The poster on the door of the Hillel at John Jay College of Criminal Justice reads “Safe Zone.” Above it hangs an Israeli flag, an American flag and another sign: “Israel wants peace.”
Take two steps down the narrow hallway on the ground floor of this Manhattan campus, and there is another, very different message.
“End Israeli Apartheid,” a sign next to a Palestinian flag reads. A poster identifies the room inside as the home of Students for Justice in Palestine.
The two student groups share space in the cluttered area known as “Club Row” at John Jay, which is part of the City University of New York.
“Things can get pretty heated on Club Row,” a security guard said. “Especially with the Israeli and Palestinian stuff.”
Just how heated is now up for intense scrutiny, thanks to a letter the Zionist Organization of America sent recently to CUNY. The February 24 letter alleges rampant anti-Semitism on four of CUNY’s campuses, and holds SJP responsible for this. In its missive, ZOA urges CUNY to condemn SJP for its actions, investigate the group’s funding and hold it accountable for allegedly violating CUNY policy.
As letters go, this one got results fast. Among other things, the New York State Senate has threatened to cut CUNY’s funding by a third, citing its charges; the New York City Council is considering legislation to address the letter’s allegations; civil libertarians have voiced concern about moves by lawmakers that they fear may chill free speech; 35 New York legislators called for the group to be shut down immediately; and CUNY itself has launched an investigation into the matter, hiring two high-powered attorneys, from a firm where partners charge up to $1,000 per hour, to probe the letter’s charges.
Yet an inquiry by the Forward into the allegations of anti-Semitism cited by ZOA suggests that those attorneys may have a difficult time with their investigation: The ZOA letter is vague as to when and where several of the most clearly anti-Semitic episodes took place, and as to what witnesses are making the charges. Charges were self-reported by students. The ZOA has provided CUNY investigators with contact information for students, though some have asked to remain anonymous.
In other cases — such as an alleged appearance of swastikas on two campuses or the shouting of angry epithets at Jewish students — the anti-Semitism is clear, but SJP’s role in it, if any, is far less so.
In yet other cases, the question is one of semantics — whether public expressions against “Zionism” or “Zionists” constitute anti-Semitism.
The last point depends crucially on the definition of the term “anti-Semitism” itself — a debate now taking place across the country as many colleges grapple with similar episodes and navigate the murky territory between political opposition to Zionism and bigotry against Jews as Jews.
Among the accounts and allegations cited in ZOA’s letter to CUNY, perhaps no episode illustrates more clearly how difficult sorting out that distinction can be than the student protest that took place against tuition hikes at Hunter College last November.
As shown on a Youtube video of the event, which was cosponsored by SJP, students brought a host of other grievances to this protest, and their shouted slogans included a repeated chant demanding, “Zionists out of CUNY!”
The ZOA letter claims that protesters were also shouting “Jews out of CUNY!” It’s a call heard nowhere on the video. But this discrepancy and arguments over it may miss a bigger issue.
What are the protesters actually demanding when they chant “Zionists out of CUNY?”
First, there is the worst possible implication — which is the one that at least some Jewish students heard. Asked if by “Zionists out of CUNY,” her group actually meant that Jews, or non-Jews, who identify as Zionists should not be allowed to get, or give, an education at CUNY, Nerdeen Kiswani, vice president of SJP’s chapter at Hunter, who said she was leading those chants, noted that they were “protesting the ideology of Zionism — not people.”
“I don’t want to exclude anyone from CUNY,” Kiswani clarified later, seeking to soften the original slogan. “It’s Zionism we’re opposed to.”
Zionists “can have whatever ideology they want outside the school,” she explained. But Zionism, she said, is a movement of “settler colonialism.”
Still, even “Zionism out of CUNY” suggests strongly that SJP seeks to ban — not balance or counterbalance, but ban — certain perspectives wholesale from the classroom.
It’s an implication Kiswani doesn’t shrink from. In SJP’s broad vision of a “liberated CUNY” a whole range of ideologies and movements are unwelcome, she explained. Zionism, said Kiswani, is equated with “white supremacy,” “transphobia,” “the patriarchy” and other ideologies, all of which are taught at the “expense of oppressed people’s histories.”
