Political Furor Erupts in N.Y. After Alleged anti-Semitic Acts on Campuses

A spate of incidents involving a pro-Palestinian student group has sparked outrage among academics and a major American Jewish organization, whose demands to take the City University of New York system to task for such activities have reached the legislature in Albany.

Shepard Hall at City College of New York, the senior college in the City University of New York system.
Rickshupper/Wikimedia

NEW YORK – Anti-Zionist activity spearheaded by Students for Justice in Palestine, an organization active on several City University of New York campuses, has become a political football in an unfolding situation involving a major American Jewish organization and the state legislature, as well as allegedly anti-Semitic incidents, say critics of the pro-Palestinian group.

Faculty and staff involved in the daily life of Jewish students on the various CUNY campuses now worry that the growing number of such incidents are being overshadowed by the politicking. They blame this situation on the Zionist Organization of America, whose efforts to convince New York State legislators to pressure CUNY to respond more forcefully to these incidents have redirected attention away from the campuses themselves and are focusing it on the capital in Albany instead.

After state lawmakers linked the issues of anti-Semitism at CUNY and the then-heated state budget negotiations, they threatened to cut a substantial portion of the university system’s budget. In the 11th hour they backed down from slashing CUNY’s budget. But now the pro-Israel ZOA and some members of the state legislature are digging in their heels, issuing a letter last Friday in which 33 elected representatives demanded that CUNY suspend SJP's campus activity.

In February, ZOA had sent a 14-page letter, detailing a number of alleged anti-Semitic incidents, to CUNY Chancellor James Milliken and the university system’s board members. In it, Morton Klein, ZOA’s national president, described what he called SJP's anti-Zionist incidents – some of which, he said, had blatantly anti-Semitic overtones – and he asked Milliken to publicly condemn the organization's “hateful, divisive and anti-Semitic actions.”

One such incident occured that month at Brooklyn College, where students with a list of demands unrelated to Israel-Palestinian politics interrupted a faculty council meeting, yelling “Zionists out of CUNY” and “Zionist pig!” Four of the 10 students involved in that protest were SJP members, said Thomas DeAngelis, treasurer of SJP at Brooklyn College.

DeAngelis defended the language, saying, “it’s our way of expressing solidarity with Palestinians’ resistance against the colonialist settlers in Palestine. It is an occupied people. We support their efforts to liberate Palestine.”

This incident followed a student protest at Hunter College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side last November – ostensibly about tuition and cancelling student debt –  which also devolved into what were described as anti-Semitic declarations, said a source close to Jewish students there. Some of the protesters carried placards saying “Zionists out of CUNY” and “Boycott Israel,” while others chanted “long live the Intifada!”

“We all feel in our kishkes [guts] if someone [had] said ‘gays out of CUNY' – it would have been major. Jews are not viewed as a protected class” today, said one knowledgable source. “It doesn’t feel comfortable to be Jewish” at Hunter, he added.

In light of these incidents, Klein's letter demanded that Milliken hold SJP accountable for “violations of CUNY rules and policies,” and investigate SJP funding sources “to confirm that all funds are being lawfully obtained.”

Supporters of SJP, who say the group is being censored, took issue with Klein’s letter.

“The ZOA letter is riddled with misstatements of law and fact,” said Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney with Palestine Legal, which provides advice and counsel to SJP members. “This call to ban SJP from CUNY reflects a well-documented pattern of politically motivated tactics used to suppress Palestinian rights advocacy across the country, and at the CUNY,” she said.

After receiving ZOA’s letter, state senate Republicans, some of whom met privately with Klein, threatened to cut $485 million – a significant portion of CUNY’s budget – for not adequately addressing the anti-Zionist and alleged anti-Semitic incidents. Budget negotiations with Governor Andrew Cuomo were fierce, and involved other political interests, but in the end, funding was not cut outright.

In the process, however, those involved with Jewish student life on CUNY campuses worry that significant damage has been done.

