Would you appoint an arsonist as fire chief?
Well, That is precisely what City University of New York (CUNY) – the city’s publicly run university system with 243,000 students spread over 25 campuses – did when they hired a former employee of the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to lead an investigation into alleged antisemitism aimed at a Jewish faculty member at Kingsborough Community College. The decision was controversial due to the history of anti-Israel activity at CAIR, including accusations by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that CAIR’s senior leaders have used “inflammatory anti-Zionist rhetoric” that have “veered into antisemitic tropes.”
CUNY’s appointment later reversed due to public outcry, comes during heightened public interest in the now pervasive antisemitism across the CUNY system resulting in Title VI complaints, millions of dollars in funding cut by the State Senate and City Council hearings (which CUNY’s chancellor was a no show).
As students at Yeshiva University, where the Israeli flag flies alongside the American and where expressions of Jewish community life are taken for granted, it might be shocking to hear that a professor at the aforementioned Kingsborough Community College (not the faculty member subject to the investigation) found swastikas carved in her office and her keyboard soiled with urine.
Given that Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department envoy to combat antisemitism, was our school’s featured speaker at undergraduate commencement last year, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that CUNY Law’s student speaker at commencement was Nerdeen Kiswani, an extremist who has called for Israel’s destruction, refused to speak with the New York Jewish Week due to it being part of the “Zionist media” and liked posts on Instagram glorifying terrorist attacks. Kiswani then used her podium at the commencement ceremony to allege that she was a victim of a “campaign of Zionist harassment.”
Antisemitism on CUNY campuses has become a significant issue, according to a July letter from the American Center for Law and Justice addressed to a senior official at the Department of Education.
“Some of the harassment on CUNY campuses has become so commonplace as to almost be normalized,” stated the letter. “There have been numerous classes in which Israeli soldiers are casually described as killers, and antisemitic flyers with vulgar comments about religious Jews—incredible as it may seem, even swastikas—are regularly observed on CUNY campuses.
“Attacking, denigrating, and threatening ‘Zionists’ has become the norm, with the crystal-clear understanding that “Zionist” is now merely an epithet for ‘Jew’ the same way ‘banker,’ ‘cabal,’ ‘globalist, ‘cosmopolitan,’ ‘Christ-killer,’ and numerous other such dog-whistles have been used over the centuries to target, demonize, and incite against Jews.”
So, when Jeffery Lax, the business department chair at Kingsborough Community College, sued CUNY for discrimination — such as purposely scheduling meetings for Friday night so that Lax, who is an Orthodox Jew, could not attend — you would think CUNY would hire someone who could be trusted to lead an investigation impartially — especially because the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission substantiated Lax’s complaints. Instead, CUNY tapped Saly Abd Alla, whose past association with CAIR, whose founders had ties to Hamas and supports BDS, raised Lax’s ire.
“We don’t want Jews here,” Lax told the Daily Caller News Foundation after hearing of CUNY’s choice to lead the investigation. “That’s the message that it sends.”
After public outcry and Abd Alla’s unresponsiveness to queries from Lax whether she believed Zionists were protected under CUNY discrimination policies and whether she would be impartial, CUNY reversed course, pulling Abd Alla from the investigation.
Allegations of hostile antisemitic activity in the CUNY system date as far back as 2012. Although CUNY claims that it takes these allegations seriously and has announced initiatives and plans to combat campus antisemitism, serious questions remain as to CUNY’s leadership’s commitment to combat it.
If CUNY is committed to addressing anti-jewish racism on campus, why did they choose and then pull Abd Alla for an investigation into antisemitic activity? Why did Brooklyn College schedule a mandatory “implicit bias training” on Yom Kippur this year? And why didn’t CUNY’s chancellor, Félix Matos Rodríguez, bother to show up to a city council meeting to address the issue?
If Matos Rodríguez attended the nearly seven-hour-long hearing and listened to students, he would have heard stories like that of Tzvia Waronker, who attends John Jay College, and told council members of a conversation she had with another student.
“All Jews are rich,” Waronker told City Council, recounting her interaction with the student. “[They] control the world, Israelis kill babies, Jewish women are greedy and are clingy,” she recounted. “Then [the student] began to question my hair.
“I don’t think CUNY understands what antisemitism is and how it impacts the students,” Waronker added later in the meeting.
If CUNY is serious about combatting antisemitism, it must act the part. When City Council schedules a meeting to address racism in your system, its chancellor should show up. It shouldn’t schedule an “implicit bias training” on Judaism’s holiest day of the year and it shouldn’t hire an arsonist as fire chief. New Yorkers will know when CUNY is serious about addressing anti-Jewish racism – and that is when, as Mayor Adams once said, there is “no tolerance for antisemitism.” Otherwise, CUNY risks becoming an institution for the many, but not the Jew.
This article was first featured in the YU Commentator.