'Baruch Hillel you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide'

CUNY college scraps Hillel Memorial Day event over anti-Israel protest, security fears

Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College cancels gathering after request for more security; Baruch College nixes Independence Day event after Hillel refuses alternative locations

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

Anti-Israel protesters chant outside The City College Of New York (CUNY) one day after the NYPD cracked down on protest camps at both Columbia University and CUNY on May 1, 2024 in New York City. (Alex Kent/Getty Images/AFP)
Anti-Israel protesters chant outside The City College Of New York (CUNY) one day after the NYPD cracked down on protest camps at both Columbia University and CUNY on May 1, 2024 in New York City. (Alex Kent/Getty Images/AFP)

New York Jewish Week via JTA –  A branch of the City University of New York canceled an event organized by Jewish campus group Hillel this week marking Israel’s Memorial Day, citing an anti-Israel protest and security concerns.

The cancellation at Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College came following years of outspoken pro-Palestinian advocacy across the CUNY system that has ramped up since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, along with longstanding allegations by Jewish groups that its administrators do not do enough to protect Jewish students. And they occurred shortly before a group of pro-Palestinian activists staged an hours-long occupation of a CUNY building in Manhattan, even as the wave of pro-Palestinian encampments at other schools is dying down.

“We felt saddened and dismayed that the college canceled our Yom Hazikaron event instead of providing security to protect us from threats,” Kingsborough Hillel’s faculty adviser, Susan Aranoff, a business professor, told the New York Jewish Week, using the Hebrew name for Israel’s Memorial Day. “The college must protect freedom of expression for all.”

The Hillel at Baruch College, another branch of CUNY, also said its event for Israel’s Independence Day had been canceled. The school told the New York Jewish Week it had offered alternative locations for that event, but Hillel declined to accept them. Queens College’s Hillel, meanwhile, did host Memorial and Independence Day events without incident.

A CUNY spokesperson said the university system is “committed to ensuring that every student and faculty or staff member is safe from violence, intimidation and harassment.”

“We also reaffirm that everyone in our community has a constitutional right to free speech. CUNY is working with campus leaders to ensure all our community members are protected during school events,” the spokesperson said.

Illustrative: The Baruch College commencement at Barclays Center, June 5, 2017, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Kingsborough Hillel, which serves about 30 to 40 students at the college in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, had planned a Zoom event with a former Israeli soldier and cybersecurity expert. The students attending the event were set to gather in-person on campus, where they planned to hold a memorial service and light a candle.

Ahead of the event, anti-Israel protest groups issued a call to rally next to the campus on Oriental Boulevard, circulating a graphic that said, “Students and workers say no to rehabilitating the image of war criminals.”

Kingsborough’s Hillel asked the administration for upgraded security due to the protest. Instead, the administration opted to cancel the event hours before it was supposed to start, the college’s Hillel told the New York Jewish Week.

A Kingsborough spokesperson confirmed the event had been canceled due to protests “out of an abundance of caution to ensure safety and appropriate access to campus for our students, faculty, and staff.”

A number of faculty asked the administration to reverse the decision to no avail, Hillel said. Jeff Lax, a Kingsborough business professor and outspoken advocate for Zionist students, said he requested a meeting and waited outside the office of University President Suri Duitch for 20 minutes while she was inside, but said she did not come out to speak with him.

The pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protest still took place, drawing around 30 people who waved Palestinian flags and, according to a video by Lax, chanted, “Resistance is justified when people are occupied.”

The protesters declared “victory” after the event.

Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activists take part in a protest to mark the 76th anniversary of al-Nakba in the Queens borough of New York on May 15, 2024. (Leonardo Munoz / Leonardo Munoz / AFP)

“The shameful event allowing a former high-ranking IOF soldier on campus, hosted by Kingsborough Community College and Hillel, has been SHUT DOWN!” a student pro-Palestinian group posted on social media, using a derisive abbreviation for Israel’s military that stands for Israel Occupation Force. “Power to CUNY students and workers! Free Palestine!”

