NEW YORK (RNS) — A recent complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education details “a pervasively hostile environment for Jewish students” at the City University of New York, part of a rise in alleged antisemitism across CUNY’s campuses.
The Title VI complaint, filed July 19 by the American Center for Law and Justice, describes alleged violations of the Civil Rights Act going back to 2013. According to the ACLJ — a Christian legal group that focuses on the First Amendment — Jewish students, faculty and community members allege that CUNY administrators, including Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez, have failed to take action to address the concerns of Jewish students and faculty, especially those who are vocal in their support of Israel. The complaint points to Rodriguez’s absence at a New York City Council Committee on Higher Education hearing about antisemitism at CUNY last month as a sign of the administration’s indifference.
“The clear message that CUNY is communicating is that the administration is deliberately indifferent to the concerns and well-being of its Jewish population,” wrote Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, special counsel for international affairs at the ACLJ, in a statement about the complaint.
This is not the first time concerns about antisemitism at CUNY have been in the spotlight. Last year, Jeffrey Lax, chair of the business department at Kingsborough Community College, part of the CUNY system, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that he had been the target of hostility based on his Jewish faith and pro-Israel views.
According to the DOE complaint, the EEOC found that “reasonable cause” existed for Lax’s claims of “religious discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment.” Lax has complained that the university has failed to act on the EEOC’s findings. The professor has also sued CUNY, alleging discrimination. That suit is currently on appeal.
Lax and five other faculty members have also filed a lawsuit against the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY over a resolution it adopted condemning “the continued subjection of Palestinians to the state-supported displacement, occupation, and use of lethal force by Israel” as well as “racism in all forms, including anti-Semitism, and recognizes that criticisms of Israel, a diverse nation-state, are not inherently anti-Semitic.” At least 50 CUNY professors, including Lax, resigned from their faculty union in July 2021 after passage of the resolution.
“When the University-wide PSC has been found to be complicit in racism by the EEOC and then failed to exercise any action in response–,” says the ACLJ complaint, “–it is clear that the time has come for an investigation into CUNY as a whole.”
Both the resolution and the DOE complaint call to attention CUNY’s refusal to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which was adopted by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul last month, and says antisemitism includes holding Jews responsible for the actions of the state of Israel.
“Attacking, denigrating and threatening ‘Zionists’ has become the norm, with the crystal-clear understanding that ‘Zionist’ is now merely an epithet for ‘Jew,’” noted Goldfeder.
A spokesperson for CUNY declined to comment specifically on the DOE complaint.
“The university is engaged every day in efforts to combat antisemitism,” the spokesperson said.
According to New York City Council member Inna Vernikov, who had a separate meeting with the chancellor last week, Matos Rodriguez is “committed to more Israel exchange programs” and has “been exploring the idea of adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism” since the hearing.
The dispute over antisemitism at CUNY is part of a larger conflict about support for Israel on college campuses. Jewish students who support Israel say they have been harassed and made to feel unwelcome by students and faculty who support Palestinian causes. At Duke University, a feud between rival student groups — Students for Justice in Palestine and Students Supporting Israel — led to months of debate.