After NYC colleges partner with Jewish groups, campus Zionists call it a fig leaf

Pro-Israel student, faculty group say CUNY’s new Jewish advisory council is a ‘shameful disgrace’; US law school again sparks controversy with anti-Israel commencement speaker

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Brooklyn College students walk between classes on campus in New York, on February 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
Illustrative: Brooklyn College students walk between classes on campus in New York, on February 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

NEW YORK — A group of Zionist professors and students in the United States lashed Jewish advocacy organizations for partnering with New York City’s public college system on advancing Jewish issues, the latest in a long-running battle over alleged widespread antisemitism in the sprawling City University of New York, also known as CUNY.

Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY (SAFE CUNY), a group representing Zionists and Israelis, blasted the new initiative last week as a “shameful disgrace” and a cover for inaction by the university system. SAFE CUNY said its members, who have long advocated for Jews on campus, had been excluded.

Highlighting the fraught issue, a day after the new partnership was announced, one of the organizations taking part, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY) issued a strongly-worded statement against a CUNY Law commencement speaker for “trading in antisemitic tropes.”

At the same time, Jewish professors at another CUNY college have accused the administration of stonewalling them after a dust-up over an anti-Israel display.

The CUNY system has 25 colleges around New York’s five boroughs, with around 260,000 students and close to 20,000 faculty. It has long been part of the city’s social fabric.

The controversies come as some Jewish professors and students at CUNY, and some New York City lawmakers, have accused the university system in recent years of turning a blind eye to harassment of Jewish students that veers into antisemitism. Much of the debate centers around when anti-Zionism crosses into antisemitism, and is part of a larger issue on US college campuses and in progressive circles.

The pro-Israel advocates argue that Zionism is part of Jewish identity, and should be protected, but that anti-Israel activities on campuses are creating a hostile atmosphere. Anti-Zionists consider their activities a form of political protest that should be protected as free speech, forcing universities to tread a line between the two positions.

CUNY has made some efforts to address the issue, including last week.

The college system and JCRC-NY announced on May 11 that the Jewish group’s CEO, Gideon Taylor, was named to CUNY’s inaugural advisory council on Jewish life. The council will advise CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez on how to “lift up Jewish life” and improve communication between religious communities, JCRC-NY said in a statement.

The new initiative was announced as CUNY said it was joining with the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism in a campaign against anti-Jewish racism. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft launched the foundation earlier this year with a major public awareness campaign. Last year, CUNY also committed to a series of measures to combat antisemitism on campus.

“We will not waver in our dedication to fighting antisemitism, and we want our Jewish students, faculty and staff to know they are valued and protected at our university,” Matos Rodríguez said in a Thursday statement. “Today’s announcements are yet another way we are working to show that our university condemns antisemitism hatred in all its forms and will fight back.”

The leading Jewish campus group Hillel International and other community leaders applauded the move.

SAFE CUNY said the initiatives were a fig leaf, giving the university system cover from Jewish groups, instead of taking concrete steps to welcome pro-Israel students and faculty. The advocacy group has demanded CUNY officially adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which covers disproportionate criticism of Israel, and increase Jewish representation in the university system’s leadership, among other measures.

“We are no longer going to stand back and let feckless Jewish legacy groups throw its Jews under the bus just because of their sheer power,” SAFE CUNY said. “What JCRC-NY pulled today with CUNY is shameful. Providing cover for purging Jews from CUNY is dangerous.” The group says none of CUNY’s top 80 administrators are Jewish, even though 10%-20% of the city’s population is Jewish.

SAFE CUNY said neither JCRC-NY nor the university system have contacted the group about the advisory board and have not responded to emails. The campus group also censured the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, saying, “If you really, truly, deeply want to help the situation at CUNY, reach out to us, the thousands of Zionist Jews fighting this horrific systemically antisemitic scourge on the ground at CUNY.”

JCRC-NY said the move was part of a long partnership with CUNY aimed at improving campus Jewish life and fostering healthy dialogue about Israel. CUNY convened the council, is still in the process of forming the group, and JCRC-NY does not have any say in who is involved, the Jewish group said.

CUNY said, “As announced, the advisory council on Jewish life will be comprised of Jewish leaders in New York who are external to the university.”

A day after the announcement, JCRC-NY denounced the CUNY Law School for having an anti-Israel activist deliver its commencement speech for the second year in a row. The commencement speaker is elected by the student body.

Illustrative: Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The speaker, Fatima Mohammed, is a member of CUNY Law’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which has spearheaded Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and other anti-Israel initiatives on campus.

The new graduates also booed New York City Mayor Eric Adams at the ceremony when the dean noted the mayor’s background on the police force. Graduates then turned their backs to Adams while he was speaking.

