Members of the New York City Council are pushing a bill that would require public colleges in the city to track anti-Semitism on campus. The legislation, which has not yet been submitted to the council, would require the City University of New York (CUNY) to report incidents of anti-Semitism to the City Council.
But Palestine solidarity activists say the bill is aimed at their activism. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters have waged vociferous protests in recent months against Israel on campus that have alarmed pro-Israel advocates. They have interrupted meetings and chanted for Zionists to get out of CUNY. In response to this activism, the CUNY administration has pledged to investigate bigotry on campus.
Nerdeen Kiswani, the chair of NYC SJP–a coalition of New York chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine–called the pending legislation “an effort to undermine and attack SJP,” a group that, she said, condemns anti-Semitism. She added that “we’re being tackled left and right, we’re being repressed, at every single CUNY campus.”
Jewish Voice for Peace echoes Kiswani’s concerns. In a statement sent to journalists, the organization said it is concerned the City Council bill “is intended to silence advocacy for Palestinian human rights” by conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel.
The City Council bill was planned after advocacy by the right-wing Zionist Organization of America. The legislation sets up an impending clash between Palestine solidarity activists and pro-Israel advocates to be waged at the City Council, where pro-Israel sentiment is strong. The accusations of anti-Semitism come as pro-Palestine student activists at campuses such as Vassar, Oberlin, and the University of California are also being criticized for alleged bigotry. Activists say these accusations are designed to shut down advocacy for Palestinian rights.
The New York Post first revealed the plans in a report earlier this month. Councilman Mark Levine, a Democrat and chair of the Jewish Caucus at the council, told the paper that “we’re not convinced that the university is adequately tracking what is clearly a pattern of bigotry.” It’s not yet known what the exact text of the bill will be, or how the City Council will define anti-Semitism. Tova Chatzinoff, deputy chief of staff for Councilman Chaim Deutsch, who will be introducing the bill, declined to answer my questions on the phone, asking for the questions by e-mail. She did not return my e-mail, though.
The Jewish Caucus will likely find receptive ears to their proposed bill. The New York City Council is staunchly pro-Israel. Many of its members, including progressive ones, have taken trips to Israel that are organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
One week before the Post report, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), a right-wing group that supports West Bank settlements, sent a letter to the CUNY chancellor complaining about anti-Semitism and demanding that CUNY “publicly condemn the SJP and its hateful, divisive and anti-Semitic actions” and “hold this group accountable for violation of CUNY rules and policies.”
The letter recites a litany of complaints. The group complained that at a rally for tuition-free college outside Hunter College, SJP members yelled “Zionists out of CUNY.” SJP criticizes CUNY for, among other things, having study-abroad programs in Israel. The ZOA also says the rally included anti-Semitic rants like “Jews out of CUNY.” When I asked Kiswani, who attended the rally, about the “Zionists out of CUNY” chants, she said that “we don’t believe Israel should be legitimized in our educational system.” She also said she did not witness any anti-Semitism at the rally. But if she had, she said she would have told them to stop and ask them to leave.
“We see Jewish people as non-token contributors and leaders in the movement,” Kiswani said.
In late February, CUNY announced a probe into anti-Semitism on campus and a “task force” on bigotry. The Anti-Defamation League praised the CUNY leadership for the move.
Kiswani says there are double standards at work here, pointing to what she sees as a tepid response from CUNY to reports revealing that the New York Police Department infiltrated Muslim student groups and spied on them.
“The administration turns a blind eye to surveillance of Muslim students, meanwhile trumping up issues of anti-Semitism to link it politically with Palestine, which is completely unfounded,” she said.
She also noted there was no administration response to Hunter Hillel’s invitation of Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli scholar who advocated for the rape of Palestinian women to deter militant attacks. Kedar’s scheduled February event was postponed in the wake of vociferous protests. Hunter College Hillel has said it will reschedule the lecture.