Letter to CUNY Leadership in solidarity with Students for Justice in Palestine

Dear Chairperson Schmidt and Chancellor Milliken,

Jewish Voice for Peace urges you to protect the constitutional rights of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters throughout the CUNY system. Students for Justice in Palestine have a fundamental right to exist on campus, and to freely pursue their goals of supporting Palestinian rights, criticising unjust policies of the Israeli government, and supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. We are deeply concerned that the constitutionally-protected rights of these students to assemble, hold rallies, and convene public speaking events will be violated, either through intimidation, harassment, disproportionate bureaucratic roadblocks, and/or outright banning.

We are a grassroots organization with hundreds of thousands of supporters across the country- including CUNY students and faculty- and we are inspired by Jewish values of justice and equality to support Palestinian rights, and to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as an effective, principled, non-violent means to advocate for a just solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. We are troubled that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA)- a far-right organization with a well-documented history of using bullying, intimidation and other fear tactics to shut down voices supporting Palestinian rights- is urging CUNY administrators to shut down SJP chapters on CUNY’s 23 campuses.

The ZOA’s efforts to ban SJP from CUNY, threats to issue Title VI complaints, and false allegations of anti-Semitism do not occur in a vacuum, but are part of a rapidly growing, well-funded national campaign to stifle free speech and attack the movement for Palestinian rights on US campuses. For years, Israel-aligned organizations have deployed spurious charges of anti-Semitism against activists in order to limit open debate on college campuses, and to intimidate students, faculty and administrators. In an effort to stamp out the growing number of voices critical of Israel, outside organizations like ZOA, StandWithUs, and others routinely pressure administrators to shut down student organizations, fire faculty, cancel courses, and more. These bullying tactics- including the use of Title VI complaints as a form of lawfare, and the State Department definition as a form of intimidation, both of which will be debunked further in this letter- are detailed in JVP’s recent report, ‘Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate Over Israel on Campus’, as well as a recent report by Palestine Legal, ‘The Palestine Exception to Free Speech’.

Contrary to the claims of the ZOA, we strongly reject the notion that BDS is anti-Semitic. The demands of the BDS movement for an end to Israel’s occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and protection of the right of Palestinian refugees to return home are demands that target the policies of a nation-state, and are not attacks against any ethnic or religious group. The ZOA, and other similar organizations, routinely use false anti-Semitism charges as a bludgeon to suppress advocacy for Palestinian rights on campuses across the country. This does a disservice to the real victims of anti-Semitism throughout history and it can have a dangerous ‘boy who cries wolf’ effect, desensitizing the ears of administrators and the larger community to any real instances of anti-Jewish persecution that may arise.

Palestinian human rights do not threaten Jewish students, nor does advocating for such rights create an ‘unsafe campus climate’ for Jews at CUNY or other campuses. Free and open political debate is the hallmark of a vibrant university culture, where students are forced to confront challenging ideas and to question deeply-held notions. While exposure to alternate viewpoints can cause discomfort in many students- such as that felt by some pro-Israel students when they encounter discourse critical of Israeli policies- these challenging viewpoints should not be mislabeled as ‘hate speech’, nor should this culture of spirited discourse be branded an ‘unsafe campus climate’. Such discomfort, rather, can be a crucial part of a fruitful college experience.

While your administration has quickly started an investigation into the hyperbolic allegations of an ‘unsafe campus climate’ made by the ZOA, you have consistently neglected to address the very real unsafe campus climate faced by Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students on CUNY campuses. Over the last 3 years, these students have been slandered as terrorists and suicide bombers, faced death threats from off-campus ideologues, been targeted by FBI surveillance, been spat on and accused, as Muslims, of ‘de-purifying Europe’, to name but a few hateful acts. In an age of increasing Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, it is incumbent upon university administration to protect Muslim and Arab CUNY students from these and other acts of hate.

The letter sent to CUNY by the ZOA fails to mention that, since 2004, five Title VI complaints filed by the ZOA and other anti-Palestinian organizations alleging anti-Semitism on college campuses due to anti-Israel activity have been dismissed by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Time and again, the OCR found that these complaints had no legal merit, and that the incidents in question- such as a teach-in on Gaza, or a mock checkpoint on campus quad- actually constituted robust public speech, not harassment. In language repeated in three of its decisions, the OCR stated that “in the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience. In this context, the events [described in the Title VI complaint] do not constitute actionable harassment.” Organizations like the ZOA continue to threaten institutions like CUNY with Title VI complaints- as they did to Northeastern University in 2013 and DePaul University in 2015, to name two examples- as a way to intimidate administrators into taking repressive measures to chill speech critical of Israel on campus.

The ZOA’s letter also cites a definition of anti-Semitism first used, and later discredited, by the European Union, according to which speech can be considered anti-Semitic if it ‘demonizes’, ‘delegitimizes’, or ‘applies a double standard’ to Israel. Today, this problematic definition is only informally cited by the US State Department in its monitoring of activity in foreign countries, and previous attempts to enforce the definition on American college campuses have failed. In 2012, University of California administrators rejected the findings of a report on campus climate, co-issued by a high-ranking member of a pro-Israel organization, that urged the UC to use this State Department definition to suppress Palestine rights organizing on campus. In a letter explaining his rejection of the report’s findings, UC President Mark Yudof asserted his commitment to students’ and faculty’s right to free speech.

Political speech critical of the policies of a nation-state- including calls to boycott, divest from, or apply sanctions to a state- constitutes fully protected speech under the First Amendment. Protection of this speech is a vital cornerstone of a healthy, pluralistic democracy and a vibrant campus climate. We urge you to resist these attempts by the ZOA to shut down debate, and we call on you to protect the rights of SJP, and all other campus groups, to free and lively expression of viewpoints concerning the vital issues of our time.

We are happy to discuss these issues further in person if desired.

Ben Lorber
Campus Coordinator, Jewish Voice for Peace


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