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June 30, 2022 6:03 pm
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New York City Council Members Grill CUNY Officials on ‘Pervasive’ Campus Antisemitism in Hearing

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

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

The New York City Council held a hearing Thursday on antisemitism at the City University of New York (CUNY), with members pressing school officials on steps to support Jewish students, their position on efforts to boycott Israel, and the absence of CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez.

The Committee of Higher Education hearing, “Examining Antisemitism on College Campuses,” was called weeks after CUNY School of Law faculty endorsed a student government resolution backing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

The session was previously set for June 8 but postponed at Matos Rodríguez’s request due to scheduling conflicts. Committee members said Thursday they were told at the last minute that the chancellor would miss the new date, and that several school officials would instead appear virtually.

Committee chair Eric Dinowitz, a Democrat representing the Northwest Bronx, called the problem of antisemitism at CUNY “pervasive,” and said he was “deeply disappointed” at Matos Rodríguez’s failure to appear.

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Council Member Inna Vernikov — a South Brooklyn Republican who earlier this month disappropriated $50,000 of funding for CUNY Law School over the BDS vote — said that antisemitism had “infested” many of CUNY’s 26 campuses across the city, with Jewish students and professors feeling “harassed, intimidated, [and] afraid to express their viewpoints.”

She similarly criticized the top administrator’s no-show, saying, “instead, he sent three witnesses who are here on Zoom, they’re not even here in this room to listen to the painful testimony of the professors and the students who have experienced pervasive, ongoing, discrimination and antisemitism at school.”

Matos Rodriguez has previously rejected the law student government BDS resolution and its endorsement by the law faculty, calling an academic boycott of Israel “contrary to a university’s core mission.”

Asked about the chancellor’s absence Thursday, a CUNY spokesperson told The Algemeiner, “Making sure everyone feels safe and protected at our campuses is a top priority at CUNY, which is arguably the nation’s most diverse university system and attracts people of all backgrounds and nationalities. CUNY leadership was pleased to testify today about the University’s ongoing efforts to combat antisemitism, violence, hate, racism and intolerance of any kind on our campuses, in our country and in the world.”

“CUNY is committed to fostering an environment where all faculty, staff and students can work, teach and learn free from any form of discrimination,” the spokesperson said.

During the proceedings, which were also broadcast online, Council members including Dinowitz, Vernikov and Kalman Yeger (District 44-D) questioned CUNY Vice Chancellors Glenda Grace and Denise Maybank on a range of issues facing Jewish students and faculty at the public university system. The past year has seen a federal civil rights inquiry into complaints of antisemitic harassment at Brooklyn College, a federal finding that a Jewish Kingsborough Community College professor faced religious discrimination, and a law school commencement address delivered by a speaker who has condoned violence against Israelis.

Grace emphasized that while CUNY student and faculty groups were free to voice their own opinions, they did not represent the university system’s views when doing so. She also said that CUNY does not support the BDS movement and is prohibited from engaging in BDS activities, per state law, and described resources available for students or faculty facing discrimination or harassment.

In one exchange, Vernikov pressed Grace to go further and explicitly “denounce” the BDS movement.

“We’ve made a number of statements about BDS,” Grace said. “We can’t have a yes or no, I’m assuming that you’re going to draw whatever conclusion you have.”

“Yeah, I’m going to draw the conclusion that since you can’t say that CUNY will denounce BDS, you do not,” responded Vernikov.

Continued Grace, “Look this is the one thing— we don’t believe in it. We think it’s wrong. We can’t engage in it. That to me is denouncing, but if that’s not denouncing to you, we disagree.”

An array of students, experts, and representatives of Jewish groups also testified at the hearing, which lasted more than 6 hours.

One witness, Ofek Preis — a State University of New York (SUNY)-New Paltz student who this year was pressured to leave a sexual assault awareness group over her support for Israel — told The Algemeiner that school officials should receive sensitivity training in antisemitism.

“Without this training and without denouncing anti-Zionism and BDS-related organizations, we enable so much hostility in the American higher education system, a hostility that targets and isolates individuals and doesn’t promote justice,” Preis said by phone after her testimony, adding that she was not fully satisfied with the responses of CUNY officials.

“The representatives giving answers showed a lack of knowledge and education about antisemitism. They do not have a well-versed education of the identity and personhood of Zionism in our religion, nor the core beliefs that many believe are synonymous with Zionism and our religion,” she continued.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative, said that her organization had logged more than 150 antisemitic incidents on 11 CUNY campuses since 2015, including 60 involving acts directly targeting Jewish students for harm.

Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY, a group opposing “exclusion and discrimination” against Jews and Zionists on campus, criticized the CUNY administration for “[refusing] to admit that Zionistic religious beliefs or ethnic connections are protected at the university,” in a statement to The Algemeiner.

Exchanges between Council members and witnesses were mostly cordial, if at times fraught, but a palpable tension filled the room when Brooklyn councilman Charles Barron — a former member of the Black Panther Party whom the Anti-Defamation League has flagged for affiliating with hate groups — took the floor to condemn Israel as a “terrorist state” and deny accusations of antisemitism going back years.

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