OpinionColumn

Letters to the Editor

Fighting antisemitism at CUNY: An exchange

No Jewish student should ever feel fearful or unsafe expressing their Judaism, Jewish pride or support for Israel.

The City University of New York (CUNY). Credit: Shutterstock.
The City University of New York (CUNY). Credit: Shutterstock.

Editor’s Note: On Aug. 2, JNS published an op-ed by Charles Jacobs of the Jewish Leadership Project titled, “Look who’s in charge of protecting the Jews at CUNY,” referring to the City University of New York. We received a number of letters, including one from the board of Baruch College Hillel and two from figures associated with the CUNY Alliance for Inclusion. The following are those responses with a reply by the author.

As antisemitism rises in the United States and around the world, one of the most vital roles of the Jewish community today is to create a safe and supportive environment for Jewish students on college campuses. That’s why those of us who are part of the CUNY community have been taking action to create change.

No Jewish student should ever feel fearful or unsafe expressing their Judaism, Jewish pride or support for Israel. And too often, the safety of Jewish students and faculty at CUNY has been threatened by antisemitic and virulently anti-Israel actions and speech. These incidents underscore why we have been actively working to address the climate on campus in order to ensure the safety and well-being of Jewish students and faculty at CUNY.

In response to this surge in antisemitism and anti-Zionism, a group of dedicated faculty members launched the CUNY Alliance for Inclusion (CAFI) in 2021. Among its initiatives has been the creation and circulation of a solidarity statement rejecting academic and cultural boycotts of Israel signed by more than 2,900 CUNY faculty, students, and alumni, building a diverse coalition that unequivocally supports Israel and the Jewish right to self-determination at CUNY. Jewish students, faculty, and alumni must stand together against antisemitism at CUNY, but they must not stand alone. Non-Jewish allies are vital to stemming the rising tide of antisemitism, and CAFI is a critical component of that work.

One of the leaders of these efforts is Ilya Bratman, the executive director of Baruch Hillel, who has been at the forefront of supporting Jewish and Zionist students on campus. A U.S. Army veteran, in 2019, Ilya launched a program that brings Israeli Defense Forces and U.S. military veterans together to learn about the Jewish state and to stand up against hatred and combat anti-Semitism on campus. As one of the leaders of CAFI, Ilya brings these types of dynamic ideas and critical university relationships to our efforts to stop antisemitism.

CAFI has also adopted a strategic approach to engaging directly with the CUNY administration to advocate for the rights and protections of Jewish students. We have successfully worked toward concrete changes on our campuses by putting immense pressure on the chancellor and other CUNY presidents.

One of the pillars of our efforts has been the organization of dozens of educational events for faculty and students across CUNY. These events have provided opportunities for open dialogue, fostering a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding the issues at hand. By bringing together diverse perspectives, we aim to bridge gaps and cultivate an atmosphere of respect and empathy.

Furthermore, CAFI’s outreach efforts have connected us with hundreds of faculty members, staff and students who share our commitment to creating a vibrant Jewish campus community where all students can feel safe to express their pride in being Jewish and their deep connections to Israel without fear, apology or recrimination.

CAFI’s approach is twofold: defending the Jewish community from attacks while also working diligently to improve the campus climate. By taking immediate action against instances of antisemitism, we stand firm in our commitment to protecting our community. Simultaneously, we strive to create a welcoming environment that encourages students of all faiths—Jewish and otherwise—to celebrate their religious and cultural beliefs. These two goals are not just compatible with creating a safe and secure campus for all Jewish students; they are essential to it. A safe campus environment for Jewish students and a safe campus environment for all students go hand-in-hand.

Tremendous progress has been made in these areas—and yet, much work remains to be done. The CUNY administration has an essential role to play in improving the campus climate further. Our long-term goals include continued engagement with CUNY leadership and fostering a stronger alliance between Jewish students and faculty. By sharing personal testimonies of the students who have been directly impacted by antisemitism, we will raise awareness and underscore the significance of our efforts.

And we need the support of the broader Jewish community. Working together, we can change Jewish students’ experience on campus, not just at CUNY but across the country. What we don’t need are disingenuous takedowns from ill-informed outsiders more interested in advancing their own agenda than they are in solving the issue.

Fostering a safe campus environment for Jewish students at CUNY remains paramount for the Jewish community. By maintaining a commitment to constructive dialogue, respectful engagement, and advocacy for change, CAFI strives to create lasting positive impacts on campus. Together, we can build a present and a future where Jewish students at CUNY feel valued, respected and safe.

