City University of New York’s student senate votes not to adopt IHRA definition of anti-Semitism: ‘Devastating to Jewish students’

The debate was filled with “heated and derogatory rhetoric” against the IHRA supporters, “with threats, accusations, and name-calling,” said Ilya Bratman, a Hillel executive. 

By Benjamin Kerstein, The Algemeiner

The City University of New York’s student senate voted down a resolution to adopt the IHRA’s Working Definition of Anti-Semitism on Sunday, in a process described as “devastating to Jewish students” by a campus Jewish community leader.

The University Student Senate (USS) of CUNY voted on two separate resolutions: one calling for the adoption of the IHRA definition, and the other offering a separate definition put forward by the Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA), which would exclude anti-Zionist speech or activity from being considered anti-Semitic.

The USS pro-IHRA resolution — supported by a number of Jewish groups on campus — cited a series of incidents of anti-Semitism that recently took place in the U.S., as well as incidents on college campuses, including CUNY itself, as reasons for adopting the definition. It also called for action against racism and discrimination against all minority groups.

The JLSA resolution, in contrast, claimed that labeling anti-Zionist and anti-Israel speech and activity as “inherently” anti-Semitic is a form of “anti-Palestinian racism,” that anti-Semitism “is not an exceptional form of bigotry,” and accused those opposed to anti-Semitism of “privileging” one group over another.

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Ultimately, the two resolutions were voted down after a five-hour debate between representatives from both sides.

The JLSA resolution was presented “in collaboration with our partners” at CUNY Law Students for Justice in Palestine, according to the document, and supported by a number of pro-Palestinian groups on and off campus. Algemeiner requests for comment to the university, the USS, the JLSA, and CUNY Law Students for Justice in Palestine were not immediately returned.

A petition circulated by Jewish students and others supporting the pro-IHRA resolution before the vote asserted, “Certain campus groups are seeking to delegitimize [the IHRA] definition by spreading misinformation about the resolution. Students for Justice in Palestine has gone so far as to create a reactive resolution, which includes its own definition of anti-Semitism.”

“The Jewish students at CUNY strongly condemn this resolution,” the petition read. “These groups do not represent the Jewish community. Jews should have the right to define what is and is not anti-Semitic just like other communities have the right to define what constitutes bigotry against them.”

Ilya Bratman — the Executive Director of Hillel at Baruch, City and John Jay Colleges, Pace and Fordham Universities, FIT, New School, and the School of Visual Arts — told The Algemeiner that the debate was filled with “heated and derogatory rhetoric” against the IHRA supporters, “with threats, accusations, and name-calling.”

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“It was a very disturbing and difficult day and month for all students involved,” he said. “There was a lack of civility and consideration for each other. The language was extremely pejorative and the rhetoric was very negative.”

“This is not over, as we anticipate that these proceedings will reverberate for days to come,” Bratman added.

The IHRA supporters, he said, asked for “civility and process,” “education and tolerance … compromise and consensus,” and “to hear all voices — the majority voice and the minority voices.”

“None of this was achieved,” he said. “The climate at the USS is extremely negative now and many students have stated that they don’t feel safe or comfortable as a result of these proceedings.”

The entire experience, Bratman said, “has been devastating to Jewish students.”

Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of the Israel education organization StandWithUs, commented, “While it is extremely disappointing that CUNY USS voted against the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, we are relieved that a definition that was crafted by members of Students for Justice in Palestine to shield themselves from being criticized for promoting anti-Semitism was also voted down.”

“We commend Jewish students for standing up to such malicious bigotry and for the petition they created online that garnered thousands of signatures in favor of the IHRA definition,” she said. “CUNY USS can still do the right thing by supporting the majority of Jewish students and recognizing the IHRA definition and we call on them to do so.”

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In Sept. 2020, The Algemeiner reported on a video that appeared to show Nerdeen Kiswani, a pro-Palestinian activist at CUNY, threatening to set fire to a black man wearing an IDF sweatshirt. CUNY at first condemned the incident, but immediately rescinded the condemnation and apologized to Kiswani.

In Feb. 2020, The Algemeiner also reported on the case of Rafaella Guntz, a Jewish former student at CUNY who was forced out of the school by what she described as anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist harassment she faced due to her pro-Israel activism.

The harassment included a petition attacking her that was signed by numerous students and professors.