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CUNY must adopt the IHRA definition

Antisemitism is rampant in the university system.

Home page of City University of New York website, 2018, Credit: Sharaf Maksumov/Shutterstock.
Home page of City University of New York website, 2018, Credit: Sharaf Maksumov/Shutterstock.
Walter Holzberg
Walter Holzberg is a campus advisor for CAMERA and an alumnus of CUNY Baruch.

At the City University of New York (CUNY) antisemitism has become synonymous with the university system itself. A report published in March 2023 by Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY (SAFE CUNY)—a group of concerned students and faculty members—exposed a disturbing pattern of insidious and normalized Jew-hatred.

In Feb. 2022, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated the alleged harassment of Jewish students at CUNY’s Brooklyn College. The complaint, filed in 2021, outlined “severe and persistent antisemitic harassment from professors and peers directed at students.” 

The complaint described several concerning incidents, including one in which a professor claimed that Ashkenazi Jews are “oppressors” and another in which a student was bullied for identifying as Jewish and not “white.” Dozens of other incidents were documented in the report.

The problem has only gotten worse.

In July of 2022, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) filed a Title IV complaint against CUNY outlining decades of normalized antisemitism.

“Antisemitic flyers with vulgar comments about religious Jews—incredible as it may seem, even swastikas—are regularly observed on CUNY campuses,” the complaint stated. “Attacking, denigrating and threatening ‘Zionists’ has become the norm, with the crystal-clear understanding that ‘Zionists’ is now merely an epithet for ‘Jew.’ ”

“Jewish faculty and staff members at CUNY have faced pervasive, antisemitic discrimination, and CUNY has done nothing to protect them, thereby tacitly endorsing the widespread antisemitism and discrimination,” the complaint asserted.

In March 2023, the Office of Social Justice and Equity at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) sponsored and displayed a “visual timeline” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict riddled with propaganda that denied the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel.

In response to widespread condemnation, BMCC issued a weak unsigned “apology” for its actions.

CUNY administrators routinely fail to acknowledge and take measures to address the problem of antisemitism. Often, they appear complicit in promoting antisemitism, most notably when Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez failed to attend two scheduled City Council hearings on antisemitism at CUNY, sending a lawyer and two witnesses to appear on Zoom instead.

New York City Councilmember Inna Vernikov called Rodriguez’s actions “a sham … an insult to the Jewish community of New York.” Rodriguez also avoided hearing testimonials from students like Rafaella Gunz, who was harassed by anti-Zionists during her first year at CUNY School of Law, eventually choosing to transfer out of the CUNY system.

This spring proved to be one of the most challenging for Jewish students and faculty across CUNY campuses.

In response to BMCC’s statement, various Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters and CUNY for Palestine hosted “Palestine Education Week” with events at Hunter College.

On April 18, Reclaim the Commons rehung the counterfactual display created by SJEC in the CUNY Graduate Center. On April 19, CUNY for Palestine posted a series of testimonials in which individuals made slanderous claims against Israel.

On April 27, Brooklyn College SJP rallied outside the college Hillel. Advertisements for the rally included the claim that “Zionism is not welcomed on campus and anywhere at CUNY.” Of course, the overwhelming majority of American Jews are Zionists.

The rally was riddled with horrifying chants and featured the widely discredited extremist sect Neturei Karta as an example of token Jewish anti-Zionists. Neturei Karta, unfortunately, frequently allies itself with antisemites.

In a repeat of Nerdeen Kiswani’s hateful speech at the 2022 CUNY School of Law commencement ceremony, last month the school platformed Fatima Mohammed, a member of the school’s SJP chapter. Mohammed delivered a speech so antisemitic that the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York released a statement condemning it.

CUNY School of Law removed the speech from their public social media pages, leading anti-Israel groups to demand they reupload it in the hopes of disseminating their vile message. When the school did so, it was discovered that Mohammed had made several remarks that were egregious enough to inspire Felix Matos Rodriguez and the CUNY Board of Trustees to release a public statement condemning them as hate speech. This simple act of condemning antisemitism has led to widespread backlash, including from the CUNY Law Faculty.

On May 13, several CUNY SJPs and affiliated groups attended and promoted a Within Our Lifetime rally in Bay Ridge, chanting in support of violent terrorism and intifada. Participants included CUNY Baruch’s Middle East and North African Society, which uploaded an Instagram post showing them taking photos of a sign that said “NYC stands with Al-Quds” and “resistance until return.” The group had previously posted TikTok videos of their rock-throwing technique—often used as a violent tactic by Palestinian Arabs. For whatever reason, both posts have since been deleted.

It should be evident to even the most casual observer that something must change on CUNY campuses.

Widespread efforts have been made to prevent the IHRA definition of antisemitism—adopted by over 1,000 entities around the globe—from being adopted by CUNY. The excuse given was that the definition would limit free speech. This disregards the definition’s own statement: “Criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

While the response to Mohammed’s speech by Chancellor Rodriguez and the CUNY Board of Trustees is a first step towards standing up for the Jewish community, CUNY must do more.

It must adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism and thoroughly investigate and condemn the antisemitism that is rampant in its university system.

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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