“They should not be part of the curriculum,” said Kiswani.
Separate and apart from the challenge of distinguishing between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, this is a perspective that challenges broader aspects of CUNY’s basic mission and concepts of academic freedom itself.
It is, perhaps, not surprising that Hillel and SJP have clashed at CUNY, the largest urban university in the country, with some 480,000 students. They represent diametrically opposed agendas in a city teeming with Jews and Muslims. But similar clashes are playing out elsewhere across the country. Hillel, the largest Jewish organization in the country, promotes a pro-Israel message and bars Jewish students at any of its chapters from sponsoring events that support moves to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel for its policies toward Palestinians. Jewish students opposed to Zionism may not hold forums under Hillel’s roof. “Israel is at the heart of Hillel’s work,” the national umbrella group’s website states.
SJP, which has more than 100 chapters across the country, is focused on ending Israel’s 49-year-old military occupation of the West Bank and its ongoing dispossession of Palestinians from their lands. But SJP chapters also often oppose Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state, calling for “an end to Zionism, settler colonialism, racism, and apartheid in occupied Palestine,” according to the website of NYC SJP, which coordinates with CUNY chapters.
ZOA, which takes strong right-wing positions on Israel-related issues, comes to the table with its own agenda. The group, which has been active on campuses nationwide for decades, got involved in CUNY years ago, following reports of anti-Israel events and exchanges that left Jewish students uneasy. On its website, ZOA offers Jewish students institutional support, resources and a list of approved speakers. Just as important, another list warns students about campus speakers who spread “dangerous messages,” including linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky (“Chomsky demonizes the State of Israel”) and former president Jimmy Carter (“Carter is a strong defender of Hamas”).
Students can log on and self-report an “anti-Israel event” to the ZOA on the website, or download printable fact-sheets and booklets with titles like “The Jewish People’s Long History in Judea and Samaria,” the term many on the right use for the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
And one of the biggest threats in the ZOA’s view? SJP, a group that the ZOA says “supports and glorifies terrorists.” For example, the ZOA writes in its fact-sheet about SJP that Palestinian icon Leila Khaled, who was involved in two plane-hijackings in 1969 and ’70, respectively, has been featured in SJP’s promotional posters. (Palestinians raise similar charges about Israeli leaders with terrorist pasts, such as Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin. Khaled’s political party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, later renounced hijacking.)
Zach Stern, the ZOA’s campus coordinator, helped put together the CUNY letter and remembers the November 12 Hunter College protest as “the breaking point.” Students called and texted him videos of the protest, he said. “We decided we had to do something.”
So ZOA launched an ambitious university-wide effort, coordinated with local CUNY Hillel chapters, to map out what its officials saw as a pattern of anti-Israel activities across CUNY’s campuses.
The group’s investigation resulted in that sprawling, 14-page memo, addressed to the CUNY board and signed by Morton Klein, the ZOA’s national president. In it, ZOA focused on four of the system’s senior colleges where, in the group’s eyes, discrimination was most rampant: Brooklyn College, the College of Staten Island, Hunter College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Though no names of students, eyewitnesses or protesters appear anywhere in the ZOA letter, dates are included for some incidents where SJP campus chapters protested against Israel.
As the ZOA letter notes, the Youtube video of the November 12 protest shows demonstrators chanting, among other slogans, ““Long live the intifada!” and “There is only one solution: Intifada revolution!”
Though there is no physical violence at the event, the ZOA letter stated, “Certainly most Jews at the rally understood that the demonstrators were supporting and calling for violence against them, causing Jewish students to feel threatened and afraid for their physical safety.”
At some protests, Jewish students also reported hearing comments and messages that, if accurate, seem to veer into anti-Semitic territory, not simply criticism of Israel.
The Youtube video also shows Jewish students carrying an Israeli flag at one point confronting some of the protesters on their denunciations of Zionism. And in the letter, one Jewish student who attended the protest described being “screamed at by SJP members to ‘get the f—k out of my country, our f—king nation,’ though he was an American Jew and Manhattan native.” ZOA declined to identify the student or to help arrange an interview with him or her.
