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NYC lawmakers lash city colleges’ chancellor for skipping hearing on antisemitism

For the 2nd time, CUNY head cancels appearance before panel on allegations of widespread antisemitism; dozens describe anti-Jewish climate on US city’s public university campuses

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

New York City Council Member Inna Vernikov, center, and activists against antisemitism at New York City Hall on June 30, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
New York City Council Member Inna Vernikov, center, and activists against antisemitism at New York City Hall on June 30, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — New York City Council members slammed the chancellor of the US city’s massive public college system on Thursday after he canceled his appearance for a second time at a hearing to address allegations of pervasive antisemitism on campuses.

The daylong hearing at the city council’s Committee on Higher Education featured local lawmakers, students, faculty and other activists speaking about Jew-hatred on the City University of New York’s 26 campuses.

Advocates and Jewish groups accuse the CUNY school system’s administration of neglecting Jewish students and allowing an antisemitic atmosphere to fester.

CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodriguez was scheduled to attend, but on Wednesday night informed the council members that he would not be present. The hearing was originally slated for earlier this month, but Rodriguez also backed out then, so it was rescheduled for Thursday so he could attend.

Despite Rodriguez’s absence, the council members decided to go ahead with the hearing Thursday because some speakers had already traveled long distances to attend. No CUNY representatives attended the panel at city hall in person.

“Him not showing up is perpetuating the antisemitism we’re talking about,” Council Member Inna Vernikov said of the chancellor. “What a sham. What an insult to the Jewish community.”

“There’s no reason the university can’t be here in person today,” said Council Member Kalman Yeger.

The oversight hearing, called “examining antisemitism on college campuses,” was led by the committee’s chair, Council Member Eric Dinowitz, alongside Vernikov and Yeger. Council Member Gale Brewer and Minority Leader Joe Borelli also attended.

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

The speakers included students, faculty and Jewish activists. They described a culture of harassment and intimidation from both CUNY faculty and students, particularly against Jewish students who were supportive of Israel.

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

From CUNY, Vice-Chancellor Glenda Grace, Graduate Center President Robin Garrell and Vice-Chancellor Denise Maybank attended the hearing via Zoom to defend the school system’s policies and field questions from the council members.

The CUNY representatives largely defended anti-Israel activity on campus as free speech, described problematic incidents as isolated events and grouped antisemitism alongside other forms of discrimination and harassment. Grace highlighted Israel and Jewish-related activities on campuses, including Holocaust education and a recent visit to Israel by Rodriguez and other faculty.

“We don’t want anybody on a CUNY campus to feel diminished, and that’s what we’re working toward,” Grace said, adding that the college system “unequivocally denounces antisemitism.”

They consistently urged more dialogue as a solution rather than reining in speech and would not discuss specific responses to antisemitic incidents, saying they didn’t have the requested information or were unable to speak about particular cases.

The administrators remained vague when the panel pressed them for data, disciplinary measures that have been taken and specific plans for addressing antisemitism. They said they were “having conversations” about the issue and “reaching out” to students who were affected.

“It feels a little disingenuous to come and not talk about plans. These are not secret issues. CUNY knows these are big issues,” Dinowitz said. “It makes me question how seriously this problem is being addressed.”

“We’ve heard the word ‘dialogue’ about 1,000 times today,” Yeger said, adding that it was insufficient in addressing anti-Jewish racism.

“It’s not like they don’t know what they’re doing when they draw a swastika on a wall,” Yeger said.

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

They demanded the school compile data on antisemitic incidents and adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which includes anti-Zionism.

Dinowitz shared anecdotes of anti-Jewish racism on campus, saying the environment emboldened hatred toward Jews. Jewish students who were praying were called “dirty Jews” with no response from the administration, he said. In other cases, students called for targeting Jews, spoke in favor of Adolf Hitler and made jokes about putting Jews in ovens.

Pro-Palestinian groups, including Students for Justice in Palestine, were consistently accused of harassing and targeting Jewish students. Protests by the groups on city streets have included violence against Jews.

Zachary Beer, a recent CUNY graduate who had been a leader of a campus Hillel program, said other clubs had refused cooperate with the Jewish group due to pressure from Students for Justice in Palestine. He said vandals drew a swastika on the Hillel office door, to which the administration responded by putting up a security camera but nothing more.

“I personally felt less safe on campus. In fact, until campus-based learning was suspended due to COVID, I was constantly nervous about antisemitic actions,” he said. He avoided almost all in-person classes for the rest of his studies.

A former professor, who declined to share her name because she feared losing work opportunities, said a group of Jewish instructors were fired last year around the time of Israel’s conflict with Gaza. The administration provided no reason for the dismissals, she said.

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists burn an Israeli flag in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

She had taught for over 20 years and had witnessed a series of incidents veering into antisemitism. Jewish groups were deprived of funding and were regularly shouted down and silenced by opponents, she said.

“There’s a decline in the population of Jewish students and there’s this fear, there’s this non-verbal fear,” she said. “I know a lot of faculty who are disgusted with what they’re doing.”

“Every professor is afraid to say a word,” she said.

Aliyah Jacobson, a recent graduate, said she had been jeered as a “murderer” during an event and then had difficulty filing a complaint.

“I felt like a target,” she said. “This was very detrimental to my mental health.”

The AMCHA advocacy group has recorded over 150 antisemitic incidents on 11 CUNY campuses since 2015.

Some speakers disputed the problem. City Council Member Charles Barron made an appearance opposing the committee’s position, saying Israel supporters couldn’t handle “truth” and “other perspectives.”

“If I say Israel murdered innocent children in the Gaza Strip then I’m ‘antisemitic,'” he said. “That is not antisemitism, that is political disagreement.”

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.

In some of the recent incidents, the student government and faculty of CUNY Law voted to endorse the BDS movement in May. The student resolution demanded CUNY cut ties with Israel, divest from the Jewish state and accused the school of being “directly complicit in ongoing apartheid, genocide, and war crimes perpetrated by the Jewish state.” The CUNY faculty union has also passed anti-Israel resolutions.

Also in May, a prominent pro-Palestinian activist, Nerdeen Kiswani, gave a commencement speech at a graduation ceremony that was largely directed against Israel. During the speech, she said she was “facing a campaign of Zionist harassment by well-funded organizations with ties to the Israeli government and military,” to applause from her classmates. At regular protests, Kiswani advocates the destruction of Israel, a “global intifada” and targeting Jews.

In February, the US Department of Education opened an investigation into allegations of widespread harassment of Jewish students at Brooklyn College, which is part of CUNY.

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