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The Israel question stumps academics

Conflict over a pro-Palestine resolution shakes a New York faculty union

Students on the campus of Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY Facebook/Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY

The Israel question stumps academics

Avraham Goldstein earned his doctorate from the City University of New York in 2003 and has taught math at Borough of Manhattan Community College, part of the CUNY network, since 2006. But in June, the CUNY faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, passed the “Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People.” Goldstein didn’t agree with the resolution and decided to leave the union, but under New York law, the union can force its representation and bargaining power on the professor and continue to collect dues from his paycheck.

So on Jan. 12, Goldstein and five other CUNY faculty members sued the union. The lawsuit accuses the Professional Staff Congress of anti-Semitism and primarily criticizes the June resolution. One tenet of the resolution calls for chapter meetings to discuss the document and potential support for “the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.” Union spokesperson Fran Clark clarified that the union doesn’t support BDS.

Four union leaders said later they did not vote for the resolution as written, and Clark in a statement said, “Antisemitism is on the rise and must be confronted.” The resolution itself condemns anti-Semitism. But some CUNY faculty aren’t convinced: Some 50 CUNY faculty members submitted their resignations to the union in response to the resolution, The New York Post reported in July.

The boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement calls for economic measures against Israel in response to the country’s involvement in the Palestinian conflict. In 2019, Israel denied entry to U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., because of their support for BDS. American political leaders have been divided over the issue, though at least 26 states have passed measures condemning BDS.

Though the movement has struggled to gain a foothold in American politics, university campuses may be a more welcoming atmosphere. According to the Anti-Defamation League, student governments debated 17 pro-BDS measures in the 2020-2021 school year. The Heritage Foundation reported in December that university diversity, equity, and inclusivity officials showed overwhelmingly anti-Israel attitudes on their personal social media.

In 2016, the CUNY Doctoral Students’ Council approved a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel. In December, the CUNY Law Student Government passed a pro-BDS resolution drafted by the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Law Students Association.

William Creeley, the legal director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said among the issues his group deals with, Israeli and Palestinian topics may be the most divisive. While FIRE has represented individuals on both sides of the BDS debate, Creeley said the organization has concerns about the ideals behind BDS: “The boycott part is very difficult to reconcile with academic freedom.”

However, Creeley cautions against restrictions on anti-Israel speech or broad interpretations of anti-Semitism. While Creeley made it clear actual threats are not constitutionally protected speech, he noted the First Amendment protects even “harsh” speech: “There’s a great deal of anti-Semitic speech that nevertheless is protected by the First Amendment. And we fundamentally believe that the answer to speech you don’t like, including anti-Semitic speech, is more speech.”

But Azriel Genack, a Queens College and CUNY professor and CUNY Alliance for Inclusion executive member, says calls for BDS are out of bounds. Calling the CUNY union’s resolution “one-sided” and “bizarre,” he pointed out it doesn’t acknowledge violence by the Islamic militant group Hamas. He questioned why other countries don’t get what he perceives as similar treatment.

“It’s something unique to Israel,” he said. “One has to see darker forces, one has to be somewhat aware of history, and look at the very unique nature of this hostility and enmity towards Israel, and really understand what it’s about.”

Genack said more than 200 CUNY faculty members have signed a pledge to leave the union, while others have decided to remain to try to influence its decisions.

Goldstein said he was not very involved with the union prior to the resolution and has not personally experienced anti-Semitic sentiment on his campus. Fellow plaintiffs Jeffrey Lax and Michael Goldstein (no relation to Avraham Goldstein) have reported instances of vandalism such as deflated tires and anti-Zionist messages written over a photo of Goldstein’s father—the college’s former president—outside his office. Hundreds of flyers calling for Michael Goldstein’s dismissal were distributed on campus featuring pictures of his social media postings (including a photo of his underage daughter).

As a tenured professor, Avraham Goldstein sees no reason to leave his alma mater. “CUNY is in some ways, my second home,” he said. “Why should I run from them? Because there’s some private organization, which is doing some crazy things? Why shouldn’t they just demand that this private organization leaves me and CUNY alone?”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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