Confront CUNY’s anti-semitism problem


Photo by Jim Henderson, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Originally published in the New York Daily News.

By Jeffrey Lax

Recent New York City Council hearings revealed the shocking scope of anti-Semitism at the City University of New York—America’s largest urban university system. Yet those in charge are watching from the sidelines as old hatreds consume this once-great institution.

Despite an anti-Semitism watchdog reporting more than 150 anti-Semitic incidents on CUNY campuses since 2015, CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez has twice dodged Council hearings and has done too little to secure the campus. Last week, the American Center for Law & Justice filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over CUNY’s inaction in the face of “widespread anti-Semitism.”

As an observant Jew and chair of the Business Department at Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Community College, I’ve personally experienced this wave of anti-Semitism and am beyond disappointed in the university’s tepid response. I’m also represented by a union whose ostensible role is to stand up for marginalized public employees like me. But in a June 30 Council hearing, scheduled to accommodate the chancellor but held in his absence, the president of CUNY’s faculty union, James Davis, showed just how much help I should expect from that source.

Brooklyn Councilwoman Inna Vernikov asked the union president if he supported the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Davis denied publicly supporting BDS, of course. But he is clearly seen in an April video admitting that he previously voted in favor of an American Studies Association BDS resolution.

And recently, union delegates—who are charged with representing all CUNY faculty, including Zionists—backed Davis by creating a group called “Not In Our Name.” In a public letter, they declared Israel to be a settler colonial state that commits “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide,” and “funds Nazi militia groups.” The delegates further pledged to “create networks and programs within the CUNY Jewish population to…unlearn Zionism.”

Unfortunately, these betrayals came as no surprise. I witnessed this spirit of viciousness up close in April of 2019 when five professors surrounded me in the faculty dining room and began screaming at me. Twice I tried to leave, but they physically stopped me. One professor put his hand above my head and said, “We’re not done. We’re just starting.”

I didn’t even know these professors, but they knew I was Jewish, observant and Zionist, and that was enough.

One of them used campus space to raise money for an NGO connected to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a U.S.-recognized terror organization, according to a Daily News report. He is also a leader of the university-wide BDS campaign and wrote an essay linking Jews to white supremacy.

As a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors and a great-grandchild of eight victims of Nazi torture and murder, I can’t describe how appalling it is to be labeled a white supremacist.

But this incident was about far more than one bad apple. The professors who surrounded me were part of a larger group called the Progressive Faculty Caucus, almost all of whom held, or were seeking, prominent positions in CUNY’s faculty union.

The caucus went out of their way to create a hostile working environment for Orthodox and Zionist Jews, lobbying against Jews vying for elected positions on campus and arranging meetings on Friday nights, knowing that observant Jews could not attend.

Campus investigations went nowhere, but my complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found the university had violated the Civil Rights Act by allowing discrimination on campus.

Little changed. Worse, last year, my union passed a resolution endorsing BDS and referring to Israel as an “apartheid” state. This public slap in the face prompted me and dozens of my colleagues to resign our union membership.

Unfortunately, resignation is no escape. I can’t represent myself or choose a different union because, under New York’s Taylor Law, public-sector union officials have a workplace monopoly. My colleagues and I have no option but to accept the union’s representation—even if, under the sway of anti-Semitic faculty, it condemns our heritage. Similar laws exist in other states.

I believe no one should be forced to associate with a group that hates them.

With the help of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm, and attorneys from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, five of my colleagues and I filed a federal lawsuit so that we no longer have to accept the representation of our union.

I’m under no illusion that this lawsuit alone will halt the spread of anti-Semitism on campus. But I am determined to do my part to honor the legacy of my forebears by standing against injustice—especially when those in power turn a blind eye.

Lax is a professor and chair of the Business Department at Kingsborough Community College.

Click here to learn more about this case.

The author’s viewpoints are their own and do not necessarily represent those of the Fairness Center.