The City University of New York’s response to a series of anti-Semitic incidents on its campuses – to date it has asked for recommendations from outside counsel and set up a “working group” and a “task force” – is tepid and inadequate, according to several critics.
CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken announced the public university system’s plan after receiving letters from the New York City Council’s Jewish Caucus and from the Zionist Organization of America. The latter, a 6,000-word missive detailing more than a dozen separate anti-Semitic incidents, describes events at Hunter College, Brooklyn College, College of Staten Island, and John Jay College.
To cite one of its most incriminating examples, the ZOA letter describes a November 2015 rally at Hunter College, ostensibly campaigning for free public college tuition and the cancellation of student debt. At the rally, protesters held signs stating “Boycott Israel” and “Zionists out of CUNY,” and Jewish students at the rally were greeted with calls of “Zionists go home!” “Zionists out of CUNY!” “Jews out of CUNY!” “Get out of America!” and “We should drag the Zionist down the street!” Many of these were recorded on video.
In February at Brooklyn College, a group of students interrupted a Faculty Council meeting and made demands regarding tuition and campus diversity. Soon, though, they were chanting “Zionists off campus!” When the chair of the Council, a yarmulke-wearing computer science professor, told them they were out of order, they called him a “Zionist pig.”
These are just two of the many examples of anti-Semitism on the four CUNY campuses included in the ZOA letter. (The entire letter can be found on the organization’s website, www.zoa.org). Videos of a number of the incidents have been posted online and several have been widely reported in Jewish and mainstream media.
Several critics have pointed to a national student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), as the instigator in most of these cases and as a group that has fomented an often vicious anti-Semitic climate at colleges and universities across the country.
The rally at Hunter was partially organized by SJP, which, in advertising the event on Facebook, wrote, “The Zionist administration invests in Israeli companies, companies that support the Israeli occupation, hosts birthright programs and study abroad programs in occupied Palestine, and reproduces settler-colonial ideology throughout CUNY through Zionist content of education. While CUNY aims to produce the next generation of professional Zionists, SJP aims to change the university to fight for all peoples [sic] liberation.”
In an October 2014 article on thetower.com, activist journalist Daniel Mael wrote, “Instead of promoting justice, SJP and/or its members spend almost all of their energy demonizing Israel, advocating for its eventual destruction, showing an unfortunate affinity for pro-terrorist figures, bullying and intimidating pro-Israel and Jewish students with vicious and sometimes anti-Semitic rhetoric, and even at times engaging in physical violence. While SJP may pay lip-service to peaceful aims, their rhetoric and actions make it hard to avoid the conclusion that a culture of hatred permeates nearly everything the group does – making the college experience increasingly uncomfortable, at times even dangerous, for Jewish or pro-Israel students. Perhaps equally disturbing is the limited response from university authorities that have an obligation to prevent such attacks and protect Jewish students.
“And the risk to Jewish and pro-Israel students appears to be growing. Indeed, unless college administrators take a more active role in preventing it, SJP has a good chance of achieving its goal of turning venomous hatred of Israel and bullying of Jews and non-Jewish supporters – with all the violence and fear that inevitably accompany it – into a legitimate and accepted tactic on North American campuses.”
In a letter sent to the City Council Jewish Council, CUNY chancellor Milliken and the chair of the board of trustees, Benno Schmidt, stated, “As you know, The City University of New York has consistently and strongly condemned all forms of bigotry and discrimination, including anti-Semitism, and we will continue to do so. We have been deeply concerned with some recent activities on CUNY campuses and we are committed to ensuring that none of our students are subjected to conduct that would interfere with their opportunity to exercise their rights, obtain an education and participate fully in the life of the University…. We take seriously our responsibility to promote and encourage tolerance and civility and to respond to allegations of prohibited harassment or intimidation so that all our students may enjoy an environment in which they can learn and thrive….”
The letter outlined steps CUNY was taking to find the right balance of ensuring freedom of speech and free association for its students while working toward an atmosphere of tolerance and civility on campus, and noted that federal judge Barbara Jones and former federal prosecutor Paul Shechtman have been hired “to review incidents and University responses and provide recommendations….” The letter also said CUNY would create a task force and has already created a working group.
Jay Hershenson, senior vice chancellor and board secretary, delineated the difference between the two: “The working group will look at current university policy related to freedom of speech and prohibited conduct and make recommendations; the task force will look, more broadly, at campus climate and recommend ways to ensure healthiest learning environment.”
But he would not state who would be in either group, or what time frame either is working with. Chancellor Milliken did not reply to an e-mail asking for that information and Michael Arena, CUNY’s director for communications and marketing, responded by e-mail to other questions but not this one.
