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CUNY law students’ call for Israeli academic boycott ripples through university roiled by BDS fight

This article was originally published on Dec. 13 by THE CITY, a nonprofit newsroom covering New York. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

A resolution from the CUNY Law School Student Government Association calling for the city’s public university to sever ties with Israeli academics and institutions earned some swift rebukes — including from Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez.  

But the measure expressing solidarity with the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement — aka BDS — was far from an anomaly. It marks just the latest example of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict playing out across some of the 25 campuses of the City University of New York, raising tensions and stoking dissension.

“They are using this to create a very disgusting, terrible, hostile environment at our campuses,” Ilya Bratman, executive director of eight chapters of the Jewish student organization Hillel, including ones at CUNY’s Baruch, John Jay and City colleges.

“The academic boycotts are just the most ridiculous, stupidest thing ever,” he added.  

The resolution, passed Dec. 2, charges CUNY “is directly complicit in the ongoing apartheid, genocide, and war crimes perpetrated by the state of Israel against the Palestinian people.”

“‘The academic boycotts are just the most ridiculous, stupidest thing ever.’”

It also called on CUNY to end all Israeli exchange programs, as well as stop “complicity in the ongoing censorship, harassment and intimidation of Palestine solidarity activists.” 

“It’s sad that there seems to be more outrage about a BDS resolution than there is about human rights abuses that Palestinians face on a daily basis,” Laura Waldman, a member of the law school’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter and Jewish Law Students Association board.  

The student government’s action follows a resolution approved in June by delegates of the CUNY-wide faculty union — invoking South Africa’s apartheid legacy — condemning “the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state.” 

That measure directed the union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), to consider officially supporting the BDS movement in the wake of Israeli military action against Gaza last spring after Hamas fired rockets into Israel. 

Dozens of faculty members resigned from the union following the resolution’s passage. 

The law students’ move also follows a 2020-2021 school year, conducted almost entirely remotely amid the pandemic, in which everything from virtual classroom discussions to social media posts became flashpoints, students and faculty say. 

As the first pandemic-era semester with some in-person classes draws to a close, some faculty and students say they’re witnessing the ripping open of a wound that’s never had a chance to start healing. 

Some Jewish students and faculty charge the actions amount to anti-Semitism, while proponents of the resolutions say their objections are to Israel, not to Jews.

‘Tolerance and Civic Engagement’ 

Matos Rodríguez released a statement on Friday in response to the law students’ resolution, noting that student organizations “speak for themselves and the opinions or positions they express are entirely theirs and do not represent the views of CUNY or the majority of the 300,000 members of our community.”

“To be clear, CUNY cannot participate in or support BDS activities and is required to divest public funds from any companies that do,” Matos Rodríguez added, citing then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2016 executive order banning state agencies from investing in institutions or companies that support BDS.   

CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez.

CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez. Courtesy of CUNY

Matos Rodríguez rejected the students’ claim that CUNY is “complicit” in the censorship of Palestinian solidarity groups and in committing war crimes. 

He also said that ending academic exchange programs runs counter to “a university’s core mission to expose students personally and academically to a world that can be vastly different to their own, particularly through international exchange programs.”

It was not the first time Matos Rodríguez released a statement after a pro-BDS resolution was passed by a CUNY-related group. As tensions rose last spring, he responded with two carefully worded statements.

Following the union delegates’ resolution, he defended PSC members’ right to voice a point of view while declaring an obligation for educators “to promote tolerance and civic engagement and to respectfully have difficult — even painful — conversations on the most trying and seemingly insurmountable issues when needed.”

In early June, he denounced hate incidents committed against both Jews and Muslims. 

Call to Ban Soldiers

The chancellor’s call for tolerance followed an incident that gained attention from Fox News: In a Zoom class in the Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work, some students complained, a large number of participants changed their screen background to the Palestinian flag, and renamed themselves “Free Palestine: Decolonize.”  

The incident came a month after some Hunter College students circulated a petition that demanded anyone with Israeli Army ties be banned from campus.

That would have essentially excluded students from Israel, where military service is compulsory for most teens. The list of demands also includes a call to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel to pressure the government to change its policies.

