolate Israel from the world community with cultural, economic, and political boycotts.

“The embracement and normalization of BDS by both CUNY students and faculty has fostered an extremely hostile campus environment that has resulted in the more blatant forms of antisemitism that are becoming all too common in our city,” NYC Councilman Eric Dinowitz told the Post on Tuesday.

He continued, “It is crucial for the Council to ensure that our CUNY system, a national model for higher education, does not descend into singling out of the only Jewish state in the world, and in turn, ostracize Jewish students and residents.”

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Jewish CUNY faculty and staff’s calls for action on antisemitism at CUNY grew louder last June, after the school’s Professional Staff Congress union (PSC-CUNY) union passed, during Operation Guardian of the Walls, a resolution in support of BDS and accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and crimes against humanity. The measure prompted a mass resignation of the union’s Jewish members, who felt that its one-sided opinion on a complex political issue signaled that PSC CUNY no longer represented them.

“For starters, I’ve never been a fan of activism on issues that don’t affect faculty welfare,” Steven Greenbaum, a professor of physics at Hunter College who submitted his resignation letter to PSC-CUNY on June 26, told The Algemeiner last July. “Now this is personal.”

“At the present time, you do not represent me,” Greenbaum said in his letter. “My parents were survivors of Auschwitz. I know antisemitism when I see it.”

Leah Garrett, director of both Hebrew and Jewish Studies and Jewish Studies Center at Hunter College, also resigned from the union. She expressed concern for “the treatment of my Jewish students and faculty at CUNY” and said it was “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.”

The CUNY PSC resolution led to the formation of two new nonpartisan groups at CUNY, Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY (S.A.F.E. CUNY) and CUNY Alliance for Inclusion (CAFI), both of which began a campaign to counter extreme anti-Israel sentiment and improve the campus climate for Zionists and observant Jews. They also have each organized resignations from the union.

Several months after the episode, in December, the CUNY Law Student Government Association (LSAG) passed a resolution demanding an end to CUNY’s exchange programs in Israel, claiming that partnerships with Israeli researchers and institutions made the university “complicit” in alleged war crimes committed by Israel. LSAG also condemned Hillel, Bulldogs for Israel, and other CUNY student organizations for their support of the Jewish state.

At the time, CAFI said the measure was “a wholesale offensive maligning and attacking of Jewish student groups and programs, as well as faculty research collaborations with a host of universities and corporations, attempting to shame such groups by name.”

When CUNY Law faculty endorsed that same resolution last month, the decision was touted in a commencement speech by Nerdeen Kiswani, an anti-Israel activist named StopAntisemitism’s 2020 “Antisemite of the Year,” prompting SAFE to denounce CUNY for allowing the “honoring of a Jew-hating bigot who has called for violence to Jews” and note that rising antisemitism in the university system is making “Jews at CUNY unsafe.”

CUNY Chancellor Matos Rodríguez has repeatedly rejected calls for BDS and said on Monday that “scholarship, dialogue, tolerance, and civil engagement” can “counter the violence, hate, antisemitism, and racism that can creep into our campuses, our country and the world.”

Despite the chancellor’s numerous statements, reports alleging maltreatment of Jewish faculty and students have poured out of CUNY all academic year, drawing concern from legal groups and government agencies.

In February, the Office of Civil Rights began an official civil rights investigation of complaints that Jews enrolled in Brooklyn College’s Mental Health Counseling master’s program were browbeaten into denying their heritage and identifying as white. One student’s grudge against Jews was so acute that she admitted in a WhatsApp group chat to fantasizing about strangling a Jewish classmate, an anonymous student told The Algemeiner in February.

“This happened after the student was told by the professor that she should get her whiteness in check,” they said. “I stood up for her because I didn’t feel it was correct to say anyone was going to get strangled and I thought that was extreme. So, I tried to stick up for her, and because I did, I was told that I’m just white privileged and should be quiet.”

In another incident, a professor told a Jewish student to “get her whiteness in check” and Jewish students were booted from a class discussion on social justice.

The complaints revealed “pervasive antisemitic harassment and bias,” the Louis D. Brandeis Center wrote in a letter to the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

“Jewish students who challenged these divisive narratives or shared their distress about the anti-Jewish hostility in the MCH program were met with further harassment and intimidation from faculty and administrators, who to students to…’keep your head down’ rather than challenge the status quo,” the Brandeis Center wrote.

OCR’s investigation of Brooklyn College MCH is ongoing.

Also, in November, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found “reasonable cause” to determine that Jeffrey Lax, an “Observant and Zionist” Jew was excluded from a faculty group because of his heritage. Lax’s civil rights complaint described multiple times when Kingsborough Community College’s Progressive Faculty Caucus (PFC) deliberately scheduled meetings on Shabbat to prevent him and other observant Jews from being there.

In an email to The Algemeiner on Friday, a CUNY spokesperson maintained that anti-Israel activists and others accused of antisemitism “speak for themselves and their opinions do not represent the views of the university or the CUNY community as a whole.”

He continued, “We hope that our elected officials base decisions about public fund allocation on the needs of the community and on the efficiency of agencies entrusted in managing those funds for the public good.”

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