It came as no surprise this week when New York’s Senate backed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to cut state funding to the City University of New York.
Few in Albany were prepared, however, when the Senate, in its own budget proposal, criticized CUNY’s handling of alleged anti-Semitism.
In light of the issue, the Senate said it is denying funding until it is satisfied with the school’s response “and this difficult and atrocious situation is adequately addressed.”
That budget proposal, issued Monday from the Senate’s Republican majority, has seemed to draw every imaginable reaction: an anxious response from CUNY, outrage from Democrats, praise from a Zionist group, concern from First Amendment attorneys and even dissent from within the GOP’s ranks.
“It was breathtakingly shocking to me,” said Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat opposed to the cuts. “This was one giant ‘what the heck?’ moment.”
The anti-Semitism allegations surfaced in a letter from the Zionist Organization of America, an Israeli advocacy group, sent in February to CUNY Chancellor James Milliken.
It alleges numerous anti-Semitic incidents at CUNY over the past three years, from cries of “Zionists go home!” to a swastika found on one of the school’s campuses. The letter blames a university group, Students for Justice in Palestine, for many of the alleged incidents, and urges CUNY to condemn it.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said in an interview that he plans to meet with state senators and applauded the Senate GOP’s proposal.
CUNY has said it is investigating the allegations and hired outside counsel for the task. It also issued a statement condemning “all forms of bigotry and discrimination.” The Anti-Defamation League commended CUNY for its response.
Radhika Sainath, an attorney at Palestinian advocacy organization Palestine Legal who is advising Students for Justice in Palestine, said the Zionist Organization of America “conflates political speech criticizing Israeli policy with genuine anti-Semitism,” and inaccurately pinned “some instances of real anti-Semitism” on Palestinian activists.
Mr. Cuomo’s CUNY proposal called for shifting some of the school’s costs to New York City from the state. The anti-Semitism concerns didn’t come up at the state level until the Senate released its proposal.
Democrats in the state Legislature said the GOP is using those allegations as an excuse to cut funding. In a joint meeting of the Senate’s and Assembly’s higher-education committees on Wednesday the two political parties sparred over the issue.
The school, she added, “acted aggressively and forthrightly.”
In an unusual move, Sen. Marty Golden, the only Senate Republican who represents Brooklyn, rebuked his fellow Republicans’ proposal, calling it politically motivated.
Pointing to the Anti-Defamation League’s position, Mr. Golden said in an interview Wednesday that CUNY’s response to allegations of anti-Semitism “is not an issue at all. The issue here is a matter of funding, and we need that funding for our kids’ future.”
He said he believed the Senate was simply trying to pressure Democrats into agreeing to other proposals by threatening the funding cut.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan defended the chamber’s stance. “This is an important issue,” he said. “We are taking a stand against anti-Semitism, wherever it exists.”
Accusations of anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of bigotry, aren’t unusual on college campuses, legislators noted.
Still, the recent allegations at CUNY concerned the New York City Council’s Jewish caucus, which is pushing a bill requiring the school to better monitor campus bigotry.
Councilman Mark Levine, a Manhattan Democrat co-sponsoring the bill, said he was dismayed by the allegations at CUNY and wants a more thorough response from the school’s administration. He too condemned the Senate’s proposal.
“It’s outrageous,” he said. “We have a legitimate problem in how to combat anti-Semitism on CUNY’s campuses, and the solution is not to collectively punish a quarter of a million students, many of whom are Jewish.”
In response to the proposal, Mr. Milliken wrote to the Senate on Wednesday saying that CUNY takes anti-Semitism seriously but can’t infringe on free speech.
Some students at CUNY who said they have faced anti-Semitism support the Senate’s idea.
“I see the need for CUNY funding because it’s an important institution,” said Heather Alper, a sophomore at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, “but I think in order to actually push the administration to attack anti-Semitism, this is a good strategy.”
This article was published by the Wall Street Journal and may be found here.