CUNY Student Body Postpones BDS Move 'Out of Respect for Shabbat'

The 4,700 member Doctoral Students Council in New York is considering a call to boycott Israeli academia and divest from Israeli companies.

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Boycott Israel sign (illustration)
Boycott Israel sign (illustration)Credit: Dreamstime

The council representing graduate and post-graduate students at the City University of New York (CUNY) has temporarily postponed a vote on boycotting Israeli academia “out of respect for the Jewish Sabbath”.

The decision followed a heated Friday night meeting of CUNY’s Doctoral Students Council (DSC) that was slated to endorse “the boycott of Israeli academic institutions and the divestment from Israeli companies.” The proposed resolution would also call for the termination of the partnership between CUNY’s Baruch College and Israel’s College of Management Academic Studies, which is located in Rishon Letzion.

The DSC, which represents 4,700 students, had come under fire for scheduling the meeting on Friday evening, when religiously observant Jewish students would be unable to attend. Eric Alterman, a professor of English at Baruch College and a columnist for the Nation who said he represented 100 progressive academics opposing the boycott, told the Council that passing the resolution on Shabbat is a “terrible idea” that “would look as it was done in the middle of the night, the way communists used to pass their resolutions in the 30’s.”

The resolution cites support of “Palestinian students and academics in their struggle against the Zionist policies of the Israeli state and its restrictions.” It condemns Israeli universities who allegedly declared that they “embrace and support” the efforts of the IDF in this summer’s Gaza war. The text also says Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students. It claims that Israeli professors who speak out against discriminatory or criminal policies against Palestinians are ostracized and ridiculed.

Approximately 100 people filled the cramped room where DSC meetings are held in CUNY’s Graduate Center in Midtown Manhattan on Friday night. The mood was tense, with the majority of people coming for the first time in order to support or oppose the contentious resolution. The debate was conducted with strict discipline from the council’s chair, which warned potential protestors that they would be forced to leave if they caused too much disruption. Stifled chuckles and eye rolls were prevalent from proponents of either side when their opposition spoke.

Sean Kennedy, the student who proposed the resolution, said that it came in response to “Palestinians who have asked for the world’s support in their effort to end their occupation.” Another supporter said the “majority of Israeli checkpoints and violence are being funded by our tax dollars,” and that the Obama administration was to blame for the harassment of groups who supported the boycott on campuses across the U.S.. Erik Wallenberg said that BDS is “a way to challenge apartheid” and “something we can do in the U.S. in opposition to the funding our government gives to the State of Israel.” Israeli and CUNY alumni Nirit Ben Ari claimed that many Israelis in civil society and academia support the boycott and that criticism of Israel should not be conflated with anti-Semitism.

On the other side of the debate, DSC representative, Erin Mckinney-Prupis, an adjunct public health professor at CUNY, told the Council she was proud of the medical achievements made by Israeli academics and said that the DSC had made her feel targeted as a Jew. She said she feels “the act is ridden in anti-Semitism because of its double standard” and said it was wrong to single out Israeli universities when institutions in Iran, Syria and China had proven human rights violations.

Assaf Shamis, alumni of the CUNY School, begged voters “to be on the right side of history” and said it was wrong to restrict the movement of education and knowledge based on nationality. Yuval Abrams said he questioned why the DSC would want to target Israeli universities. “If you think the Israeli government is enacting policies that may be illegitimate, that is a legitimate criticism. It seems inconsistent with the idea that we are trying to correct these wrongs, by targeting parties that have nothing to do with them,” he said.

Representatives from Hillel, Stand With Us and the Israel Campus also attended the meeting. Yael Monselise, the president of Hillel at John Jay College of Criminal Justice said, “I’m worried they will try this at my school next.” She said that anti-Israel groups at her school were gaining momentum and that groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student’s Association were growing.

After the postponement of the vote on the resolution to a later date was approved, David Toppel, who studies criminal justice said, “We went to this meeting thinking we would lose and that the boycott would pass. I think it was a victory for us to delay it.”

Toppel added that while he was impressed with the democratic process of the Council, its executive body stayed after yesterday’s meeting to meet privately with proponents of the boycott, which he said “says something about the DSC.”

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