“Milliken has used a delaying tactic to investigate,” Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, told The Jewish Press. “What’s to investigate? Students for Justice in Palestine has rallies screaming horrific things at Jewish students, such as ‘Jews out of CUNY,’ ‘Let’s drag the Zionists through the streets,’ ‘The Jews are raising our tuition,’ ‘Long live the intifada,’ ‘Jews are fascists, racists, Nazis, Zionist pigs,’ ‘Jews get out of our –ing country.’
“If statements of this nature had been made against homosexuals, African Americans or Hispanics, Milliken would have removed SJP as a student-funded group immediately and condemned them by name. But he hasn’t condemned SJP.
“Jews are afraid to wear yarmulkes, Jewish stars, Israeli shirts. We can’t let that happen in the biggest Jewish city in America at a major public university that Jews helped build. He’s condemned anti-Semitism. Of course you condemn anti-Semitism, but so what? He’s got to call these people out by name and punish them. They must be held accountable.”
The ZOA letter urged Milliken and the CUNY board of trustees “to take the following remedial steps, to ensure that Jewish students are afforded the kind of learning environment that every student deserves – one that is physically and psychologically safe and conducive to learning: (1) publicly condemn the SJP and its hateful, divisive and anti-Semitic actions; (2) hold this group accountable for violation of CUNY rules and policies; (3) mandate that the SJP and all other student groups complete training on anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry; (4) investigate the SJP’s funding sources, to confirm that all funds are being lawfully obtained; and (5) publicly call for zero tolerance for anti-Semitism at CUNY and educate the CUNY community about the many forms that anti-Semitism takes today.”
Klein boiled these down to two for The Jewish Press: “We asked for two things: they should be removed as a student-funded group, and Milliken should publicly condemn SJP by name.”
New York City Councilman David G. Greenfield, one of 13 Jewish Council members who signed the letter sent to CUNY, told The Jewish Press, “We’re looking for CUNY to immediately suspend SJP and create a clear policy that no one may threaten a Jewish student on campus. So far the response we have received is no response.”
At a rally earlier this week against anti-Semitism, New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind said, “Many people want to pretend that everything is OK, they want to turn a blind eye to what is going on within our CUNY colleges. They want to pretend that if you’re quiet, the hate will subside. That does not work. Silence does not work. Period.”
The ZOA’s Klein echoed that sentiment. “You can never ignore or appease bullies and haters,” he said. “If you allow what they do to go on, it gets worse. We need to stop it now before it reaches the point of physical violence. Jews have learned from history that threats and abusive language lead to physical violence. Milliken is hoping this goes away. We in the Jewish community dare not let that happen.”
Both Arena and Hershenson pointed out to The Jewish Press that the Anti-Defamation League and Mark G. Yudof, chair of the board of advisors at the Academic Engagement Network, have commended CUNY’s response. (Neither provided any names when asked if any other organization or individual had expressed support.)
In a press release, ADL New York regional director Evan R. Bernstein stated, “We are pleased to hear that CUNY has appointed outside counsel to review the troubling allegations of anti-Semitism that have taken place across some of its campuses. The formation of a task force composed of members of the administration, faculty and students is an additional step that indicates that CUNY is taking these allegations seriously. We eagerly await the results and stand ready to work with the CUNY system to create an environment that is inclusive and fosters respect for all.”
“The ADL has made no demands,” said Klein. “It simple praised the investigation that was called for because of the ZOA letter to CUNY. Other Jewish groups like the American Jewish Committee have been essentially silent, which only helps the Jew-haters.”
Greenfield said the City Council may hold hearings about the incidents at CUNY. “CUNY has lots of support among members of the Council,” he said, “and if they don’t respond well to these actions by SJP, they can lose that support. We can hold hearings if we don’t get a response…. We’re not going to let Jewish students be intimidated.”
Asked about the specific points of criticism voiced by Klein and Greenfield, CUNY’s Arena e-mailed a statement that appears similar to those the university has already issued, including in a letter to the editor in last week’s Jewish Press:
“CUNY has strongly and consistently condemned all forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitism, and will continue to do so. CUNY colleges have aggressively investigated allegations of discrimination and intimidation and earlier this month retained two highly regarded former prosecutors to review reports of anti-Semitism at several campuses. In addition, the University announced the formation of a working group to develop board policies on speech and expression and a new task force on campus climate. CUNY’s actions were commended by the Anti-Defamation League and other respected organizations, and reflect our commitment to ensuring that CUNY provides a safe and welcoming environment for all members of its community.”
“The problem,” former CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld told The Jewish Press, “is that academic administrators – at CUNY and nationally – instinctively accept SJP’s activities as a ‘free speech issue.’ But SJP operates outside of the rubric even of others with similarly abhorrent viewpoints. They are the antithesis of the free and open exchange of ideas on a campus. They are the equivalent of bullies. They must be prohibited on campuses throughout the nation. No academic institution in this country can function where SJP possesses a critical mass of hoodlums.”
This article was published by the Jewish Press and may be found here.