Opponents Argue That Signage Was “Off Message”
By Clifford Michel
Students for Justice in Palestine chapters across New York City stirred controversy recently as the student advocacy organization claimed that Zionists were partially responsible for tuition increases at public universities.
Several SJP chapters pledged their support to the Million Student March, a nationwide demonstration at over 100 college campuses, which took place on November 12. It called for free tuition at public universities.
But signage from SJP chapters differed from other protesters as they tied Zionism and CUNY’s investment in Israeli companies to the rises in college costs.
At a Hunter College rally of more than 100 protesters, some students who were in support of the day of action questioned SJP protesters and several arguments ensued.
Four Jewish students said that they were “verbally abused.”
The students were holding pro-Israel signs, claiming that it was in response to SJP’s signage.
“As I left the rally, someone yelled, ‘We should drag the Zionists down the street!’” Yosef Kessler, a Jewish freshman at Hunter College, wrote in a New York Daily News op-ed piece.
“It took a few seconds to register that I was a Zionist walking down the street. A CUNY public safety officer protected me from being attacked. He made sure I made it to the subway safely.”
“Although I was not physically harmed, I took this verbal attack the hardest. Somebody hates me so much for my beliefs that he threatens to harm me because of them.”
Earlier, New York City Students for Justice in Palestine, an umbrella group for SJP chapters, stated in a Facebook post in support of the movement, that CUNY administration were “Zionists” and linked tuition increases to this accusation.
“The Zionist administration invests in Israeli companies, hosts birthright programs and study abroad programs in occupied Palestine, and reproduces settler-colonial ideology throughout CUNY through Zionist content of education which erases the reality Palestinians live through every day,” the post read.
After news of the controversy broke out, CUNY Chancellor James Milliken addressed the situation the following day at a conference at LaGuardia Community College
“Universities are places where free speech, debate and the open exchange of ideas are not just encouraged, they are necessary to our mission of exploring and understanding a diverse range of ideas and perspectives,” Milliken said. “And while we will always embrace this openness to many voices, intolerant, hateful and bigoted speech, while it may be legally protected, is anathema to our values.”
“Those voices stop, rather than encourage, the dialogue and real debate that makes us stronger,” he said.
A smaller protest was held at CSI on November 12 as well, where members of the College’s SJP chapter held signs that read: “divest CUNY tuition from Israeli apartheid” and “from New York to Palestine, education is a right.” But students from CSI’s SJP chapter didn’t get into any direct conflict with other students.
The post from SJP’s umbrella group caught the attention of Amy Posner, Hillel at CSI’s Executive Director.
Posner forwarded the message to Carol Brower, CSI’s Director of Student Life and the message had also reached Christopher Giordano, CSI’s Dean of Students.
“This is illustrative of a disingenuous strategy to co-op other issues for the Palestinian cause and by doing that they actually dilute their own cause,” said Amy Posner, Hillel at CSI’s Executive Director. “Because instead of standing on their own, they co-op other issues that have importance to a lot of students to manipulate other students with other issues by looking like they’re part of their cause.”
“The argument that Zionists are out for tuition increases is anti-Semitic and bigoted,” Posner continued.
It is currently unclear if Student Life or CSI Administration will take action based on the events on campus.
In an emailed statement to the Banner, an executive board member of SJP at CSI, who asked that her last name not be used, said that “[CSI] Administration has asked SJP and MSA both to meet with them soon.”
The SJP at CSI leader also told the Banner in an emailed statement that she felt the group was unfairly targeted for their views and said “the messages of the signs were interconnected with the March.”
“The reaction of the Rally was not fair,” said Nerden. “The coordinated repression directed towards Palestine solidarity organizations by university administrations serves to distract from the rest of the demands, which include implementing open admissions, abolishing tuition, reintroducing remedial classes, and stopping the militarization of our campuses.”