Students at CUNY Brooklyn College have confided to Professor David Brodsky that they are afraid to return to campus this semester because of the atmosphere of antisemitic hate and violence that pervades the institution. Brodsky, an Associate Professor and Chair of Judaic Studies at CUNY Brooklyn, feels that recent anti-Israel activities within CUNY have brought the concept of “resistance by any means necessary” embodied by the Palestinian intifadas to many of the system’s 23 campuses. As a result, he is considering moving all its classes online so as not to endanger the lives of his students and fellow departmental staff. “Why wouldn’t our department be in danger,” says Brodsky, “especially since we haven’t denounced Zionism?”
On 10 June 2021, in the wake of the Hamas’s attack on Israel the previous month, CUNY’s faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY), adopted a resolution that condemned “the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state’’ and denounced Israel’s “expansionism and violent incursions into occupied territories.” The resolution made no mention of Hamas, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization, or the more than 4000 rockets that it launched unprovoked into Israel, a third of which landed within the Gaza Strip. It also failed to mention Hamas’s use of women and children as human shields by firing rockets from or near schools, hospitals, mosques and heavily populated civilian areas.
On 10 June 2021, in the wake of the Hamas’s attack on Israel the previous month, CUNY’s faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY), adopted a resolution that condemned “the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state’’ and denounced Israel’s “expansionism and violent incursions into occupied territories.”
In response to the resolution, at least 50 professors resigned from the union in protest. Critics of the resolution pointed to the bizarre timing and one-sided nature of the resolution, which came during contract negotiations between the union and CUNY as the system continued to struggle with providing classes for its students during the pandemic. Others have noted that the union has never mentioned the human rights violations in Syria or China (among other ongoing international conflicts), which dwarf the events in Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a whole.
The resolution came shortly after CUNY’s University Student Senate (USS) vetoed a motion endorsing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, an internationally accepted standard that has been adopted by hundreds of organizations and dozens of countries around the world. With the fall semester now underway, the repercussions of these actions are being felt by CUNY’s Jewish students and faculty.
A body calling itself the “Cross CUNY Working Group Against Racism and Colonialism” held four zoom conferences in September, all of which are available online, in response to the resolution’s mandate that “in fall 2021, the PSC-CUNY facilitate discussions at the chapter level of the content of this resolution and consider PSC support of the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).” Describing itself as “a collective of conscientious CUNY staff, faculty, students, PSC union members, and activists committed to anti-racism and ending settler colonialism,” the group echoes the resolution’s focus on linking “the Palestinian struggle for self-determination to the struggles of Indigenous people and people of color in the United States” without addressing racism or colonialism in any other context.
It should come as no surprise that the group’s emails are sent under the auspices of “CUNY4Palestine,” a self-described body of “students, faculty, staff, and community members at CUNY that organize around the BDS movement and build solidarity for Palestine.” It would thus appear that the “Cross CUNY Working Group Against Racism and Colonialism” and “CUNY4Palestine” are one and the same. Throughout their “teach-ins” and symposia, presenters repeatedly employed timeworn antisemitic cliches disguised as critiques of Zionism. One presenter referred multiple times to the “tentacles” of Zionism and its influence on governments throughout the world, an appropriation of the old antisemitic image of “global” Judaism used by antisemites during the nineteenth century before being adopting by the Nazis. After World War II, the government of the USSR used the image in reference to “global” Zionism as part of its anti-Israel propaganda campaigns while denying civil rights to Soviet Jews on the basis of their Jewish ethnicity.
However, some at CUNY have fought back against this scapegoating of Israel and one-sided narrative about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
However, some at CUNY have fought back against this scapegoating of Israel and one-sided narrative about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In response to PSC-CUNY’s anti-Israel resolution, 2,700 members of the university’s community, including over 400 faculty and staff, founded the CUNY Alliance for Inclusion (CAFI) to “foster an environment of academic integrity, moral clarity, and open dialogue at CUNY by standing against antisemitic and anti-Zionist resolutions.” CAFI opposes “the woeful distortion of human rights advocacy in the classroom and within the PSC-CUNY union that abandons countless victims of abuse by autocratic regimes around the world in order to unfairly attack a single democratic state, Israel, while giving cover to terrorist Hamas, which swears to wipe it off the map.” CAFI has provided its own seminars on the situation in Israel and Palestine and offers resources for students and faculty to cope with the hostile climate they now find themselves in across the CUNY system.
“We are trying to push back,” said Brodsky, “bringing nuance back to the discussion.” He also notes that pro-Israel students are getting more organized in response to this recent wave of anti-Israel activities. “But we’re behind the antisemites. They did this on their timeline. They created this. They had everything in place to move forward with it and they were ready to go. It’s been eye opening to see how blatant and open they’re willing to be with their antisemitism.”