“No student from SJP would ever say that,” said Kiswani. But she admitted that pro-Palestinian events anywhere can draw individuals who have their own agendas. “I’ve seen it. I know that people may use the Palestinian cause to spread their hatred,” Kiswani said. If she hears anything chanted that she believes is anti-Semitic, she said, SJP will hold regular debriefings after protests to clarify the group’s message. Pressed in a later interview, Kiswani said she would also tell a student engaging in an anti-Semitic chant to stop immediately.
“We don’t hate Jewish people based on their ethnic or religious background,” she said. “There is no room in our movement for anyone that is against anybody because of their background. Any claims of actual anti-Semitism need to be investigated to the fullest.”
Kiswani emphasized, “Anti-Semitism is a very severe charge.” But denouncing Zionism “is political,” she asserted, and different from “Jews out of CUNY.”
As for the implication of “Zionists out of CUNY”: “I don’t want this to devolve into a question of semantics,” she said. “I’ll be more careful with the language next time.”
A third category of claims emerges in the ZOA letter: reported manifestations of anti-Semitism or hostility toward Israel that generate an atmosphere in which at least some Jewish students feel generally uneasy in their classrooms and in campus hallways. But the letter presents no evidence linking these incidents to SJP.
At the College of Staten Island, ZOA’s letter noted, “swastikas have defaced the college’s desks and walls.” This is slightly different from the college’s reports. In 2015, according to the college, there was one known incident of a swastika found inside a library book; library staff reported the incident to a public safety officer. The officer, in turn, passed along the report to the police. The investigation is “open and ongoing,” the school said.
“There are students who are afraid for anyone to know they are Jewish,” the ZOA letter read. “They will not wear a Star of David or anything else that would expose who they are.”
That’s where Jews like Jesse Fuller come in. Raised as a Reform Jew on New York City’s Lower East Side, Fuller was born to a mother who was a white Jew from New York and to a father who was a black Baptist from Jamaica. “We were spiritual, not that religious,” he said, “I was brought up in the culture of Judaism.”
But after going to Israel on a Birthright trip, Fuller found deeper meaning in his Jewish background. “What sparked my interest was going to Israel,” he said. After spending a summer there, he decided he wanted to get involved in Israeli activism, so he joined Hillel at John Jay when he started studying for a master’s degree there.
Fuller wears a beard, thick glasses and a baseball cap. A small Star of David necklace peeks out from his hoodie; on his backpack there is a small patch of the Israeli flag.
On the way to his first Hillel meeting, after the formative summer in the Middle East, Fuller heard shouting behind him. He turned. “Zionist pig!” a voice called. Then a plastic water bottle whipped past his head. He told campus security, he said, but never heard back from them. “And that was before I even got involved in Hillel,” said Fuller. “It was because of my flag.”
Fuller is now vice president of his college’s Hillel. They meet weekly on the ground floor of John Jay, in Club Row. More than a dozen student groups are packed together there in a small corridor, their doors plastered with posters. There is the judo club, the double dutch club, and Hillel and SJP, with just the Dominican student club between them.
On one recent afternoon, a box of hamantaschen rested on a desk in Hillel’s room. A huge flag of Israel adorned the wall. Below it, a small poster read, “Israel left Gaza for peace and has received 8,000 rockets from Gaza.” Thumbtacks had been carefully pressed into the shape of a heart.
Tomer Kornfeld, Hillel’s president, sat with Fuller, talking about upcoming events. Fuller told Kornfeld he had applied to travel with ZOA on a “leadership trip to Judea and Samaria.” Kornfeld nodded and texted another group member on his phone.
“My dad’s Israeli, my mom’s a refugee from the former Soviet Union, so I had that mix growing up,” Kornfeld said, looking up. “I think about the things they went through.”
Kornfeld got involved in Hillel during his freshman year.
“I saw the SJP rallies and said why isn’t anyone countering this,” said Kornfeld, who has been involved with other Israel advocacy groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and StandWithUs. But, he said, “the more we got involved in pro-Israel work, the more campus tension got insane. It was almost as if once we started speaking up, things got blown out of proportion.”
Because SJP is active on campus and coordinates often with other student groups, the small Hillel group is put in an odd position. “SJP sees other groups working with us as ‘normalization,’” Kornfeld said. The pro-Palestinian group discourages others from partnering with Hillel. “You’re identified with Israel,” he said. “You’re identified with this and — boom — they shut you down.”
