This article by Leah Hagelberg and Dr.Manfred Gerstenfeld is on the flawed investigation of anti-Semitism at the City University of New York. A much shortened version was first published in the Algemeiner. This lengtheir piece is republished here with the author’s consent.
The Flawed CUNY Antisemitism Investigation
Manfred Gerstenfeld and Leah Hagelberg
The investigation of antisemitism at the City University of New York (CUNY) was so lacking in professionalism that it requires a more focused analysis. This is particularly necessary because antisemitism both in its classic and in its anti-Israeli forms manifests itself also at a number of other American universities. Pointing out the failures of the report can also give guidance for investigations of antisemitism elsewhere in the democratic world.
The CUNY investigation resulted from a lengthy letter of complaint written by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) to CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken and the CUNY Board of Trustees on February 22, 2016.1 It mentioned a long list of antisemitic incidents on a variety of CUNY campuses, mainly attributed to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Thereupon on March 6, 2016 CUNY’s Chancellor commissioned an investigation into these allegations of antisemitism. Both investigators appointed, Barbara Jones and Paul Shechtman, are lawyers. Their report was released on September 6, 2016.2
Lawyers professionally base themselves on a defining text, the law of the land. The investigators should have understood that as far as antisemitism is concerned, the key to a proper investigation into antisemitic incidents is the use of a well-accepted definition of antisemitism. They did not.
The United States State Department has a working definition of antisemitism.3 Furthermore by the time the investigators’ report was published, the United States government had strengthened its commitment to fighting antisemitism. It supported in May 2016 – together with 30 other Western countries — the acceptance of the working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).4 This text is largely identical to that of the State Department definition.
CUNY, furthermore, also has a set of student conduct policies, known as the Henderson Rules.5 This local text should serve as a secondary source for the investigators. The ZOA, in its reaction to the investigators’ report, has pointed out that this rule book permitted the university to take disciplinary action against SJP as well as students involved in such incidents.6 The investigators did not refer to these rules in their report, which was their second structural mistake.
The university had asked the investigators not to reinvestigate incidents which had already been the subject of scrutiny in the past. The way the investigators handled this, by not discussing in depth these events or even the conclusions of the university investigation, led to a third structural deficiency of the report. What was required was a full view of antisemitism at CUNY. This had to include all incidents, reinvestigated or not. Without a full inventory of all major anti-Semitic acts at CUNY, one cannot get a picture of the gravity of the situation.
One major incident that the report barely mentions concerns an anti-Israel BDS Forum from which four Jewish students were expelled. The investigators even acknowledge that among many of their interviewees at Brooklyn College it was the subject most discussed, and “greatly affected the community,”7 yet they still brushed over it. Under the IHRA definition BDS is an antisemitic act as it uses double standards against Israel when compared to other democratic countries.8 This is one of a number of antisemitic incidents treated in this fashion.
The IHRA definition calls incitement to violence against Jews an act of antisemitism.9 The report says that “some may take particular offense at SJP’s calls for intifada.”10 The investigators should have written instead that intifada is a call for violence and is explicitly antisemitic. This call for violence compromises the feelings of safety of students against whom it is directed. Despite this, the investigators claim that “CUNY cannot ban the word, no matter how much they regret its use.”11
Another trap into which the investigators fell is their use of false moral equivalence.12 One example of this is when the report says that Hillel inter-alia does not allow partnership with organizations, groups, or speakers that deny Israel’s right to exist.13 In other words, Hillel does not partner with antisemites as defined in the IHRA definition.14 The investigators equate Hillel’s attitude with that of SJP, which refuses to collaborate with any organization that does not denounce Israel.15 In addition SJP has also been accused of ostracizing and threatening those groups,16 as well as calling for violence against Jews and Israelis in the form of intifada, as discussed above.17 The ZOA has reacted to the report in a letter listing this, as well as many additional failures of the report.18
The true importance of the CUNY investigation is that its structural flaws and factual failures can guide complaining organizations to request in the future much more specifically how investigations of antisemitism should be conducted. This goes far beyond universities or even the United States in general.