(February 10, 2023 / JNS) Plagued by charges some of its administrators embrace Jew- and Israel-haters, the City University of New York—the nation’s largest urban university—says it is fixing the problem. But critics say it is antisemitic business as usual at the public school.
Responding to demands for an easier way to report antisemitic assaults and intimidation across CUNY’s 25 campuses, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, CUNY chancellor, unveiled an online portal. That portal turned out to be a way to report a wide range of discrimination and hate, whether based upon race, color, national origin or “childbirth,” among 24 categories. One of the categories is “religion,” and another is “creed.”
This approach, critics say, is an “all lives matter” response to Jew hatred, which is a specific and growing problem.
“These platitudes aren’t enough,” Avi D. Gordon, executive director of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a national group originally founded at Vassar College, told JNS. He called the portal “wildly unimpressive.”
“That portal is very subpar, and unacceptable, and it’s something that we plan on sharing with the administration and talking with city council members about,” he said.
Last year, ACF called public attention to Rodríguez’s lack of action on antisemitism.
In a statement last week, Rodríguez pledged commitment to combating antisemitism and discrimination at CUNY. “Our university refuses to tolerate discrimination, antisemitism or hate of any kind,” he wrote. “We want every member of the CUNY community to feel welcomed and safe on our campuses.”
CUNY must lead by example, he added, calling the new portal one of many actions CUNY is taking communally to “combat antisemitism and all forms of hatred at CUNY.”
Inna Vernikov is a New York City councilwoman at the forefront of the charge to make changes at CUNY. After meeting with Rodríguez, she stated her appreciation for the university administration’s teamwork. She also “looks forward to further tackling this issue until everyone feels safe at CUNY, including Jews,” she wrote.
Gordon told JNS that CUNY initially presented the portal concept “in a different light.” He did not want to speak for Vernikov but said it isn’t clear CUNY is using nor branding it in the way she had intended.
“I think we all had a different interpretation of it,” he said. He thinks Vernikov probably thought it was a portal to be used specifically to report hatred of Jews or Israel. “This obviously is not the case,” he said. (JNS tried to reach Vernikov’s office by phone and on her Twitter account.)
Critics also cite another component of the portal. A list of “external resources” on its homepage links to nine resources. The first is the mainstream, widely-accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism—which the United States and 39 other countries accept—and, curiously, the second to last “resource” is the more fringe Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism.
The latter, per its website, responds to the IHRA working definition, which includes examples about Israel, including claiming Israel is racist, or comparing Israeli policy to that of Nazis. The Jerusalem Declaration, meanwhile, aims to “protect a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine.”
One of the criticisms of Israel the Jerusalem Declaration sees as legitimate is the boycott, divestment and sanctions movements, which represent “commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states. In the Israeli case they are not, in and of themselves, antisemitic.”
Beyond the international and narrower definitions, CUNY’s resource list links to the city’s human rights commission LGBTQ protections info card, the state’s guide to gender identity- or expression-based discrimination and the state’s racial discrimination guide.
That CUNY has adopted an “all hate matters” approach raises eyebrows, but its juxtaposition of the competing definitions of antisemitism–with the Jerusalem one critiquing the IHRA–is more surprising. That’s because CUNY has refused officially to adopt the IHRA definition.
Last year, Rodríguez was noncommittal on adopting the IHRA working definition, claiming to be seeking further guidance from New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s office. On June 12, 2022, the governor issued a proclamation calling the IHRA working definition “a vital resource in the struggle against antisemitism.”
CUNY has committed to use the IHRA definition only as one of a suite of “educational tools” to train diversity, equity and inclusion staff, administrators and student leaders, to help them “understand and recognize the various forms of antisemitism.” It did not state what other educational tools it would use for that purpose.
Critics have long held that those who fail to define antisemitism cannot combat it efficiently.
By adding the Jerusalem Declaration to its toolkit for combating antisemitism, CUNY has endorsed, at least in part, a definition that critics see as enveloping antisemitism in a broader fight against all forms of racism. CUNY lists that definition in a broader group of resources that also broader the issue, rather than addressing antisemitism as a specific threat.
Critics also say that the university has given cover to and accommodated antisemitism originating on the political left, which has largely been responsible for the documented Jew hatred at CUNY.
When the Jerusalem Declaration states that the BDS movement is not necessarily antisemitic, its use of phrases like “in and of itself,” “in and of themselves” and “on the face of it” overemphasizes defining what is not antisemitic, whereas what antisemitism is ought to be at the core of a definition of antisemitism, critics say. They add that among the signatories of the Jerusalem Declaration are individuals accused of antisemitism.
In Moment magazine, Ira N. Forman, former U.S. special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism, wrote that the Jerusalem Declaration is “considerably longer” than the IHRA one and what it calls a lack of clarity in the IHRA working definition is actually a strength, since the latter leaves some degree of interpretation open.
Very few people believe in and have adopted the Jerusalem Declaration, according to Gordon. “It’s placating to the extreme and to the other side,” he said.
A CUNY spokesman provided a written statement in response to several questions from JNS. The statement noted that the university launched an online portal “to report instances of discrimination and ensure all members of the CUNY community feel safe and welcomed on our campuses.” The portal, the statement noted, is part of the university’s “effort to address antisemitism.”
“To better inform these ongoing efforts, we have incorporated a list of educational tools as reference points,” it added.
Asked which of the competing definitions of antisemitism those filling out the form ought to use, the CUNY spokesman said, “You have our statement.”
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