The next day, on Tuesday, Kingsborough Hillel was scheduled to hold an Israeli Independence Day event on an outdoor terrace on campus, but the college ordered organizers to move the event indoors. A photo from the scene showed nine security guards stationed outside the door.

Meanwhile, at Baruch, the campus Hillel said on Instagram last week that the college had ordered the club’s Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Independence Day, event on May 2 “canceled” due to security concerns.

Baruch College told the New York Jewish Week that Hillel had been offered other locations for the event.

“The safety of our students remains our top priority,” the college said in a statement. “Regarding the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, Hillel was offered two alternative spaces on campus. They declined the opportunity to hold the event in these alternative locations, choosing to cancel instead.”

Baruch Hillel did not respond to a request for comment, but posted on Instagram that the school is “sending a strong message to Jewish students that they cannot adequately protect Jewish students, while the protestors spew hateful and intimidating language in our public spaces without any repercussions.”

The post added, “Baruch College is silencing the voice of the Jewish students and their ability to celebrate their Jewish identity proudly and openly.”

In the same Instagram post, the Hillel also uploaded video showing protesters chanting, “Baruch Hillel you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”

Across the city, Queens College’s Hillel held a Memorial Day event on campus on Tuesday and an “Israelfest” event on Wednesday to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.

Anti-Israel activists take part in a march to mark the 76th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, called the “Nakba,” or the catastrophe by Palestinians, in the Brooklyn borough of New York on May 11, 2024. (Leonardo Munoz/AFP)

The college’s Hillel director, Jenna Citron Schwab, said no protesters were visible — a shift from earlier in the academic year, when the school was rocked by anti-Israel protests, and an interfaith meeting between Muslim and Jewish students was marred by inflammatory rhetoric and shouting. In March, vandals scrawled graffiti on campus including swastikas and threats to Jews. Schwab said the atmosphere has since improved.

“Every campus has its challenges,” she said. “Right now, we’re working closely with the administration to tackle the challenges that we’re seeing.”

Separately, on Tuesday night, anti-Israel protesters took over the CUNY Graduate Center, in the first protest of its kind at the Manhattan university. According to video distributed by protest groups on the Telegram messaging app, the protesters occupied the center’s lobby, chanting the slogan, “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest,” which has become popular at student pro-Palestinian protests.

The demonstrators pasted signs onto an adjacent library, renaming it the “Al Aqsa University Library” after the Muslim holy site adjacent to the Western Wall and atop the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. The mosque has been a flashpoint for conflict and is the namesake of Hamas’ title for its Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, which it dubbed the “Al Aqsa Flood.”

Minutes after the CUNY demonstrators announced their rally at the Graduate Center, the protest group Within Our Lifetime, which endorsed the October 7 attack, sent out a statement urging its followers to “Flood CUNY for Gaza.”

File – Houses destroyed during Hamas’s brutal October 7 onslaught in Kibbutz Be’eri, seen on December 20, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

At 10:20 p.m., the Graduate Center’s interim president, Josh Brumberg, sent out an email to the campus community stating that he had emailed CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez about the protest, according to a copy of the email shared with the New York Jewish Week.

Brumberg said protesters’ demands included a meeting with Rodríguez, amnesty for other CUNY protesters, divestment from companies “complicit in the imperialist-zionist genocide,” and cutting all ties with Israeli academic institutions.

Brumberg also said he had agreed to not discipline any of the demonstrators. Two weeks ago, more than 100 people were arrested when the NYPD cleared out an encampment at the City College of New York, another CUNY branch.

The protest at the Graduate Center dissolved that night, according to a statement from the school.

“After several hours of discussion, an amicable resolution was reached and the demonstrators left peacefully,” the statement said. “The Graduate Center is committed to ensuring first amendment rights and freedom of expression while maintaining University policies to safeguard students’ right to an education and protect our community from harassment, discrimination, and vandalism.”

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