Brooklyn College has largely exonerated two students who spent the last four months ensnared in a drawn-out disciplinary process and publicly accused of anti-Semitism by their college president.
The college could find no witnesses to tie the students to one of the most egregious allegations leveled against them: that while protesting a meeting one of the students shouted “Zionist pig!” at a professor.
The students had been accused of hateful speech before any judicial process, the students’s lawyer said.
“Rather than comply with the College’s constitutional due process obligations, [Brooklyn College] President Gould pre-determined these students’ guilt,” said Palestine Legal attorney Radhika Sainath, who represented Aly and DeAngelis during the hearing. “This was a politically-motivated disciplinary process that should never have happened.”
The students, Thomas DeAngelis and Sarah Aly, were part of a protest held at a Feb. 16 faculty meeting; the protesters made demands on issues like tuition, safety and diversity. Some students also began chanting slogans against Zionists or Zionism.
At least one person in attendance, quoted anonymously in a February 17 Jewish Telegraphic Agency story, said they heard someone shout “Zionist pig” at Yedidyah Langsam, a Jewish faculty member running the meeting.
The college launched the investigation after some Jewish leaders and groups decried the protest as anti-Semitic. Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind called for “disciplinary action”; the right-wing Zionist Organization of America also featured the protest in a lengthy letter, published in February, that alleged widespread anti-Semitism at CUNY. The ZOA called for an investigation.
The students “directed hateful anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish comments to members of our community,” Brooklyn president Karen L. Gould wrote in a campus-wide e-mail. “We find this disruptive behavior unacceptable and the hateful comments especially abhorrent.”
Around ten students participated in the protest, Brooklyn College said, but only four could be identified by the disciplinary committee. Two students came to agreements with the committee before the hearing. One admitted to shouting at Langsam and received a penalty of “disciplinary probation.” The other student received an admonition.
The other two students, Aly and DeAngelis, ultimately faced a five-hour disciplinary hearing on May 20, charged with violating four procedural rules. On June 7, the college released a statement saying that the students had only violated one minor rule, and announced that it could find no witnesses to the widely cited “Zionist pig” shout.
Even Langsam, the faculty member at whom the shout was supposedly directed said he hadn’t heard those exact words.
The JTA said that they stood by their quote.
“I did not hear ‘Zionist pig,’” Langsam told the Forward. “There was a lot of going on, frankly. I was trying to bring order to the meeting.”
The outcome of this investigation — that it was ultimately difficult to independently verify specific accusations of campus anti-Semitism — seems to echo a March investigation by the Forward into the ZOA letter that purported to describe widespread campus anti-Semitism at City University of New York.
The ZOA’s claims were almost entirely self-reported by students, who are not named in the letter, which may make independent verification difficult. (The ZOA has connected their anonymous sources with investigators, a representative of the group said.) But Brooklyn College’s inability to corroborate this allegation, may indicate that CUNY’s wider investigation could also run into roadblocks.
When asked about the ZOA’s methods of collecting and publishing this and their other accusations, ZOA president Morton Klein said, “When we wrote the letter, we simply described what was described to us.”
Palestine Legal said the disciplinary hearing for two students, who are also Palestinian rights activists, was part of a larger trend.
The charges against Aly and DeAngelis reflect a “pattern of politically-motivated tactics used to suppress Palestinian rights advocates across the country, including at the City University of New York,” a statement from Palestine Legal said.
The ZOA’s allegations of anti-Semitism caused a political uproar — and were even used as a pretense for proposed funding cuts to CUNY in Albany. An independent CUNY probe into the ZOA’s letter is ongoing.
Part of the debate revolves around the very definition of anti-Semitism, and whether criticisms of Zionists or Zionism also constitute a kind of racial or national intolerance.
Assemblymen Hikind, a Brooklyn politician with old ties to the extremist right-wing Jewish Defense League, was the first politician to publicly condemn the Brooklyn College protest. Hikind said he did not draw too much distinction between students chanting “Zionists out of CUNY” or “Zionist pig” — both chants are “purely anti-Semitic,” Hikind said.
Sainath said that DeAngelis and Aly “never said anything hateful or anti-Jewish” and pointed out that the students were not charged with anti-Semitism by the college, but for simply disrupting the meeting.
Indeed, the college committee only charged the students with violating Henderson Rules, which are used to guide university and college procedures.
The students were charged with violating Henderson Rules 1, 2, 3, and 7, the decision from the committee read, but were only found guilty of violating Henderson Rule 2, failing to “comply with lawful direction issued by representatives” of the university.
In describing the event in their public letter, the ZOA highlighted the possible involvement of Students for Justice in Palestine, a loosely organized national group that has been at the forefront of efforts to boycott or divest from Israel on campuses. The ZOA regularly characterizes SJP as “an anti-Israel hate group.”
ZOA has charged that “SJP has created a hostile campus environment for many Jewish students, causing them to feel harassed, threatened, and even physically unsafe, in violation of the law.”
While DeAngelis and Aly are members of the group, the February protest was not an SJP event, Palestine Legal noted. Neither DeAngelis or Aly could be reached for comment.
“The ZOA is putting pressure on the school and then the pressure is being put on us,” DeAngelis said in a previous interview.
Maria LaHood, deputy legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a statement that Aly and DeAngelis deserve an apology from Brooklyn College. By immediately characterizing Aly and DeAngelis as participating in an “anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish” event — as the protest was called by the school’s president — the students were “publicly smeared … as having made hateful comments.”
The charges of anti-Semitism, LaHood said in a statement, were “trumped-up.”
Email Sam Kestenbaum at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum
This story "After Four Months, Students Cleared of ‘Zionist Pig’ Charge for Lack of Witnesses" was written by Sam Kestenbaum.
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.