A year ago, the Zionist Organization of America, a pro-Israel group founded in 1897, received reports of anti-Semitism from Jewish students, Hillel directors and even their own professionals at CUNY.
“These Jewish students, they’re afraid to wear yarmulkes [and] Jewish t-shirts,” Morton Klein, national president of ZOA, said.
In response, the organization wrote a letter to CUNY demanding they act against Students for Justice in Palestine, the student-led group Klein described as anti-Semitic.
CUNY, in response to ZOA and other state lawmakers demanding action, created two task forces—Task Force on Campus Climate and Working Group on Freedom of Expression.
The Task Force on Campus Climate is led by Queens College President Felix Matos Rodriguez and LaGuardia Community College President Gail Mellow. It will review incidents at different CUNY campuses.
The other task force is led by General Counsel and Senior Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs Frederick Schaffer. It will create a new free speech policy for the CUNY board of trustees to review and approve.
Both task forces were created after Chancellor James Milliken felt concerned with “recent activities on CUNY campuses.”
“[CUNY] has consistently and strongly condemned all forms of bigotry and discrimination, including anti-Semitism, and we will continue to do so,” Milliken said.
The Task Force on Campus Climate met with people like Sarah Schulman, an English professor at College of Staten Island and a faculty adviser for SJP at CSI.
Schulman, accused by ZOA of anti-Semitism as well, met with the task force to review allegations pertaining to the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. She explained one example; SJP members making a swastika at CSI, never happened and were never recorded at the college.
“None of [ZOA’s] allegations had any reality. We went through them systemically, and it was clear they were all fabricated or vague,” she said.
Schulman explained the accusations directed at SJP were “for show.”
“[CUNY] should be treating SJP like any other student group,” Schulman said.
State lawmakers are also calling for the suspension of SJP chapters at all CUNY colleges.
Dov Hikind, a Democrat representing Brooklyn in the state Assembly, signed a letter with more than 30 other lawmakers calling for CUNY to suspend SJP. The letter cited anti-Semitism as the reason to ban the chapters.
Hikind explained he heard about an incident at Brooklyn College where students from Students for Justice in Palestine—at a demonstration organized by Brooklyn College Student Coalition—shouted down speakers at a Faculty Council meeting. One person was alleged to say “Zionist pig” at a chairperson of the meeting.
“The parts that are so disturbing is the intimidation and the fear,” Hikind said.
Hikind stressed the issue is not about free speech. Rather, it is about ending intimidation Jewish students feel at CUNY.
“You are not entitled to intimidate other people and cause fear on a campus college,” he said.
This is not the first time calls were raised to ban SJP. An online petition with more than 5,000 signatures late last year demanded the CUNY board of trustees ban all SJP chapters.
There are however, legal issues involved with a ban. Radhika Sainath, a lawyer representing SJP chapters at CUNY, criticized lawmakers who are “sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution” but violate the First Amendment rights of students.
“Real instances of anti-Semitism, just like anti-black and anti-Muslim racism, should be taken very seriously and investigated,” she said. “But I have yet to see evidence that such incidents are attributable to speech supporting Palestinian rights. Time and again such accusations, when investigated by universities and government bodies, have been dismissed.”
Klein stressed SJP’s actions and words were hateful toward Jews. He said CUNY would act differently if the same comments were made toward blacks, gays or Hispanics.
“This is not a freedom of speech issue. SJP wants to make it that because they can fight it on this basis,” he said.
Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, explained Zionism and Judaism, in recent decades, were lumped together. However, she said there are Jews who do not identify with Zionism.
“Zionism is about support for a state, while Judaism is about support for a religion,” Vilkomerson said.
Vilkomerson noted organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine provide a place for Jews who do not agree with Israel’s actions.
“In some ways, I think the growth of SJP is a reflection of that. People are looking for a Jewish home that doesn’t require them to defend the state. States will always be criticized. [Yet] Israel can’t be criticized,” she said.
Klein said Jewish students that are a part of SJP are “the most frightened out of all Jewish people.”
“I have nothing but pity for these Jewish people,” he said.
ZOA noted it is considering filing a lawsuit under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits harassment or discrimination at all public colleges and universities. However, Klein said the organization will await CUNY’s investigation and decide whether to do that.
“First, we have to wait for this investigation to be carried through, and then we’ll make that decision once the report is released,” he said.
Klein feared violence could occur at campuses if nothing is done about the group chapters. He said, based on this, Milliken “should be ashamed of himself” for not outright addressing the group.
“He’s really afraid of them,” he said.
CUNY’s task force will continue its investigation and present its findings to the chancellor and board of trustees. The university did not respond to questions about when this would end.
No SJP chapter at CUNY responded to inquiries by The Knight News.