“Say CUNY funding got cut and it seemed like the Jewish community was at fault. What would that look like?” said a source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “These other actors got on the bandwagon [of anti-Zionist fear-mongering] and turned this into something no one ever wanted it to be, a fight for CUNY funding,” he added. “It was other people seizing on an opportunity,” the source said, referring to groups that are not actually directly involved in campus life, like ZOA, “and it screwed things up.”

“ZOA is isolated even among Jewish organizations in trying to paint this as an actual threat to the Jews at CUNY,” Eric Alterman, a professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College, told Haaretz. “It’s not. It’s an annoyance.” Last week, Alterman expanded on this idea in an op-ed in The New York Times, saying that allegations of anti-Semitism are exaggerated.

CUNY response

CUNY’s 24 colleges educate some 500,000 students each year, the overwhelming majority of whom are black, Latino and Asian. A senior CUNY official said it does not collect information about religious affiliation, and thus did not know how many of the students are Jewish. But estimates range from about 25 percent of those enrolled at Queens College, according to Uri Cohen, the Hillel director there, to a much smaller percentage at other CUNY four-year colleges. City College, the senior institution of the CUNY system and once a bastion of New York Jewish intellectual activity, today has relatively few Jewish students, said Cohen.

SJP has chapters on several CUNY campuses and at approximately 150 other college campuses across the country, said Leah Mushkin-Pierret, a SJP national leader. She added that at CUNY, the organization also collaborates with Jewish Voices for Peace, a similar group that advocates for the Palestinian cause.

Top CUNY college administrators have issued generally worded statements after receiving complaints about anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic incidents. After the SJP chapter at Brooklyn College called for a third intifada on its Facebook page last October, the dean of students, Ronald Jackson, urged people to “exercise reasonable judgment” when posting Israel-Palestinian-related material on social media.

In an open letter addressed to the New York State Senate last month, chancellor Milliken expressed concern about the recent activities and wrote, “The City University of New York has consistently and strongly condemned all forms of bigotry and discrimination, including anti-Semitism, and we will continue to do so.”

But he also made clear that he would not take action against SJP.

“As a public university, CUNY cannot infringe the constitutional rights of free speech and association of its students, faculty and staff and the university cannot shield individuals from speech they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even offensive,” he wrote.

Milliken’s office did not respond to multiple requests from Haaretz for an interview.

Milliken visited Israel in 2008 with the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, led by Mark Yudof, a former law professor who also served as president of the University of California system.

“I’m delighted that ZOA drew attention to this issue,” Yudof told Haaretz. “They have done some very good work. But if it comes to banning organizations based on their speech, that’s not the way to go.” It would be “both unconstitutional and unwise” to shut SJP down at CUNY campuses, added Yudof, who has taught constitutional law.

In response to the outcry, Milliken last month appointed two outside attorneys to investigate the alleged anti-Semitic incidents and issue a report on their findings, which a CUNY administration source said is expected in late spring.

Moreover, last week Milliken also announced that he will appoint a working group of administrators, faculty members and students to review CUNY policies on speech and expression, and make recommendations.

Despite these developments, ZOA’s Klein still isn’t satisfied. “We’ve asked them [CUNY] to remove SJP as a student-funded group because they violate rules like treating others with respect,” he said. “Saying ‘Zionists out of CUNY’ is hardly respectful. Of course that means Jews.”

For his part, Klein wonders why anti-Semitism, which he sees as implicit in the anti-Israel rhetoric, appears to be tolerated on college campuses today, despite heightened sensitivity to other forms of discrimination. He’s not alone.

Lawrence Summers, a Harvard professor and former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, wrote in an April 2 essay in The New York Post, “There is hypersensitivity to prejudice against most minority groups but what might be called hyper-insensitivity to anti-Semitism.”

In the interim, Milliken quietly met with the heads of CUNY Hillels, on March 29. None of those involved would comment afterward; they were hesitant to even confirm the meeting.

One CUNY Hillel director explained what’s at stake. “We exist on CUNY campuses at the will of the presidents of our colleges and wishes of CUNY central,” he said. “I have every reason to believe that this situation is going to improve.”