Another Hillel member, Sam Kronfeld, said that he talks often with classmates about whether anti-Zionism is the same as anti-Semitism. He knows that SJP makes this distinction frequently. “They say ‘I’m anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic,’ but when you ask why they’re anti-Zionist, things come out. It does get very close to anti-Semitism,” he said. “There are these creepy overlaps.”
Debates about whether campus protests against Zionism constitute a type of anti-Semitism are heated and active. On March 24 the University of California’s Board of Regents adopted a new policy on discrimination that linked anti-Semitism to some types of anti-Zionism, the first school to do so since the push for economic boycotts of Israel emerged on American campuses. Manifestations of “anti-Semitism have changed,” they wrote, “opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.”
The UC Regents ultimately proclaimed, “Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
The debate has even reached the presidential candidates. Bernie Sanders, who has previously been somewhat critical of Israeli policy, told MSNBC that “there is some level of anti-Semitism” in the boycott divestment and sanctions movement, BDS.
“In an ideal campus, everyone should feel comfortable saying what they believe and think,” said Kenneth Stern, former director of the division of anti-Semitism, hate studies and extremism at the American Jewish Committee. “When there are intimidating acts, this is a lessening of that ideal. But the idea that we’re going to suppress speech we don’t like — it backfires. It alienates faculty, it changes the dynamic.”
Stern is now executive director of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation, which looks specifically at campus anti-Semitism. He said that any approach that does not deal “in a serious way with the deeper narratives here” will backfire. “Education should help students understand the narratives, rather than passing laws or rules saying one particular view is problematic.”
For their part, SJP members also feel politically targeted.
Kiswani and other SJP members worry that ZOA’s accusations of anti-Semitism are being leveled at SJP just to silence the group’s criticisms of Israel and Israeli policy. Politicians have on several occasions pressured CUNY over campus forums in which students sought to discuss issues such as BDS.
In the spring of 2013, one such forum at Brooklyn College, featuring Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler, two pro-BDS academics, drew the ire of many local leaders. At least 10 City Council members threatened to cut financing for the college unless the political science department withdrew its co-sponsorship of the event.
Though he opposed BDS, New York City’s then-mayor, Michael Bloomberg, defended the college’s right to hold the event. “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion,” he said bluntly, “I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”
Faculty members sympathetic to the group have also come under pressure.
“I was called an anti-Semite in the Staten Island newspaper because of the ZOA letter,” said Sarah Schulman, an English teacher at CSI and a faculty adviser to SJP. “And then I have to go teach classes there.”
Schulman, who is Jewish, is a well-known member of SJP, which has other Jewish members and has partnered in the past with left-leaning Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace.
The ZOA “is attempting to censor speech supporting Palestinian rights,” said Radhika Sainath, an attorney at Palestine Legal who provides legal advice to CUNY’s SJP chapters. “The First Amendment is binding on public colleges.”
Not all SJP members have personal connections to the Middle East. But for Kiswani, this story is her life. She was born in Jordan; her Palestinian family was displaced during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. She grew up in Brooklyn (with the accent to prove it) and wears a hijab.
“I cannot support a movement that uprooted people,” she said.
In recent years, Muslim students at Brooklyn College have faced their own challenges, including undercover surveillance by New York City police officers. This, Kiswani said, is still fresh in her Muslim peers’ minds. The rhetoric of presidential candidates like Donald Trump — who calls to temporarily bar all Muslim immigration to this country — adds to their general unease.
“There is an uptick in concern now [over] both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism,” said Mark Rosenblum, who is a professor of history at Queens College, another of CUNY’s senior colleges. College campuses are where, Rosenblum said, “profound identity consciousness” takes shape for students.
“There are many grievances,” the professor said. “We have people in different worlds on these campuses who haven’t stepped outside to look at the whole constellation in the sky.”
This article was updated on April 3, 2016 to reflect new information: While the ZOA is protecting the identities of some students who appear in their letter, the organization has also provided CUNY investigators with contact information for students, according to Arthur Schwartz, a ZOA advisor.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.