By Stacy Driks
Some Jewish students on the campuses of the CUNY School of Law in Long Island City and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan have had to face antisemitic statements from fellow students as professors looked the other way.
There have been comments from some graduate students at John Jay College that openly talked about Hitler and whether Israel had the right to exist, a graduate student who went by the name David H. said at a recent city council higher education committee hearing.
“The professor either laughed it off or was in agreement,” the student testified. He later said he thought bringing up such incidents to other professors or the student council would be enough. But it wasn’t. However, he said did not decide to escalate such matters to the college president.
Another student was so scared and offended by antisemitic remarks that she decided to transfer to the “safer” confines of Yeshiva University.
“This all started because I said on Twitter, ‘sometimes antisemites make me want to move to Israel’,” said Rafaella Gunz, a former CUNY Law School for one semester in 2019. “I was not welcomed by my class, which included the commencement speaker that just spoke this year.”
Gunz eventually left CUNY and almost gave up entirely on her education. Now she is about to graduate with a master’s in social work from Yeshiva.
“Every day I went to CUNY Law was a challenge for myself as I felt the glares of student disapproval as I read about their comments about me online,” she said.
Ilya Bratman, a John Jay and Baruch College faculty member, admitted that his students are afraid to express their Jewish identity.
“Numerous students told me that they are intimidated to participate in this hearing or to combat antisemitism on campus because they don’t want that kind of attention,” he said. “They are afraid of the repercussions that may follow them in the classrooms, on campus, and online!”
These were some of the comments made at a June 30 city council higher education committee hearing chaired by Councilman Eric Dinowitz, who represents greater Riverdale. As part of the hearing, committee members grilled CUNY Law School representatives virtually as Chancellor Felix Matos could not attend.
The hearing got intense after city council members saw the administration’s lack of commitment and answers. The committee asked the CUNY representatives if they knew the definition of antisemitism, if they had statistics on antisemitic acts on campus and what CUNY is going to do about these acts. The representatives said they don’t have a policy specific for reporting antisemitic acts, nor did they have any figures available.
Glenda Grace, the senior vice chancellor and an attorney, said she is aware of the definition of antisemitism. CUNY could condemn constructive dialogue. CUNY can discuss why it is harmful and why it won’t allow students to thrive.
“Ultimately, free speech allows that,” Grace said.
“As a lawyer, in law school, we learned that that (antisemitic language) was something that was disturbing. But that is a law.”
She made it clear CUNY will not stop free speech. The university can only condemn it, she said.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative (an organization that tracks antsemitic acts), wrote in testimony that her organization had logged 159 incidents of antisemitic activity throughout the CUNY system since 2015. A large majority of the incidents were Israel-related and consisted of the demands of boycott, divestment and sanctions. Eleven involved genocidal expression targeting Jewish students.
“Making sure everyone feels safe and protected is our top priority at CUNY, the University is engaged every day in efforts to confront intolerance of any kind within our campus communities, and we are always learning new ways to improve our efforts,” said CUNY spokesperson Giulia Prestia.
Brooklyn Councilwoman Inna Vernikov was highly disappointed with the chancellor no show.
“He sent three witnesses who are here on Zoom, they’re not even here in this room to listen to the painful testimony of the professors and the students who have experienced pervasive, ongoing discrimination and antisemitism at school,” she said.
When CUNY representatives testified they had no policy for antisemitic acts on campus or ways to measure them, Dinowitz would not have any of it.
“This makes me question how seriously this problem is being addressed. Between you being virtual and the chancellor not being here, this doesn’t fill me with hope. And I’m a hopeful person,” Dinowitz said.
The lack of sensitivity training on campuses worries Dinowitz.
“What is important rather is that we not wait until any active bias occurs before we started addressing it,” Dinowitz told The Riverdale Press.
He says Lehman College — one of the CUNY campuses in his district — has yet to have an antisemitic case, at least to his knowledge. However, he wants to try to encourage local leaders to learn about other religions and beliefs, including ensuring they have unity events.
“We should not wait until there’s acts of hate before we start coming together,” he said.
CUNY came under fire weeks after one of the campuses, CUNY School of Law, and some of its faculty and student government association endorsed the BDS movement.
Even though the speech and resolutions targeted a country on the other side of the world — the hatred goes to people who support the Jewish state, according to council members.
A group calling itself NIONCUNY (Not In Our Name CUNY) – consisting of 32 signatories, issued a statement pledging to “create networks and programs within the CUNY Jewish population to question, critique and unlearn Zionism so they may form their own Jewish identity.”
They are requesting Jewish students, workers or alumni and even non-CUNY individuals to join them to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestine liberation movement organizing at CUNY.
CUNY School of Law did not respond to The Press for comment.
“This type of speech, we really need to intervene personally and not just have a summit in this specific situation and foster that dialogue,” Dinowitz said. “And have a conversation about why certain language is dangerous.”
“They don’t even know where to go or how to report,” Dinowitz said.
The council members are trying to create a safe space for Jewish students on how or where to report incidents.