On Sept. 9, CUNY released its findings on a six-month investigation addressing allegations of anti-Semitic rhetoric from the group Students for Justice in Palestine at several CUNY campuses. The release of the report came just one day after a City Council hearing was held over Resolution 1058-A, which aims to publicly condemn the “global movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the people of Israel.”
The movement —otherwise known as BDS — is not directly associated with SJP. However, the movement’s philosophy and the subsequent actions at Brooklyn College influenced the tension between the SJP and pro-Israel groups at the college, according to the CUNY report.
In a letter by the Zionist Organization for America, allegations of anti-Semitism came after a series of events at CUNY campuses, which they took as creating “a hostile campus environment for many Jewish students, causing them to feel harassed, threatened, and even physically unsafe,” and called upon Chancellor James Milliken to take action.
CUNY initiated the investigation after allegations stemming from an incident on Feb. 16 at Brooklyn College at which students protested the Faculty Council meeting. According to the report, one student shouted, “Zionist,” to the chairperson, who wore a kippah. That student was not an SJP member. The report further stated that four students were disciplined.
CUNY’s investigation uncovered little evidence that SJP was responsible for the anti-Semitic remarks at its campuses. Rather, the report found that the group’s conduct was protected under the First Amendment, even if some found the speech to be hateful.
“Passions run high in discussions of Israel and Palestine, and with passions come heated and offensive words,” stated the report. “As a public university, CUNY is limited on how it can respond to hate speech. CUNY cannot punish such speech unless it is part of a course of conduct so pervasive or severe that it denies a person’s ability to pursue an education or participate in University life.”
Despite this, CUNY encourages administrators and college presidents to speak out against “hateful, discriminatory and anti-Semitic” speech. They have done so and will continue to do so, even if the speech is legally protected, said the statement from Milliken.
Additionally, Milliken has initiated a CUNY-wide working group with LaGuardia Community College President Gail Mellow and Queens College President Felix Matos Rodriguez.
The aim of the group is to “make recommendations … to ensure that students, faculty and staff are welcome and supported without compromising free speech and academic freedom.”
Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) released a statement thanking Milliken and CUNY leadership for their “prompt and thorough investigation into these incidents,” and appreciating, “their actions to condemn the despicable hate speech of Students for Justice in Palestine.” He added that the working group being established by Milliken “will ensure a fair and non-threatening environment for Jewish students in the future, while continuing to offer the constitutional protections necessary for an inclusive and respectful learning environment.”
Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), however, found the report astonishing. He released a tweet with a summary of the anti-Semitic actions discovered during the investigation, exclaiming, “Are you kidding me?” Lancman is one of 33 Council members co-sponsoring Res. 1058-A to publicly sanction BDS.
“BDS is anti-Semitic—plain and simple,” Lancman said. “BDS is merely hate speech haphazardly disguised as ‘activism’ by anti-Semites. The BDS movement isn’t just anti-Israel: It is unabashedly anti-Jewish, and quite frankly, it is as disgusting as it is illegal.”
The City Council hearing was full of heated discussion. Several times, protesters had to be escorted out for disrupting the proceedings. Some speakers were inadvertently removed due to being seated near the protesters.
In a statement, the Jamaica-based Majlis Ash Shura, also known as the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York, said it was “outraged” over the perceived treatment of Palestinian-American civil rights activist Linda Sarsour and Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid by the City Council, specifically Lancman.
Sarsour said she was “humiliated,” after being asked to leave the building following the chamber’s decision to empty out protesters from balcony seating.
During the hearing, Lancman and Sarsour disagreed over their views of the BDS movement. Sarsour took offense over Lancman calling her and Abdur-Rashid anti-Semites. “We will not accept that, just like you won’t accept me saying that you are an Islamaphobe,” she stated.
“[The Council] is against racism,” said Lancman. “It is my intention … with this resolution to shame the people who support the BDS movement and I hope that that will have an effect on their conduct.”