The commencement ceremony was closed to the press, a YouTube video of the event was made non-public, and CUNY and CUNY Law did not respond to a request to make it available.

JCRC-NY said the speech had attacked “Zionists” and accused Israel of indiscriminately gunning down worshipers, murdering young and old people, and encouraging lynch mobs. The speech also linked CUNY funding and Zionism, leaning into antisemitic tropes about Jewish money and dual loyalty.

JCRC-NY condemned the commencement speech as “incendiary anti-Israel propaganda.”

“This particular commencement speech cast aside the principle of seeking truth in a shameless attempt to vilify CUNY’s constructive engagement with Israel and the New York Jewish community and to denigrate Israel’s supporters on campus while trading in antisemitic tropes,” it said. “We strongly encourage CUNY to revise its guidelines surrounding commencement speeches.”

The Anti-Defamation League said, “Graduations should be a place for all — not a time to denigrate students’ identities.”

“We are appalled to see such an egregious display of hostility toward ‘Zionists’ (which is how many Jews see themselves) and Israel in CUNY Law’s commencement address,” the ADL said.

Last year, activist Nerdeen Kiswani dedicated much of her CUNY Law commencement speech to anti-Israel rhetoric. Kiswani is a leader of Within Our Lifetime, a pro-Palestinian group, and was the president of CUNY Law’s Students for Justice in Palestine.

Within Our Lifetime and Students for Justice in Palestine collaborate on campus initiatives, and hold regular street protests that call for an end to the Jewish state, a “global intifada,” and the ostracization of Zionists. Kiswani and Mohammed are regular speakers at the events.

A member of Within Our Lifetime, Saadah Masoud, was imprisoned this year on federal hate crimes charges for beating a Jewish man at one of the group’s events. Video from the event showed Masoud and Kiswani leading the protest, and burning the victim’s Israeli flag, minutes after the attack.

Masoud and co-conspirators plotted attacks on Jews ahead of the event and told each other to refer to their targets as “Zionists,” not Jews, apparently to avoid allegations of antisemitism.

The campus group CUNY4Palestine on Tuesday said Kiswani had been prevented from speaking at Hunter College and accused CUNY of violating First Amendment protections.

Saadah Masoud, a pro-Palestinian activist, shortly before beating a Jewish man on a street in New York City on April 20, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Also last week, Jewish professors from the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), part of CUNY, said the school had failed to respond to their requests for information after a controversy over an anti-Israel display in March.

The exhibit in a prominent location on campus included charged language, including favorably portraying the Second Intifada and claiming that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was not “a conflict,” but solely the fault of Israeli “settler colonialism, military occupation, land theft, and ethnic-cleansing.”

A sign included a QR code linking to information on Students for Justice in Palestine and Within Our Lifetime.

The display was part of a program by the college’s Social Justice and Equity Center that also offered students credit for watching an anti-Israel film. After complaints, the college took down the display and issued an apology.

Several professors who complained said they were defamed by anonymous agitators online afterward and asked the college to investigate and take measures to prevent discrimination and harassment, but said the college didn’t follow up, or respond to requests that it hold counter-events supportive of Zionism.

CUNY4Palestine launched a petition accusing the college of “academic repression” for taking down the display and calling for it to be reinstated. BMCC’s Social Justice and Equity Center signed the petition. The Jewish professors also said information in the document indicated that the pro-Palestinian group and BMCC staff had shared information behind the scenes. The college did not respond to requests for comment.

The professors asked for email exchanges between BMCC’s faculty around the time of the controversy, under New York’s freedom of information law. The college did not provide the information within the required 15-day deadline, blaming a “technical delay,” and told the professors to wait 60 more days.

File: Pro-Palestinian activists hold a ‘Globalize the Intifada’ protest against Israel and in support of Palestinian security prisoners in New York City, September 17, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

Antisemitism has been a growing concern on CUNY campuses in recent years, as anti-Israel activities became more prominent and anti-Jewish crime surged in New York City. Jewish groups and city officials have accused the administration of tolerating anti-Jewish activity on campuses, and students have reported intense harassment.

The US Department of Education opened an investigation into allegations of widespread harassment of Jewish students at CUNY’s Brooklyn College. The federal agency has launched a number of other similar probes on US campuses, with many focusing on whether anti-Zionism amounts to antisemitism.

The CUNY faculty union has also passed anti-Israel resolutions, sparking backlash from Jewish professors.

Late last year, CUNY committed to a series of measures to combat antisemitism on its campuses, including a partnership with Hillel, an online portal to report discrimination, and $750,000 for programming to combat hate.

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