NYC college system, under fire over antisemitism, announces countermeasures

City University of New York joins Hillel program to improve campus environment for Jews, allocates $750,000 to combat bigotry, amid campaign from Jewish advocates

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 — New York City’s public university system has committed to a series of measures to combat antisemitism on its campuses, amid allegations of rampant harassment against Jewish students and a long pressure campaign from Jewish advocates.

The City University of New York’s chancellor, Félix Matos Rodríguez, said late last month that the sprawling education system, known as CUNY, aims to “address antisemitism and improve experiences of Jewish students” with the new programs.

“We hope our actions illustrate our ongoing commitment to combat antisemitism and ensure that Jewish students, staff and faculty feel welcome, safe and are able to thrive at CUNY,” Rodríguez said in a statement.

Antisemitism has been a growing concern on CUNY campuses in recent years as anti-Israel activities becomes more prominent and anti-Jewish crime surges in New York City. Jewish groups have accused the administration of turning a blind eye to widespread anti-Jewish activity on campuses and students have reported repeated harassment and bullying.

The new measures to tackle the problem include a partnership with the Hillel International Jewish campus group; a webpage and system for reporting campus incidents; training for staff, administrators and student leaders; and expanding student exchange programs and academic partnerships in Israel.

CUNY will also allocate $750,000 for countering antisemitism and other forms of religious or ethnic bigotry.

Rodríguez said the university will “utilize educational tools such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism,” but did not say CUNY will adopt the definition, which considers anti-Zionism a form of antisemitism. Much of the debate around US campus antisemitism, and several high-profile legal cases against universities, focuses on the centrality of Zionism to Jewish identity.

Illustrative: Anti-Israel protesters call for an intifada at a protest in New York City, September 17, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY (SAFE CUNY), representing Zionist and Israeli students and faculty, has demanded the college system formally adopt the IHRA definition, recognizing Zionism as a protected belief.

“They are rejecting IHRA while saying, ‘We use it as an educational tool,'” said Jeffrey Lax, a professor from SAFE CUNY. “They are gaslighting Jewish politicians, Jewish groups and Jewish students and faculty.”

SAFE CUNY said the new measures were insufficient and called for the university system to bring in an outside agency to tackle antisemitism, take proactive steps to foster a positive environment for Jews and put in place consequences for antisemitic acts.

The group has also said Zionist faculty are under pressure due to anti-Israel sentiment among their peers, some of whom support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

New York City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov said Thursday that Rodríguez had sent her a letter about the new measures. Vernikov, a Brooklyn Republican, has been at the forefront of the push to address antisemitism on CUNY campuses and lashed Rodríguez in July when he skipped a city council hearing on antisemitism for the second time.

Vernikov said the new plans were “monumental measures,” since CUNY representatives were previously unable to define antisemitism, would not name specific policies against Jew-hatred, had not kept records of reported incidents, and had excluded Jews as a protected group in diversity and inclusion programs.

Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in New York City, March 30, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Six CUNY campuses have joined Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative. One of the participants is Brooklyn College, which is under federal investigation for alleged antisemitism on its campus. The Hillel program seeks to work with college administrators to improve the environment for Jewish students on campuses.

The CUNY system has 26 colleges with around 260,000 students and 40,000 faculty and has long been part of the city’s social fabric.

The system’s law school has been singled out as a hotbed of anti-Israel activity, which critics say edges into antisemitism. CUNY Law has endorsed the BDS movement and the CUNY faculty union has passed anti-Israel resolutions. A pro-Palestinian activist who has regularly called for Israel’s destruction and a “global intifada” gave the law school’s commencement speech earlier this year, dedicating most of her address to criticism of Israel.

A survey by Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League last year found that one-third of Jewish students experienced antisemitism on campus, mainly by verbal harassment in person and online and property damage. Jewish students at CUNY have said they have been harassed and bullied to the point that some dropped out.

There are several ongoing high-profile federal investigations into antisemitism at US colleges, including public New York colleges.

There has been a rash of antisemitic incidents at US universities in recent weeks during the Jewish holidays.

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