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Free Speech and CUNY Anti-Semitism

The nation’s largest higher education institution issues a 24-page report on anti-Semitic behavior among its students and points the way to a saner campus environment

KC Johnson
September 21, 2016
Image created in MOSH
CUNY logoImage created in MOSH
Image created in MOSH
CUNY logoImage created in MOSH

Earlier this month, retired federal judge Barbara Jones and former prosecutor Paul Shechtman issued a 24-page report summarizing their investigation into allegations of anti-Semitic behavior among CUNY students. The report was comprehensive and its defense of student organizations’ free speech sound, but its details also raised troubling questions about the state of affairs on CUNY campuses—and, by extension, at most colleges and universities.

The report made two principal findings. First, it clarified (there had been some debate about the incidents) the anti-Semitic conduct by some CUNY students. A November 2015 rally at Hunter College co-sponsored by the faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), drew support from a variety of identity-politics student groups, including the Students for Justice in Palestine. Encountering a small group of pro-Israel students, protesters shouted “Jews Out of CUNY” and “Death to Jews”; one CUNY student told Jones and her staffers that “as he was leaving the rally, a person behind him said, ‘We should drag the Zionist down the street.’ ” He had to ask CUNY security officers for protection. Jones and Schectman made clear that if CUNY could identify any of the protesting students, they should be punished for issuing verbal threats.

The report also took note of a completed investigation at Brooklyn College. In February 2016, a group of students interrupted a meeting of the faculty council to issue a series of demands relating to diversity preferences, tuition, and other such matters. As at the Hunter rally, the discourse soon turned anti-Semitic, and the students shouted “Zionist” or “Zionist Jew” at the council chairperson, who is Jewish. As Jones and Shechtman observed, with significant understatement, “to conclude that ‘Zionist’ was a code word for ‘Jew’ is no stretch” in the incident. Four students eventually were punished for disrupting a closed faculty meeting in violation of college rules, an outcome that the report authors endorsed.

The report also described a litany of extreme anti-Israel activity, often stimulated by local branches of the Students for Justice in Palestine. But, Jones and Shechtman correctly noted, “die-ins, mock checkpoints, and the SJP banner may offend some, but the First Amendment does not permit a public university to take action against them.” CUNY, the authors continued, “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. It cannot mandate civility or sanction isolated derogatory comments.”

This defense of free speech has generated strong criticism. Both the Post and the Daily News challenged the report’s conclusions. Long Island State Sen. Jack Martins, a Republican congressional candidate, contended that CUNY “can absolutely tell an organization how to conduct itself if it wants to receive government funding.” But as Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has noted, this line of criticism contradicts the First Amendment because the “Supreme Court has unequivocally held that viewpoint-discriminatory funding of student organizations is not permitted at public universities and colleges.”

Quite apart from any constitutional problems, attempts to suppress student speech make no tactical sense for pro-Israel advocates. College authority to channel the speech of student organizations inevitably would be used to harm pro-Israel student groups, which on most campuses enjoy scant faculty support. Moreover, limiting the rights of anti-Israel activists allows them to shift the discussion away from their extreme beliefs, from which most people outside academia appropriately recoil, to a different debate about protecting student civil liberties for all. In short, politicians like Martins are doing SJP’s work for the organization by allowing SJP activists to position themselves as victims.

Seeking to undermine free speech, moreover, distracts from previously unrevealed, deeply disturbing findings from the CUNY report. At Brooklyn College, for instance, an English professor “called Israelis assassins and baby killers.” A history professor, teaching a general education course on Western civilization, skipped the Holocaust, informing the class that “you all know this story.” Another professor used class time to discuss negotiations of the new faculty contract, and remained silent as a student claimed that “the administration was run by Zionists.” To this list could have been added the nine Brooklyn professors who testified in disciplinary hearings on behalf of the students who disrupted the faculty-council meeting with anti-Semitic attacks.

