Rena Nasar First, StandWithUs Executive Director for Campus Affairs and a CUNY alumnus
Testimony at the June 30, 2022 NY City Council “Higher Education Committee” hearing on “Exposing Antisemitism at CUNY”
I want to thank Chair Dinowitz and the members of the Higher Education Committee for providing this important opportunity to address the alarming issue of campus antisemitism, in particular at CUNY. I speak before you today as an employee of StandWithUs, an international and non-partisan Israel education organization that inspires and educates people of all ages and backgrounds, challenges misinformation, and fights antisemitism. Through my work as Executive Director of the Campus Department, I help provide students around the world with the support and resources they need to stand up to antisemitism on campus, both in and out of the classroom. But I also speak before you as a CUNY alum, someone who experienced antisemitism within the CUNY system when I was a student.
Over the last few years, antisemitism on campus has steadily increased but it has not been adequately addressed. Jewish and Israeli students are being subjected to a harsh litmus test, where they are treated as equal members of the campus community only if they are willing to limit the expression of their Jewish identity, Zionism, and connection to Israel. Students who fail this test face increasing animosity and marginalization from fellow students and staff, and apathy from their administrations.
This issue isn’t just impacting students; all stakeholders within the CUNY nucleus are affected. Faculty are also being ostracized and harassed, and alumni are continually being disappointed by their alma maters.
At the Silberman School of Social Work, where, upon investigating an antisemitic Zoom bombing incident during class, we uncovered years of egregious incidents of antisemitism that the administration knew about yet failed to correct.
Or at Kingsborough Community College, where Professor Michael Goldstein was the victim of a smear campaign calling for his termination and even physical violence against him because of his open expression of his Zionism.
Or at CUNY Law School, where a commencement speech referenced a harmful resolution with brazen demands to end study abroad programs in Israel, terminate partnerships with Israeli academics and institutions and "cut all ties” with several Jewish organizations, including Hillel.
Or when the Undergraduate Student Senate was approached about adopting the international consensus definition of antisemitism – the IHRA working definition – and was responded to with tremendously negative pushback. Not to mention events run by Hillel and student clubs being protested and disrupted.
Unfortunately these examples are mere highlights in a larger alarming trend at CUNY, where Jewish students, faculty, and other stakeholders are marginalized, effectively told that they’re not welcome to fully participate in campus life and academia, unless they check key parts of their Jewish identity at the door. I want to emphasize we are not talking about mere political differences or disagreements; Jewish students are being forced either to hide their Judaism and Zionism, or, if they choose to express these key parts of their identity, become vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and hate from their peers and professors. Jewish and Israeli students deserve the same protections against hate and intolerance as any other community at CUNY, and it should not be necessary for the City Council to ensure this happens. This is the responsibility of CUNY administrators.
I applaud the students and faculty testifying today, but I must acknowledge that many are afraid to testify in person or virtually because of a very real fear of academic, professional, and/or social retaliation. Those who’ve found the courage to speak up and have openly shared their experiences with antisemitism have thus far found that their pleas fall on deaf ears.
Lip service is not enough; we are here demanding more. I’d like to offer the CUNY administration the following recommendations as actionable steps to address the very real and growing problem of campus antisemitism:
Create a task force with Jewish students, faculty, on-campus organizations like Hillel and Chabad, and alumni to analyze the overall situation on campus and make recommendations
Adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism and utilize it, as appropriate, in addressing antisemitism. Antisemitism grows in part because people have difficulty identifying it; adopting this definition will help empower everyone within CUNY, from administrators to students, to identify it when they see it and to properly address it when it occurs.
Develop anti-bias training that explicitly includes antisemitism for DEI employees, faculty, staff, student government, and incoming students & include this training in the anti-bias training that is already taking place on campus
Clarify the process for reporting antisemitic incidents and give those reports equal treatment alongside other reported forms of bias and hate. We need to make sure students understand the reporting process and feel assured that these incidents will be taken seriously by administrators. The process should be clarified, accessible, and consistent for any marginalized group, including the Jewish community.
I look forward to seeing how this hearing results in tangible change. We expect that CUNY and other campuses will maintain a welcoming environment for all members of the campus community — Jewish and Israeli students included. Thank you for your time.