Arthur Feldshteyn, Diana Toyberman, Andrew Fawer, Abe Tawil, Yan Klats, Derek Grossman, Bobbie Sue Daitch, Michael Kleinberg, Sara S. Barenfeld, Ed Meinhardt, Glenn Siegel, Steve D’Souza, Trent Coyle, Vlad Shafir

Members, Board of Directors

Baruch College Hillel

I am writing in response to Charles Jacobs’s article. While I share the author’s concern for the growing antisemitic discourse at CUNY, I was disappointed in how misplaced it was on the CUNY Alliance for Inclusion (CAFI) in general, and Dr. Ilya Bratman, in particular.

I am an associate professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College here at CUNY, and I have been an executive member of CAFI for about two years now, since shortly after its inception. CAFI has been a lifeline for those of us in the line of fire dealing with this bigotry firsthand. It was such a relief to go from being an individual facing prejudice alone to having a group of colleagues experiencing the same issues with whom I could consult and work to elevate the conversation on campus. I am proud that, together, our small band of scrappy professors has had an outsized impact on campus:

  1. by creating a website full of rich and nuanced articles and videos on Israel/Palestine and antisemitism, including by writing detailed FAQs ourselves;
  2. by sponsoring and moderating a number of wonderfully informative seminars on the topics of Israel/Palestine and antisemitism;
  3. by writing a series of letters and statements in response to the antisemitism we were experiencing.

We did all this completely uncompensated while holding down full-time positions as professors at CUNY.

Dr. Jacobs takes Dr. Bratman to task for the fact that CAFI supposedly sponsored an event featuring a group of women who have been liked by J Street, the last being an organization he claims “is not known for defending Jews or Israel against anti-Semitism.” That’s a long chain of guilt by association only to land on a group “not known” for something.

First, Dr. Bratman was not responsible for CAFI’s association with this event. I was. Second, CAFI did not sponsor the event; we merely included the video on our website, as can be seen from the absence of any mention of CAFI among the sponsors on the flier. Third, the seminar was wonderful, as are all seminars organized by Dr. Shahar Sadeh, which is why I suggested CAFI include it on our website.

So, what we have here is that Dr. Jacobs is claiming that Dr. Bratman is an antisemite and unfit to serve on CUNY’s Advisory Council on Jewish Life because he is associated with an organization that has included a video, the contents of which Dr. Jacobs makes no mention, but the group of women discussants in the video have been liked by another organization which Dr. Jacobs finds lacking in support for Israel and Jews. That is some fallacious syllogistic reasoning.

I know of no one who is acquainted with Dr. Bratman who would accuse him of not caring about the fate of Israel or the Jewish people. For Dr. Jacobs to make the claim, frankly, shows how little he knows Dr. Bratman. I appreciate Dr. Jacobs’ concern for Jewish students and faculty at CUNY, but his efforts in this article are counter-productive. His article attacks the very people who are taking the initiative to speak out and act up. If he wants to help us, he would be better off directing his ire elsewhere.

David Brodsky

Associate Professor of Judaic Studies

Brooklyn College

City University of New York

The op-ed, “Look who’s in charge of protecting the Jews at CUNY,” by Charles Jacobs on Aug. 3 is defamation, plain and simple. This article misrepresents the tireless work of a leading pro-Israel activist and is aimed at damaging our faculty group, the CUNY Alliance for Inclusion, (CAFI), which has been battling the singular demonization of Israel and antisemitism found in many quarters of the City University of New York.

Ilya Bratman, who stands accused in this article, is, in fact, a tireless fighter against the demonization of Israel. As the director of seven Hillels, he hosts almost weekly events for students in support of Israel. He provides students with key perspectives and the information they need so they can be proud of who they are in an often hostile environment. Ilya has brought the question of antisemitism to the New York City Council and organized the testimony of students regarding their painful experiences at the Council’s hearing on Antisemitism on New York City Campuses. He is the pivotal figure working to make the Campus Climate Initiative of the Academic Engagement Network at CUNY meaningful. Ilya is also working to bring CUNY students and faculty into the CUNY Advisory Council on Jewish Life, so that the Council can make a difference and not provide cover for inaction. All this, while he is a full-time instructor in English.

The op-ed is a composite of distortions that have been endlessly repeated by a single individual on Twitter. This individual has threatened CAFI members with lawsuits and hectored them until they simply leave the struggle. Yes, Ilya Bratman’s name appears on a petition that is hostile to Israel, but this is par for the course. Those with malicious intent will find a way to disrupt those whom they see as opposing them, including by adding their names to petitions.

