A complaint from the hawkish Zionist Organization of America about alleged anti-Semitism among pro-Palestinian activists has drawn a quick response from administrators at New York City’s public university system, and a pile-on from elected officials and Jewish groups.
In a February 24 letter, ZOA accused local chapters of the group Students for Justice in Palestine of anti-Semitic actions at four campuses of the City University of New York, and called for the university administration to condemn the group, investigate its funding and bar it from the university.
“This is outright Jew hatred,” ZOA’s national president, Morton Klein, told the Forward.
Yet defenders of the pro-Palestinian groups call ZOA’s campaign an effort to suppress students’ speech. “These kinds of allegations can have a real chilling effect,” said Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney with the pro-Palestinian legal aid group Palestine Legal.
ZOA has made similar allegations about pro-Palestinian groups at a number of campuses nationwide in recent years. Some of the group’s efforts have led to investigations by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The OCR has dismissed two of these complaints: one brought against Rutgers University, the other, against the University of California, Irvine. ZOA has appealed the Rutgers dismissal. A third ZOA complaint against Brooklyn College was resolved before the ORC completed its investigation.
The latest ZOA charges appear to have drawn an unusually speedy response. CUNY’s chancellor, James B. Milliken, has hired two attorneys — Paul Shechtman, a leading New York criminal defense lawyer, and Barbara Jones, a former federal district judge — to review ZOA’s claims.
Jewish members of the New York City Council, meanwhile, have said that they are drafting new legislation in response to ZOA’s allegations. And the Anti-Defamation League, which recently announced a new initiative against the movement to boycott Israel, has jumped in with its own statement in support of CUNY’s response.
ZOA’s accusations cover SJP chapters on several CUNY campuses, including Brooklyn College and the College of Staten Island. While some allegations relate to specific events, others are vague.
At the College of Staten Island, ZOA charges, “SJP has created a hostile campus environment.” The ZOA letter asserts that “swastikas have defaced… desks and walls,” but does not cite specific instances. Sarah Schulman, professor of English at the school and adviser of the local SJP chapter, said that she had never been told of any incident at the College of Staten Island in which SJP members were suspected of drawing swastikas.
ZOA also claims that a Jewish student at an SJP demonstration in November 2015 at the college was told, “I don’t hug murderers.”
In terms of anti-Semitism, at least, Schulman scoffed at this charge. “So what if a girl says that?” she said. “Palestinians are murdered in large numbers…. That’s not anti-Semitic to say that people who killed people murdered them.”
Schulman said that the SJP students are not anti-Semitic. “I’ve worked with these kids for years,” she said. “They are very offended and upset by these allegations.”
Schulman said that she has been the target of online harassment since February, when the New York Post ran a story on ZOA’s allegations.
In his letter responding to ZOA’s charges, Milliken noted that the school “cannot infringe the constitutional rights of free speech and association of its students, faculty and staff.” He wrote also that CUNY community members “share responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect and civil discourse.”
In addition to the investigation by Shechtman and Jones of ZOA’s charges, Milliken noted the recent establishment of a “working group” to review CUNY’s policies on speech and expression, and of a new “task force” to review how CUNY’s campus climate “supports a respectful exchange of ideas.”
Klein criticized Milliken’s letter. “We, to say the least, are disappointed with the response,” he said. “This is a time for them to publicly condemn SJP for their statements. They should condemn them by name; they’ve refused to do that.”
But Sainath applauded the statement. “I’m glad the letter was strongly worded in support for student speech and academic freedom,” she said.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.