CUNY law students’ call for academic boycott of Israel intensifies fight against BDS


A resolution of the CUNY Law School Student Government Association, calling for the city’s public university to sever its ties with Israeli academics and institutions, has been strongly criticized, notably by Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez.

But the measure expressing solidarity with the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – aka BDS – was far from an anomaly. This is just the latest example of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict unfolding on some of New York City University’s 25 campuses, exacerbating tensions and fueling dissent.

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

“University boycotts are just the most ridiculous and stupid thing there is,” he added.

The resolution, adopted on December 2, accuses CUNY “of being directly complicit in apartheid, genocide and ongoing war crimes perpetrated by the State of Israel against the Palestinian people.”

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

“It’s sad that there seems to be more outrage over a BDS resolution than there is over the human rights violations Palestinians face on a daily basis,” Laura Waldman, member of the Students for Justice in Palestine section of the Faculty of Law and the Association of Jewish Law Students. Advice.

The student government action follows a resolution approved in June by delegates from the CUNY teachers’ union – citing South Africa’s apartheid legacy – condemning “the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state”.

The move ordered the union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), to consider formally supporting the BDS movement following Israeli military action against Gaza last spring after Hamas fired rockets at Israel.

Dozens of teachers resigned from the union after the adoption of the resolution.

The law students’ move also follows a 2020-2021 school year, conducted almost entirely remotely in the midst of the pandemic, in which everything from virtual classroom discussions to social media posts became dots. lightning, according to students and teachers.

As the first semester of the pandemic era with in-person classes draws to a close, some faculty and students say they are witnessing the opening of a sore that never had a chance to begin to heal.

Some Jewish students and professors accuse the actions of being anti-Semitism, while supporters of the resolutions say their objections are directed at Israel, not Jews.

“Tolerance and civic engagement”

Matos Rodríguez posted a declaration Friday in response to law students’ resolution, noting that student organizations “speak for themselves and that 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 cede public funds from all companies that do,” added Matos Rodríguez, citing the governor at the time. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order of 2016 prohibiting state agencies from investing in institutions or businesses that support BDS.

CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez

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

He also said that the end of university exchange programs ran counter to “a university’s primary mission of exposing students personally and academically to a world which may be very different from theirs, especially in the way it is. through international exchange programs “.

This was not the first time Matos Rodríguez has issued a statement after a pro-BDS resolution passed by a group linked to CUNY. As tensions mounted last spring, he responded with two carefully worded statements.

Following the stewards’ resolution, he defended the right of PSC members to express their point of view while declaring an obligation for educators “to promote tolerance and civic engagement and to have with respect for difficult, even painful conversations about the most difficult and seemingly insurmountable problems. if necessary.”

At the beginning of June, he denounced hateful incidents committed against both Jews and Muslims.

Call to ban the soldiers

The Chancellor’s call for tolerance follows a incident which caught the attention of Fox News: In a Zoom class at Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work, some students complained, a large number of participants changed their wallpaper to the Palestinian flag and renamed themselves ” Free Palestine: decolonize ”.

The incident occurred a month after some Hunter College students circulated a petition which demanded that anyone with ties to the Israeli military be banned from campus.

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

Hunter College on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

College of Hunters
EQRoy / Shutterstock

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

Merav Fine Braun, director of Hillel’s Hunter College section, said her organization estimates that 25,000 students identify as Jews in the CUNY system, adding that many are immigrants.

“Students don’t feel that anti-Semitism is taken as seriously as it could be,” she said.

‘A slap in the face’

In May, someone – allegedly a student of John Jay – posted a photo of Adolf Hitler on Instagram, with a message saying “We need another Hitler today”.

A group of Jewish students met with Karol Mason, the president of the college, 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 in private.

“We honestly think the faculty and administration are afraid to show they support John Jay’s Jewish community,” she said. “It’s definitely like a slap in the face.”

A spokesperson for John Jay College reported a june letter from Mason to the campus community, titled “Condemnation of Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Racism and Intolerance”.

“When you read the recent disturbing acts of anti-Semitism in New York City – vandalized synagogues, attacks on innocent Jews and cruel hate messages posted online – it adds to your fears,” Mason wrote. “These appalling acts against the Jewish community are unacceptable and anti-American. “

“Worried about my safety”

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

“As much as I respect the people in administration, I just don’t think they’re doing enough,” Berezhansky told THE TOWN.

When Berezhansky, who is Jewish, expressed his support for the Palestinians and the BDS movement, he said he had been “verbally harassed and repeatedly accosted” by supporters of Israel “simply because of the political stance he took. I adopt ”.

John Jay College

John Jay College
Roman Tiraspolsky / Shutterstock

“I’m really worried about my safety,” he said, saying the security concerns of Jewish students who support Palestine are not getting enough attention.

He said he was also concerned for the safety of pro-Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students.

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

“Being pro-Palestinian is not the same as being anti-Semitic,” she said.

Diallo said being anti-Semitic and holding the Israeli government accountable for its military actions against Palestinians are different, yet “I always felt like I was anti-Semitic or hated Jews…. I don’t hate the community at all.

“Honor international law”

Nerdeen Kiswani, vice president of the CUNY Law School Student Government Association and chair of the school’s Palestinian Justice Students section of the school, said any discussion of Palestinian liberation or rights of man is often referred to as an anti-Semite.

“We have seen accusations of anti-Semitism being constantly used as a weapon against Palestinian organizers, to the point that it is in fact like presupposing,” said Kiswani, who said she was constantly faced with smear campaigns for his pro-Palestinian activism.

Kiswani defended the resolution’s demand for a college boycott.

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

But the CUNY Alliance for Inclusion, a group of professors that formed in response to the resolution of PSC delegates, said the recent law student action represents a “big offensive to slander and attack groups and programs. Jewish students as well as research and faculty collaborations. “

“It is disheartening that this portrait comes from students who are supposed to be learning to think clearly and rigorously in the service of fairness and justice who now falsely oppose these ideals,” the group said in a statement. declaration published on its website. “The rights of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students must be upheld. ”

Jay Alder, professor of English at Queens College on the alliance’s executive committee, told THE CITY that many leftists like him in the informal group are upset by “anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism” .

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