Fighting Antisemitism

Biden’s antisemitism strategy faces early test amid CUNY controversy

Jewish leaders urge White House to put new strategy into practice in wake of CUNY Law commencement speech

Just a week after the Biden administration unveiled a sweeping national strategy for combating antisemitism, its proposed plan for handling alleged incidents of anti-Jewish prejudice on college campuses is facing a key early test.

The City University of New York drew an outcry this week when its law school released video of an incendiary address in which a student-selected speaker, Fatima Mohammed, accused Israel of “indiscriminate” killings and called for a “fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism and Zionism around the world.” Mohammed also claimed that CUNY was “committed to its donors, not to its students,” among other statements echoing anti-Jewish tropes.

The speech, which was widely condemned as antisemitic, marked the second instance in two years that a CUNY Law School commencement speaker had singled out the Jewish state for condemnation. Meanwhile, CUNY officials have drawn scrutiny from critics who believe that the university system — long viewed as a haven for Jewish students — has failed to address a broader uptick in anti-Israel activity across its campuses, making Jewish students and faculty members feel unwelcome.

In recent interviews with a range of Jewish leaders, elected officials, academics and other experts, one major refrain was that the CUNY incident presents a timely opportunity for the Biden administration to put its new White House strategy to work, even if it remains unclear how it would translate words into action.

The policies laid out in the strategy are “directly relevant here,” William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Jewish Insider on Wednesday, citing language from the plan stating that “too many” Jewish students and educators feel insecure “because of their actual or perceived views on Israel.”

“CUNY Law’s graduation created just the sense of insecurity that the Biden plan seeks to address,” Daroff said. The Biden administration “is serious about tackling antisemitism,” he added. “The CUNY situation is a perfect place for his administration to make a difference.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, echoed that view, noting that “the situation at CUNY Law” is just the latest example of “why the commitment to protect Jewish students is such a critical part of” the White House strategy. “We shouldn’t need to file a complaint to show that Jewish students are under attack at CUNY Law,” he argued in a statement to JI. “CUNY, New York City and the U.S. Department of Education need to act, and act now.”

Before the strategy was released last Thursday, White House officials had faced pressure from mainstream Jewish organizations to embrace the working definition of antisemitism promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which identifies some criticism of Israel as antisemitic. The White House’s definition does not mention Israel, even as the broader strategy touches on instances in which anti-Zionist rhetoric may overlap with antisemitism.

For that reason, KC Johnson, a professor of American history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, believes the strategy “left unresolved” whether Biden officials are “willing to confront hardline critics of Israel whose words or actions stray into antisemitism.” The administration now has “an example of this,” Johnson told JI, alluding to the CUNY commencement speech. “The question is, what are they going to do about it?”

In a statement to JI, Herbie Ziskend, a White House deputy communications director, suggested that the administration’s approach to antisemitism would cover the incident at CUNY, even if he did not mention the university system by name. The president’s strategy “reaffirms the United States’ unshakable commitment to Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy and its security — and makes clear that when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism,” Ziskend said, using language from the document. “And that is unacceptable.”

Ziskend did not indicate if the administration would weigh in with an official response to the CUNY Law address, which on Tuesday was denounced as “hate speech” in a statement signed by the university system’s board of trustees as well its chancellor.

The statement provides the White House with a chance to affirm its support for CUNY leadership without stepping on its independence, Johnson said, referencing possible options available to the administration if it chooses to get directly involved. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, he added, could also send a letter to CUNY officials expressing concern over recent instances of alleged antisemitism at CUNY, which is the largest urban public university system in the country.

Ken Marcus, the founder of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and a former assistant secretary of education for civil rights in the Trump administration, said the Education Department “has everything it needs in order to respond appropriately to antisemitism at CUNY Law or anywhere else.” He pointed in particular to an executive order on combating anti-Jewish bigotry, which was signed by former President Donald Trump in 2019 and remains in effect. The Office for Civil Rights, he said, “continues to highlight the guidance which effectuates it.”

Marcus noted that the White House strategy also refers directly to the Brandeis Center’s complaint against the University of Vermont, which recently settled with the Department of Education over its failure to respond to antisemitic harassment, including incidents in which Jewish students were directly targeted because of their support for Israel.

“If that case involved antisemitism — and the Biden administration recognizes that it did — then CUNY involves antisemitism too,” Marcus claimed in an email to JI on Thursday. “To the extent that any questions remain, it would be smart for Biden administration officials to address CUNY quickly and directly in order to remove any doubts.”