Faculty control over what occurs in the classroom is near-sacrosanct. But professors shouldn’t be skipping the Holocaust in Western civilization surveys or replacing course content with discussions about the faculty contract—much less standing idly by as a student hijacks the (already inappropriate) subject matter to launch an attack on “Zionists.” Doubtless most CUNY professors don’t abuse their positions in this manner. But it would be naïve to believe there aren’t other such examples on other CUNY campuses.

Having spent a decade and a half as a professor at Brooklyn and the CUNY Graduate Center, I harbor few illusions about the difficulty faced by Jewish students and by students who simply identify as Zionists. The BDS movement has grown substantially more powerful in recent years—especially among graduate students. SJP branches have shifted discourse in a sharply anti-Israel direction, and also have the inevitable effect (if, perhaps, not intent) of discouraging more reticent pro-Israel students from engaging with the issue on campus.

At the same time, my teaching experience, including my course on U.S.-Middle Eastern relations, suggests anti-Israel radicals represent only a small percentage of campus opinion. Most CUNY students are on campus to learn and therefore are badly served when professors—as the Jones/Shechtman report discovered—abuse their authority in the classroom.

The report also provides a needed reminder that administrators should exercise their free-speech rights when they encounter anti-Semitic conduct among their student body. CUNY Chancellor James Milliken forcefully condemned the extremist statements at the Hunter rally, noting that “intolerant, hateful, and bigoted speech, while it may be legally protected, is anathema to our values.” Then-Brooklyn President Karen Gould issued a similarly strong statement after the disruption of the faculty-council meeting, and during an earlier campus controversy after four Jewish students were improperly expelled from a pro-BDS campus talk. Whether Brooklyn’s newly-installed president, Michelle Anderson, will continue her predecessor’s willingness to speak out remains unclear; Anderson’s cavalier attitudes toward student civil liberties in other contexts raises concerns.

Given the imbalanced campus environment on matters related to Israel, administrators also need to be more proactive. Faculty—especially untenured faculty—who invite pro-Israel speakers must be protected from retaliation; a more active role for the campus Hillel (the Brooklyn Hillel is a good model here) should be encouraged; and campuses should adopt the University of Chicago’s free-speech principles as an affirmation that despite the generally unfavorable climate, pro-Israel speech by students will be welcomed. Administrators’ role is all the more important given the unwillingness of some faculty leaders—especially from the CUNY faculty union—to condemn even the most deplorable student conduct. After the incident at the Brooklyn faculty meeting, the PSC chapter chair, James Davis, issued a statement whose only apparent reference to the anti-Semitic remarks came in distancing the union from what Davis euphemistically termed the students’ “talking points.”

The situation at CUNY, of course, is hardly unique; indeed, it’s likely better for both Jewish and pro-Israel students than many other campuses. Reporting from Tablet magazine’s Yair Rosenberg, for example, has exposed a particularly sinister atmosphere at Oberlin. That reality illuminates the CUNY report’s central flaw. While “many of those we interviewed recognize that criticism of Israel is protected speech but feel that the use of the word Zionist is often a cover for anti-Semitism,” Jones and Shechtman wrote, “it would be wrong, however, to conclude that is generally the case … [T]hose who shout for ‘CUNY out of Israel’ should not be tarred as anti-Semitic.”

The truism that anti-Zionists are not necessarily anti-Semites should not obscure the reality of campus anti-Zionism of the type detailed in the CUNY report—or in Rosenberg’s reporting. As the Brooklyn faculty-council disruptors demonstrated, the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism among campus activists is frequently so thin as to be meaningless, and campus activists’ willingness to hold Israel and Israel alone to a set of standards no other country in the world could or does meet, exposes their bad faith. The report’s attempt to whitewash the extremist beliefs that Jones and Shechtman encountered thus falls flat.

Overall, however, the report’s defense of free speech, coupled with institutions’ willingness to punish anti-Israel extremists whose conduct violates campus rules, remains the best path for creating a better campus atmosphere on matters related to Israel.

KC Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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