NYC public college under fire for funding, organizing anti-Israel activities

Manhattan Community College, part of city’s CUNY network charged with antisemitism, hosts display accusing Israel of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ gives credit for viewing controversial film

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

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

NEW YORK — A college in New York City’s public university system has come under fire for funding anti-Israel activities and crediting students for attending one of the events, as the massive education network grapples with allegations of widespread antisemitism on its campuses.

The latest controversy touched off this month when the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) hosted a pro-Palestinian display in a prominent location on campus.

Titled “Visual Timeline of Occupied Palestinian Land,” the exhibit included charged language, including 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.”

It also accused Israel of removing indigenous plants from the region to make way for “European invasive species”; called Zionism a “colonial ideology”; favorably portrayed the Second Intifada; and said an IDF officer had deliberately targeted Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in a “merciless killing.”

A sign included a QR code linking to information on Students for Justice in Palestine and Within Our Lifetime, groups that are harshly critical of Israel and in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Jewish state. Within Our Lifetime calls for a “global intifada” at regular rallies in the city and supports targeting “Zionist” organizations and individuals. An activist affiliated with the group was recently sentenced to federal prison on hate crime charges for attacks on Jews, including an assault at one of the group’s protests.

A map on the display showed the entirety of Israel and the Palestinian territories labeled as “Palestine.”

The display was located outside the college’s office of the vice president for student affairs.

Part of a pro-Palestinian exhibit at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, March 2023. (Courtesy)

Some Jewish students and faculty were upset by the exhibit and complained to college staff. Professors affiliated with the Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY (SAFE CUNY), representing Zionists and Israelis in the school system, sought more information and found out that the display was organized by the college’s Social Justice and Equity Centers.

The Social Justice and Equity Centers was set up with funding from the college’s President’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation, which was established in 2020 with a $30 million donation from prominent philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

The center says it aims to further social justice by educating and engaging the college community, with a focus on current events, advocacy, creative education, and other programming.

In addition to the display, the center hosted an event earlier this month titled “Let’s Talk Palestine” that included discussions on “the structure of apartheid.”

Later this month, the center is hosting a screening of the film “Farha,” part of its “Palestinian Solidarity Series,” and will grant students credit for viewing the movie.

The Jordanian drama depicts alleged atrocities against Palestinians during the 1948 conflict that surrounded Israel’s creation and shows Israeli soldiers executing civilians. Israeli ministers have harshly criticized the movie, saying it uses “false pretense” to “incite” against Israelis.

SAFE CUNY blasted the pro-Palestinian display at the college as “horrifying, deeply antisemitic.” After the outcry, the college took down the display and removed information about the exhibit from its website. It had been set to remain up until early April. An advertisement for the “Farha” screening is now set up in the college’s main building, a professor said.

The college issued a statement on Tuesday apologizing for the display, saying, “We offer our deepest and sincerest apologies to anyone who was offended and felt unsafe.”

“We are moving forward now with renewed commitment to our mission, and we will raise the bar for ourselves, and be more deliberate in making our campus a safe and welcoming setting,” the statement said.

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 turning a blind eye to anti-Jewish activity on campuses, and students have reported intense harassment.

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

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

The CUNY faculty union also passed anti-Israel resolutions.

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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