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CUNY-affiliated group pledges to help Jews on campus ‘unlearn Zionism’

A recently published letter has drawn comparisons to ‘Soviet re-education campaigns to un-Jew the Jews’

A group of several dozen Jewish and non-Jewish students and staff, most affiliated with the City University of New York, have signed a pledge to create programs for other Jews at the institution to “unlearn Zionism.” The pledge, in the form of a letter, denounces Israel as a “settler colonial regime” that practices “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” against Palestinians and funds Nazi groups abroad.

The letter, titled “Not In Our Name: Anti-Zionist Jewish Coalition at CUNY,” endorses the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which aims to force an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. According to a tweet from CUNY4Palestine, the coalition launched last week.

The letter prompted a quick backlash. Blake Flayton, a columnist at Jewish Journal, tweeted that it recalls “Soviet re-education campaigns to un-Jew the Jews.” And Jackson Richman, a writer at Mediaite, called it “antisemitic. Period.” 

According to a Pew Research Center survey from May 2021, of the slim majority of American Jews who have heard about the BDS movement, the vast majority oppose it.

Invoking tikkun olam, or the Jewish concept of making the world a better place, the letter demands “resistance by any means necessary” for Palestinians and that the university cut ties with Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, which it describes as an “anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, Islamophobic, and anti-Palestinian organization.”

“As people who have undergone repeated state-sanctioned pogroms, ethnic cleansings, and genocide,” the letter reads, “we work to prevent a world that imposes that onto others.”

 “Never again means never again for anyone,” it continues.

The letter also rejects Zionism, widely defined as “the movement for the self-determination and statehood for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland,” and asserts that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which CUNY administrators reportedly said last month they do not use, is a “ploy to demonize anti-Zionist and Palestinian freedom of speech.”

While much of the Jewish establishment has adopted the IHRA definition, which states that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” may be antisemitic depending on the context, some left-wing and civil liberties groups say it inhibits criticism of Israel.

The letter further accuses Zionists within CUNY of criminalizing and demonizing Palestinian students and workers, and Israel of oppressing its Jews of color and funding and emboldening “fascist regimes and white supremacists globally.” 

At the time of publication, the letter had gathered 45 signatures, which it divides by categories — 35 CUNY-affiliated individuals, five individuals not affiliated with CUNY, four CUNY organizations and one non-CUNY organization. One of the non-CUNY signatories is Stanley Cohen, a lawyer who has represented members of Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda, which the American government designates as foreign terrorist organizations.

While signatories include Jewish students, staff, faculty and alumni, three of the four CUNY organizational signatories are not Jewish — League of Young Communists, CUNY for Palestine, and Rank and File Action. 

Publication of the letter comes on the heels of the CUNY chancellor missing a City Council hearing about antisemitism at the university system two weeks ago.

The letter also opposes “all methods of normalization with Zionist entities and organizations” and invites ani-Zionist speakers to campus to show young Jewish adults “that Zionism is not the only way.”

In recent years, CUNY has been a focal point of anti-Zionist activity, much of which, critics charge, is steeped in antisemitism and has made the university system an uncomfortable place for Jews. In May, the CUNY law school faculty unanimously endorsed a student council resolution to endorse BDS.

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