On March 5, Anthony Alessandrini, a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, received an anonymous letter in his campus mailbox. It was addressed to “Anthony Alessandrini, Progressive Faculty Caucus,” and ended with the words: “This is a WARNING to you and the other PFC. WATCH YOUR BACK!!!”
Alessandrini is one of a group of progressive Kingsborough faculty who have been targeted by right-wing publications and websites such as the Daily Caller, Canary Mission, Frontpage Mag, Campus Reform, World Israel News, United for Israel, and Stand With Us. Kingsborough’s Progressive Faculty Caucus is a loose-knit coalition that came together after the presidential election of 2016. As CUNY faculty who have followed closely this pattern of attacks and false allegations at CUNY and elsewhere on campuses across the country, we would like to clarify the recent events at Kingsborough Community College and sound the alarm to others who may be in the crosshairs of these right-wing groups.
A Kingsborough administrator, supported by the Lawfare Project—a right-wing organization best known for using lawsuits to harass academics who are critical of the policies of Israel and the United States—has made serious but unsubstantiated allegations of anti-Semitism against Kingsborough faculty members associated with the Progressive Faculty Caucus.
Lawfare has most infamously pursued a lawsuit against San Francisco State University and Palestinian Professor Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, in a case recently thrown out by a federal judge. The judge in that case noted that the Lawfare Project’s complaint that the university and Professor Abdulhadi and her students were guilty of anti-Semitic behavior was “devoid” of facts alleging discrimination, and wrote, “Absolutely no facts have been alleged to support [the Jewish student plaintiffs’] mere assertion of differential treatment.”
The director of the Lawfare Project, Brooke Goldstein, a frequent guest on Fox News, has taken extreme, often directly racist, stances, including denying the existence of Palestinians and critiquing the institution of birthright citizenship.
The allegations against Kingsborough faculty have been made primarily by a college administrator, Michael Goldstein, following several incidents at the college, including one in which anti-Semitic graffiti was written on his office door in February 2018. With no substantiation, Goldstein has insistently accused the Progressive Faculty Caucus of responsibility for these incidents.
In reality, after the report of the anti-Semitic graffiti became public, 37 faculty members associated with the PFC, including Alessandrini, signed and circulated an open letter in March 2018, condemning this act of anti-Semitic vandalism and declaring: “We are deeply disturbed by this act and strongly condemn it. We stand against any attempts to suppress academic freedom including the expression of political opinions with which we may disagree.”
Nonetheless, in October 2018, several Kingsborough faculty associated with the PFC received a letter from the Lawfare Project’s Legal Coordinator, Lori Tucker, warning that Mr. Goldstein was “considering legal action against you, and possibly other defendants, for the harm he has suffered as a result of your conduct.”
The Lawfare Project is no stranger to Kingsborough; it is also representing another Kingsborough faculty member, Jeffrey Lax, in a lawsuit against the college. Lax’s case alleges employment discrimination against the college—arguing, among other things, that the fact that Kingsborough’s faculty has a lower percentage of Jews than the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhood of Manhattan Beach is evidence of employment discrimination against Jews.
In a video that repeats Mr. Goldstein’s unfounded allegations against progressive faculty, the Lawfare Project has recently claimed that the CUNY administration “has failed to conduct a substantive investigation of this matter”—despite the fact that an article in Tablet magazine reported in December 2018 that the incidents reported by Mr. Goldstein were being investigated by “the second highest-ranking public safety officer” in the CUNY system.
In particular, Mr. Goldstein has made specific but unfounded accusations against Alessandrini, including describing him as a “puppet-master” of other progressive faculty. The same day he received the threatening letter, Alessandrini found graffiti on his office door reading “Od Kahane Chai (Kahane Still Lives)”—a direct reference to Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a violent terrorist group.
On March 17, the New York Daily News published an article entitled “Kingsborough professor, during campus event, urged donations to group with ties to Palestinian terror group.” The article is based entirely on the claim of one anonymous source that Alessandrini, at a campus event in May 2018, made reference to a Facebook fundraising drive by the British humanitarian organization Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP).
This claim of “ties” between MAP and “terrorist groups” was first circulated by the Lawfare Project and UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) in June 2018. As MAP noted in a statement in November 2018, the UK Charity Commission reviewed the complaint and informed MAP that they were satisfied that no further action was required.
As another MAP statement pointed out last month, “The uncomfortable truth for UKLFI and Lawfare—which they appear unwilling to acknowledge—is that the Charity Commission was satisfied that none of their allegations against MAP warranted further investigation.”
Alessandrini has demanded that the Daily News retract the article. He has subsequently been forced to request protection from Kingsborough’s Office of Public Safety and Security due to heightened fears for his safety.
One month earlier, the Daily News had published an op-ed piece by Goldstein in which he repeated his unsubstantiated claims against progressive Kingsborough faculty. A group of CUNY faculty subsequently published a letter to the editor of the Daily News in support of Kingsborough faculty being targeted by these accusations: “We stand against attempts to silence members of our faculty who are exercising their right to organize, research, and write about the compelling issues of our times.”
As faculty members at CUNY, many of us Jewish, we are appalled but not surprised that these kinds of vicious and unsubstantiated attacks are being aimed at our own colleagues at Kingsborough Community College. The pattern of weaponizing accusations of anti-Semitism as a way to prop up support for Israeli policies and intimidate and silence Palestinians and those who speak out for Palestinian justice and human rights has, unfortunately, become endemic throughout the US and Europe; witness the UK Labor Party and controversies around Rep. Ilhan Omar in the US Congress. As Palestine Legal and others have documented, faculty and students on university campuses have become a major target of these attacks and suppressing of “free speech” wherever Israel and Palestine are concerned.
Anti-Semitism is a real and growing menace. Along with the other pillars of white supremacy and white nationalism—anti-Black racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia—it must be stopped. But the cynical uses of anti-Semitism charges do nothing to confront the real scourge of anti-Semitism. And threatening messages and lawsuits will only strengthen the resolve of progressive faculty and students seeking justice for Palestine and for oppressed people everywhere.
Jonathan Buchsbaum, Professor of Media Studies, Queens College
Michelle Fine, Distinguished Professor of Critical Psychology, CUNY Graduate Center
Tami Gold, Professor of Film & Media Studies, Hunter College
Rosalind Petchesky, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Political Science, Hunter College &
CUNY Graduate Center
Sarah Schulman, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, College of Staten Island
Robyn C. Spencer, Associate Professor of History, Lehman College
Christopher Stone, Associate Professor and Head of Arabic Program, Hunter College