Empire State of mind

With an eye on Albany, Zeldin targets antisemitism in education

The New York congressman, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, has gone on offense in recent months

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

As a legislator in Washington since 2015, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) has largely focused on federal issues. But the Long Island congressman, who spent four years in the New York state Senate before seeking higher office, is looking to return to Albany. In April, Zeldin announced a challenge to then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the state’s 2022 gubernatorial race.

Much has changed since Zeldin’s announcement, after which he quickly shot to frontrunner status in a field that also includes Andrew Giuliani and former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the party’s 2014 nominee. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who assumed the position after Cuomo’s August resignation, is the only Democrat to formally enter the race, though a primary could attract more than a dozen candidates.

As Zeldin, one of only two Jewish Republicans in Congress, pivots to state-centric issues, he’s focusing on what he sees as the threat of antisemitism in New York’s education system. Last month, he called for an investigation into New York City public school teachers who accused Israel of “ethnically cleansing Palestinians.” In June, he criticized City University of New York’s faculty union for passing an anti-Israel resolution. Weeks later, he called for the firing of a CUNY School of Professional Studies adjunct professor for a sermon he delivered at a New Jersey Islamic center calling for Muslims to “erase this filth called Israel.”

“No one, from a teacher in grade school, to someone in higher education, to faculty administration, should be in charge of a kid’s education if they’re going to be bringing these views in or near the classroom,” he told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “We need to root out antisemitism to its core and ensure that we don’t have a next generation of educators and students being brainwashed to hate the way that we see some currently in education aspiring towards.”

The congressman said he has chosen to speak out on antisemitism in education in particular because he sees a “push inside of higher ed[ucation] promoting the BDS movement more than ever before” through curricula, through union resolutions and by ostracizing faculty who are anti-BDS. All of this, he said, has led to Jewish “students… being targeted with blatant antisemitism in the name of the BDS movement.”

Zeldin argued that public funding to schools, from elementary level to institutions of higher education, should be “leveraged to ensure that there’s more accountability” and “zero tolerance for this hate.”

The New York congressman, who represents the eastern end of Long Island, also said that New York needs to be more strongly enforcing its current policies regarding antisemitism, particularly its 2016 executive order cutting off business with companies engaging in Israel boycotts, by applying that executive order to Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever. The ice cream maker recently announced that it was ending sales in the West Bank, calling it “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

“The state should be cutting off business and making an example of Unilever,” Zeldin said. He added that the 2016 anti-BDS executive order should be passed into state law so that a future governor cannot unilaterally strike it down through executive action.

“We also need to put people in charge of state agencies who are going to advance these efforts,” he said. “I’m hearing crickets on the Unilever decision, as opposed to what should be a very public, outspoken and passionate advocacy effort making the example of Unilever instead to send a message to other entities that may be thinking about doing the same thing.”

Speaking to JI the day after the City Council in Burlington, Vt., pulled a resolution endorsing the BDS movement, Zeldin said he’d seek punitive action against a municipality in New York that passed such legislation if he were governor.

“I would personally do everything in my power to help mobilize that community against the resolution like that. They should be shamed and ostracized,” Zeldin said. “I would be calling out that local government participating in the debate when that community is deciding whether or not to pass it.”

“And I would look towards state funding that that local government is getting, and seek to use that lever of power to make sure that we don’t have any local community advancing efforts that end up targeting the Jewish community with hatred,” he continued.

He also said that Congress can take several steps to help advance the fight against antisemitism. “That’s an issue too — those who are in positions to legislate, not only can pass bills, but many can speak out more, and that helps in increasing pressure,” Zeldin said.

According to a spokesperson, the congressman is currently collecting sponsors for a reintroduction of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a bill he introduced in 2020 with 63 Republican cosponsors and one Democrat, Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), who represents Nassau County on Long Island. The bill would bar entities from participating in boycotts or requests for boycotts by international organizations such as the United Nations and European Union, with fines as penalties.

Similar legislation previously had broader bipartisan support in both the House and Senate in 2017 and 2018.

Zeldin is also cosponsoring bills modifying sentencing provisions for repeat violent hate crime offenders and mandating that products of some Israeli settlements in the West Bank be labeled as “Made in Israel.”

Zeldin added that Congress should codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism “at all levels of government” and advance a package of pro-Israel legislation that passed the Senate in 2019 but stalled in the House.

A bipartisan group of senators reintroduced the Combating BDS Act — one element of the Senate’s 2019 pro-Israel legislative package. The bill has not been reintroduced in the House, and no legislation codifying the IHRA definition has been introduced in either chamber. 

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