The individual who has been discrediting individuals within CAFI and the group as a whole has also been on the attack against the three members of the New York City Council who have taken on the CUNY administration and demanded that antisemitism be addressed. Below is a tweet by a respected member of this group, Kalman Yeger. I have indicated the name of the individual with an X.

“Nebuch, poor joke “Professor” [X] upset at elected officials for not wanting photo ops with a raging lunatic like him, so he picks fights with the only Council Members who actually have a record of taking on antisemites. Perfect Chodesh Av vibes from the maniac wing of Twitter.”

I am deeply involved with CAFI. The group is not run by a single individual, as claimed in the article, but is a collective of dedicated, independent faculty members. The person, who this article claims runs CAFI, is not an enemy of Israel but a devoted friend and tireless advocate for Israel. Our group condemned the antisemitism of the CUNY faculty union.

You can also see where CAFI stands in the letter sent to the CUNY Chancellor. Contrary to the assertions of Charles Jacobs, CAFI stood strongly against the link to the Jerusalem Declaration on the CUNY anti-discrimination web portal and protested to the CUNY administration and Chancellor Matos Rodríguez.

Azriel Genack

Distinguished Professor

Queens College and the Graduate Center

* * *

Charles Jacobs responds:

I hope that the publication of both sides of this hotly contested issue about CUNY will give the Jewish community an up-close look at a local example of what is becoming a serious national debate: Is the Jewish establishment failing to protect and defend America’s Jews in this time of surging Jew-hatred?

My column argued that CUNY administrators, who had for so long refused to deal with the antisemitism surging on their campuses, anointed Ilya Bratman to be the only Jewish employee at CUNY who would be permitted to defend its Jews on a CUNY platform because they knew from Bratman’s past actions that he would not upset the apple cart and would rubber-stamp CUNY’s impotent approach to antisemitism. Specifically, they knew that Bratman would never seriously push back against or challenge the powerful antisemites and their ideologies with which CUNY administrators must deal.

All of the letter writers dodge the issue and the proof points raised in my column. David Brodsky does so by defaming me, and touting Bratman and his organization CUNY Alliance for Inclusion (CAFI), while sidestepping the questions I raise. The sole purpose of Azriel Genack’s letter is to defame one of the leaders of SAFE CUNY, a group that actually does seem to be aggressively fighting all forms of antisemitism at CUNY. Like Genack and Brodsky, the Hillel board members make broad general declarations of success: “We have successfully worked toward concrete changes on our campuses by putting immense pressure on the chancellor and other CUNY presidents” without a single example of how this has resulted in a specific positive change for Jews at CUNY.

Do the Hillel board members not comprehend that the situation for Jews at CUNY has deteriorated profoundly over the past two years? How, then, can anything it, CAFI, or Bratman have done be said to have improved the situation for Jews there? Four Jewish professors are under investigation for complaining about antisemitism. There are no Jews left in CUNY’s senior administration. There are no permanent Jewish campus presidents remaining across CUNY’s 25 colleges. “Concrete changes” for the better?

Readers can see for themselves that none of the writers explain how or why CUNY Chancellor Rodríguez, having publicly refused to have any CUNY-affiliated Jewish professors or administrators on the Advisory Council of Jewish Life to fight the antisemitism at CUNY, suddenly reversed himself behind the scenes and installed the controversial Ilya Bratman in a secretive fashion.

None of the letter writers counter any one of my proof points. So I’ll ask them all again:

  1. Why did Bratman’s CAFI group, formed supposedly to fight CUNY’s professional staff union, not publicly call out its president, James Davis, for being a BDS activist and for lying about it to the City Council? Has Bratman even ever told CUNY’s Jews or the public the truth about the very powerful Davis?
  2. Why did Bratman, who was involved in negotiating CUNY’s “discrimination portal” accept Saly Abd Alla, a former director of the extremely radical Islamist CAIR organization in Minnesota and a BDS activist, as chief administrator of the portal? Even more, as the anointed-by-CUNY Jewish defender of CUNY’s Jews, how could Bratman or CAFI not publicly object to Saly Abd Alla becoming the chief diversity officer for all of CUNY?
  3. Why did Bratman agree—without public protest—to having the anti-Zionist Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism (JDA) listed on its page?
  4. How can Genack and Brodsky deny CAFI’s link to J Street and its ideology when its own website promoted a program with J Street affiliate, Women Wage Peace?
  5. Finally, there is the matter of Bratman’s signature on the “Scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies” statement calling Zionism “a settler colonial paradigm” and worse. Bratman has been telling people that his name on the statement was forged. Perhaps. But this statement has been out there for years. Why would he not have had a lawyer get it removed? Most critically: When did Bratman learn that his name was included on the signature list, and why is all this anger directed at me instead of at the folks whom he says forged his name on a hateful document? 