Hunter College

Hunter College By EQRoy/Shutterstock

The petition has amassed hundreds of signatures from Hunter and CUNY students, alumni, staff and faculty.

Merav Fine Braun, director of the Hunter College chapter of Hillel, said her organization estimates that 25,000 students identify as Jewish across the CUNY system, adding that many are immigrants.  

“Students are not feeling like anti-Semitism is being taken as seriously as it could,” she said.

‘A Slap in the Face’

In May, someone — purportedly a student at John Jay — posted a picture of Adolf Hitler on Instagram, with a message saying “We need another Hitler today.” 

A group of Jewish students met with Karol Mason, the college’s president, soon after. One of them, Talia Salamatbad, said the students called on Mason to specifically condemn the action in a statement, but the president told them she would deal with the student privately.  

“We honestly just think that faculty and the administration is scared to show that they support the Jewish community at John Jay,” she said. “It is definitely like a slap in the face.”  

A John Jay College spokesperson pointed to a June letter from Mason to the campus community, titled, “Condemning Antisemitism, Islamophobia, Racism and Intolerance.” 

“When you read about the recent disturbing acts of antisemitism in New York City — synagogues being vandalized, attacks on innocent Jewish people, and cruel messages of hate posted online — it adds to your fears,” Mason wrote. “These appalling acts toward the Jewish community are unacceptable and un-American.”

‘Concerned for My Safety’

Andrew Berezhansky, student president of John Jay’s Student Council, said the administration hasn’t gone far enough to make students of all ideologies feel safe on campus.

“As much as I respect people in the administration, I don’t think that they’re doing enough,” Berezhansky told THE CITY.  When Berezhansky, who is Jewish, came out in support of Palestinians and the BDS movement, he said he was “verbally harassed and accosted a few different times”  by supporters of Israel “just by virtue of the political stance that I take.” 

John Jay College

John Jay College By Roman Tiraspolsky/Shutterstock

“I am definitely concerned for my safety,” he said, asserting that the safety concerns of Jewish students who support Palestine don’t get enough attention.    

He said he’s also worried about the safety of pro-Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students. 

Among the pro-Palestinian students is Asmaou Diallo, who called the spring semester at John Jay “very draining and emotionally exhausting.” 

“Being pro-Palestinian does not equate to being anti-Semitic,” she said. 

Diallo said being anti-Semitic and holding the Israeli government accountable for their miliary actions against Palestinians are different, yet “I’ve always been made to feel like I’m anti-Semitic or I hate the Jews…. I don’t hate the community at all.”   

‘Honor International Law’

Nerdeen Kiswani, vice president of CUNY Law School Student Government Association and president of the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, said any talk of Palestinian liberation or human rights is often labeled anti-Semitic.  

“We’ve seen accusations of anti-Semitism be weaponized consistently against Palestine organizers, to the point where it’s actually just like presupposing,” said Kiswani, who said she’s consistently faced smear campaigns for her pro-Palestinian activism.   

Kiswani defended the resolution’s demand for an academic boycott. 

“This is part of the call for BDS,” Kiswani said, noting that the movement uses “these tactics to pressure Israel to honor international law.” 

“‘We’ve seen accusations of anti-Semitism be weaponized consistently against Palestine organizers.’”

But the CUNY Alliance for Inclusion, a faculty group that formed in response to the PSC delegates’ resolution, declared the law school students’ recent measure represents a “wholesale offensive maligning and attacking Jewish student groups and programs as well as faculty research and collaborations.”

“It is disheartening that this portrayal is from students supposedly learning to think clearly and rigorously in the service of fairness and justice who now misguidedly oppose these ideals,” the group said in a statement posted on its website. “The rights of both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students must be supported.” 

Jay Alder, an English instructor at Queens College on the alliance’s executive committee, told THE CITY that many left-leaning people like himself in the informal group are distressed by “anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism.” 

“What was so egregious, beyond what the Professional Staff Congress did, in the CUNY Law School Student Government Association resolution is this new focus on Jews, Jewish organizations, student organizations, cultural organizations like Hillel,” he said — turning anybody who believes in Jewish self-determination “complicit in these fraudulent claims of genocide.” 

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