In a statement to JI on Thursday, a CUNY spokesperson said the university system “commends the Biden administration for crafting a national strategy to combat antisemitism,” adding that “many of the recommendations have already been implemented by CUNY to raise awareness of antisemitism.” Among the efforts cited were “distributing $750,000 across the system for programs to address campus climate, launching a portal to report hate crimes and discrimination and creating an advisory board of Jewish leaders.”

CUNY has also partnered with Hillel International, a leading a Jewish campus organization, in an effort to improve the experience of Jewish students on its campuses. Among the 25 campuses affiliated with CUNY, seven have signed on to participate in Hillel’s new Campus Climate Initiative, which involves a 16-month training and education program.

“I would say that most of the CUNY campuses are taking the CCI program very seriously,” Mark Rotenberg, the vice president of university and legal affairs at Hillel International, said in an interview with JI. “The administrators are showing up for our trainings. They are, I think, with one or two exceptions, engaged.”

Rotenberg suggested that the “Biden framework may provide further impetus for” CUNY leadership to speak out against what he characterized as “disgraceful verbal attacks” on Israel. But the strategy “doesn’t operate at such a detailed level to provide specific guidance” where free speech, academic freedom and hate speech intersect, he stressed. “For that, the schools need to develop carefully crafted policies that respect speech while robustly condemning violations of the institution’s norms of inclusion and respect for diverse viewpoints and take affirmative steps to prevent them in the future.”

The CUNY campuses now working with Hillel International, including the City College of New York, Hunter College and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, are just beginning to formulate individual action plans for addressing antisemitism on their campuses, Rotenberg said. The CCI program will officially conclude in the winter of 2023.

But some critics aren’t willing to wait that long. “The new U.S. national strategy to counter antisemitism is being immediately put to the test,” former Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), a Jewish Republican, said in a statement to JI. “To demonstrate just how serious he is about crushing antisemitism in America, President Biden needs to forcefully condemn this CUNY Law commencement address, and take decisive action. The CUNY administration and culture need to be overhauled and all Jewish students and faculty should feel welcome again on campus. Until that change is made at CUNY, taxpayer funding should be immediately suspended.”

On Thursday, Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), who condemned the CUNY Law speech this week, introduced legislation seeking to do just that. “No college or university should receive a single dollar of federal education funding if they peddle in the promotion of antisemitism at an event on their campus,” the congressman said in a statement. 

No such action, meanwhile, has come from state lawmakers, some of whom reached out to CUNY officials after the speech was released to express their concern, according to an Albany insider who asked to remain anonymous to discuss a sensitive topic. “We appreciate their statement, but this is the second time this has happened,” the insider told JI. “I’m under the impression they’re going to announce some sort of steps that this won’t happen again, but I don’t have any concrete commitments. There are many elected officials up in Albany who have lost their patience.” 

Jacob Baime, the CEO of the Israel on Campus Coalition, said the recent commencement speech shows a need for CUNY to embrace the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism, which the university system has recognized as an “educational tool” but has not formally adopted.

“This commencement speech illustrates the nuanced and multifaceted ways in which modern antisemitism can manifest, particularly when it disguises itself as anti-Zionism,” Baime said in an email to JI. “The IHRA definition, widely accepted globally, explicitly identifies such instances, making it a robust and comprehensive tool for identifying and combating antisemitism in its myriad forms.”

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), a staunch supporter of Israel who publicly criticized the CUNY Law School address earlier this week, agreed with that sentiment. “The commencement hate speech at CUNY Law is the latest in a series of incidents that underscore the need for the IHRA definition of antisemitism,” he said in an interview with JI on Wednesday. The definition “is the most complete, complex and comprehensive definition of Jew hatred” and should be “the universal standard.”

Even as the Biden administration avoided unilaterally endorsing the IHRA definition, emphasizing instead that the “focus” of its new strategy “is on actions to counter antisemitism,” Abe Foxman, the former longtime director of the Anti-Defamation League and a 1962 graduate of City College — which he called the “the Harvard of middle class Jews at that time” — said the recent “antisemitic explosion” at CUNY and other campuses across the country “will give the administration an opportunity to act.”

“Since the strategic plan was not bipartisan, there will be a political temptation to test it all the time,” he cautioned in an email to JI. “I hope the Jewish community is smart enough to challenge the administration to use” the strategy not simply to score political points but “because it will help contain and combat” rising antisemitic prejudice. “We almost lost sight of the historic government that proclaimed that the fight against antisemitism is not ours alone.”

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