So, who is Bratman and what is CAFI really? And who is David Brodsky? CAFI leader and Bratman defender David Brodsky told The Forward that he does not identify as a Zionist and that it is “not unsafe for Jews” on campus today; this when Jews have been beaten by CUNY students and at CUNY student rallies. In the same letter to The Forward, Brodsky wrote that Zionism is a “form of nationalism” and called for it to be critiqued. “We can and should critique Zionism as we do any other form of nationalism,” he said.

Brodsky writes to JNS that I have labeled Bratman an antisemite. Nowhere have I said this about Bratman. For Brodsky to write this should have devastating consequences for his integrity. I await his public apology. He then seeks to cover up CAFI’s alignment with J Street principles by minimizing CAFI’s promotion of Women Wage Peace—as a group that was simply “liked” by J Street. He is wrong again: Women Wage Peace has a much more intimate relationship with J Street; it has its very own page on J Street’s website.

Not only has Bratman organized CAFI events where criticism of Zionism was front and center, but at one such event, Brodsky himself called for criticism of Zionism while Bratman, as the organizer of the event, was seated right beside him and asked him to speak. Nor have I dismissed, as Brodsky implies, all the good things on CAFI’s website. But websites, even ones chock full of good things, do not themselves win battles. For that, you actually have to have the courage to name and fight your most powerful adversaries and their hateful ideologies, no matter how politically incorrect this may be. And all the other nice things that are done—having great speakers, and fliers and videos—will never be sufficient unless they are connected to a strategy that identifies, deconstructs and counterattacks our actual adversaries and their ideologies.

It is precisely because Bratman does not challenge, offend or upset James Davis, Saly Abd Alla, or other antisemitic CUNY administrators, that Rodríguez, who after all, has to deal with these people, chose him. It is his J Street-like “suing for peace while making concessions” strategy that explains why Bratman is the perfect choice for CUNY administrators who want quiet above all else. The only question I have now is whether Rodríguez simply surmised that Bratman would continue to refrain from fighting CUNY’s antisemites or was an actual agreement struck?

Who has the high moral ground here? Instead of responding to the points of my article, Genack, without offering a scintilla of evidence, calls me “an operative” of one of SAFE CUNY’s well-known, long-fighting leaders. Rather than name that leader, Genack sends readers to a nasty, vituperative, hateful attack on that person by Kalman Yeger that clearly identifies Genack’s demon. Genack may be less clever than he thinks. Merely avoiding using a person’s name when it is obvious to whom one is referring may not be a defense to a defamation suit.

I was truly surprised to see that the Hillel board members failed utterly to defend Ilya Bratman from literally any of the statements I made about him and that they do not even bother mentioning how on earth Bratman’s name ever ended up on a document referring to Israel as a settler colonial “Jewish supremacist” project. If there were good answers to any of my questions, surely we would have received some of them. I view this as a tacit admission that all of my points were factual, accurate, and … very problematic for Bratman, CAFI, and anyone who supports them.

The point of my piece is that CUNY selected Bratman to be the sole official defender of CUNY’s Jewish community because he has shown them that he will neither name nor fight the ideologies (radical leftist anti-Zionism, and radical Islamist antisemitism) and their leaders at CUNY who are threatening Jewish well-being on campus. How utterly repulsive it was then to find Bratman quoted in a JNS article telling us that it is the students who don’t want to fight!

Things are coming full circle: It has just been reported that four Jewish professors are under investigation by CUNY for filing antisemitism complaints against radical Islamists and BDS activists at CUNY. And so we now have before us a reality test of my hypothesis: Will Hillel, CAFI, Ilya Bratman and his allies find the courage to abandon their current practice, which I hypothesized is the deal Bratman made with the administration, of abstaining from identifying and fighting back against the powerful radical anti-Zionist BDS-ers and radical Islamists at CUNY? Will they come to the defense of the Jewish professors, and will they finally, unashamedly, say the most salient truth out loud: that radical leftist anti-Zionism and Islamist antisemitism are ominously dangerous to America’s Jews—no matter how fearful they are and no matter what it costs them to do so?

Charles Jacobs is the co-founder of the Jewish Leadership Project and the editor of “Betrayal: The Failure of Jewish Leadership.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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