Bombs are raining down on Gaza, with both water and electricity shut off for the millions of Palestinians who live there. Hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced. Over four thousand Palestinians are dead, and hundreds of them are children. The Israeli government is using white phosphorus gas, a banned substance, and the entire population of northern Gaza has been told to relocate — but they have nowhere to go, because Israel has bombed the only exit into Egypt.
In the face of these horrific acts, many City University of New York (CUNY) students, faculty, and staff are standing for Palestine. Many of these students have family members and loved ones in Gaza, some who have died, and many who are being evacuated. Rather than support, these students have been met with policing, repression, and hate from the CUNY administration and from local and state politicians. Our union must fight back.
As faculty members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY), we stand with our Palestinian students and with the struggle for Palestinian liberation. We reject the association of anti-Zionism with antisemitism and stand against all hatred towards Jewish people.
Following the 2021 “Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People” we demand that our union stand in support of Palestine now and support the freedom of speech and protest of students, faculty and staff for the Palestinian People. We support the resolution passed by the Graduate Center Executive Committee of the PSC and endorsed by the chapter stewards, as well as the statement entitled “We Reject the Palestine Exception to Free Speech at CUNY.”
Suppression of Pro-Palestinian Protests and Not A Word about Palestinian Lives
In the days after the initial Hamas attack and the subsequent bombings of Gaza by Israel, CUNY colleges sent emails that did not even mention Palestine, much less place the initial attack in the context of the violent Israeli apartheid state. The Chancellor’s statement explicitly distances himself and the university from all pro-Palestine protests and internal organizations, labeling these CUNY students and workers as somehow separate from “CUNY.” But the reality is that CUNY includes both Israeli and Palestinian students and workers.
While sending thoughts and support to students whose families were killed in Israel, it is important to understand those attacks in the context of 75 years of oppression and repression of Palestine and of an apartheid state of Israel that curtails the basic rights of Palestinians and snatches their land with a massive military arsenal funded by the United States. It is the people of Gaza who are under siege in an open-air prison whose population is 50% children, who are told to leave only to have their only exit bombed, who are being called “human animals” and “savages,” who are being collectively punished for the actions of an organization they are not a part of, who U.S. politicians are calling to “be eradicated.”
On Thursday, October 12, at Brooklyn College, Hunter College, John Jay College, the College of Staten Island, Columbia University, and more, dozens of cops showed up to intimidate the hundreds of students gathered on each campus. Helicopters flew overhead.
At Brooklyn College and John Jay College, protests planned to take place on campus were pressured by campus officials into taking place off-campus instead, placing the students at the mercy of the NYPD. Three city council members released a joint statement in consultation with the Chancellor of CUNY and the President of Brooklyn College encouraging students to stay home from school if they felt unsafe as a result of the protest.
Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez claimed that the organizers would “glorify Saturday’s [Oct. 7] violence and celebrate the killings, injuries and capture of innocent people.” This rhetoric from the university only serves to “other,” demonize, and further racialize Palestinian students and their allies at CUNY, stoking fears that they are a danger to others and mean their classmates harm. It’s part of the same propaganda campaign being used to justify bombing Gaza and to foster Islamophobic and racist violence on our campuses.
Students, corralled into a small section of campus, chanted, made speeches and waved flags. They chanted “Judaism Yes, Zionism No” — making clear that the protest rejects antisemitism and supports Jewish students.
But there was violence at the protest. At Brooklyn College, City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov arrived at the Brooklyn College protest carrying an exposed firearm. She also made several posts on Twitter/X implying the student protestors are Hamas operatives and that the protest was not a pro-Palestine rally, but a pro-Hamas rally. She joined a handful of Zionists who were mostly not students at Brooklyn College in harassing the Palestinian action — the Zionists could be heard chanting “bomb, bomb, bomb” and threatening to take off a woman’s hijab. Police are investigating at least two hate crimes against Palestinian people in Brooklyn. But these despicable acts of hate are not highlighted, or condemned.
The CUNY administration has refused to condemn this hate speech against Muslim students and the Palestinian protests. Instead, it created the context for this hate. We echo the statement issued by multiple student organizations at Brooklyn College calling for the President of the College, Michelle Anderson to step down. We agree that “unjustly associating Palestinians, our student organizations, and communities with violence is a dangerous and unsubstantiated claim. Such statements pose a substantial risk of inciting violence and harassment in our community.”
CUNY’s repression of Palestinian students, faculty and supporters is not new. CUNY Law student and graduation speaker, Fatima Mohammed spoke about the violence committed against Palestinians only to have the CUNY Board of Trustees condemn it as hate speech. Nerdeen Kiswani, an activist in Within Our Lifetime and the commencement speaker at CUNY Law the year before, has been harassed by Zionists and was initially condemned by CUNY Law, instead of supported, as she faced doxxing and a barrage of attacks. Finally, only after years of pressure, did CUNY Law issued a statement condemning the harassment Nerdeen experienced, stating: “the Law School supports the free speech rights of Nerdeen Kiswani, other Palestinian students, and their Jewish and non-Jewish allies, who have been vilified for their activism.” However, CUNY is going back on this perspective, and is once again curtailing the free speech of students.
Demonizing students in this way and acting as if anti-Zionism is the same as antisemitism also works to legitimize claims that CUNY is a highly antisemitic university — a claim that the far right uses to undermine our union and call for the defunding of CUNY. As the Guardian’s coverage of protests at Columbia and Harvard illustrates, Zionist students believe the pro-Palestine protesters “want [them] all dead,” while the pro-Palestine protesters are just trying to “[remind] the world that [the people of Gaza] are humans who deserve to live in dignity, to deserve to live free from occupation, free from colonial brutality, free from the violence that Israel constantly is constantly throwing at them.” At both these universities and at CUNY, students peacefully standing up against Palestinian oppression, as Gaza is actively being destroyed, are being vilified and painted as bloodthirsty threats to their Jewish classmates, when in reality, many Jewish students are participating in or supporting the pro-Palestine protests themselves.
Our union must not stand by and do nothing while Palestinians are being murdered in Gaza — where many of our students’ families and loved ones live. We cannot stand by as the CUNY administration attacks and polices students and faculty for saying this is wrong. Our students are not “terrorists” or a threat to their Jewish classmates for saying apartheid is wrong and Palestinians ought to be able to live free with equal rights.
We cannot stand by as the U.S. government pours money into the Israeli war machine in order to repress Palestinians, while at the same time claims that there is not enough money to forgive student debt, to fully fund higher education, or to make public schools like CUNY free as they should be.
The U.S. labor movement must stand up against oppression everywhere, especially oppression funded by our own government, in solidarity with the working class and oppressed around the globe. And as a union that celebrates its own commitment to social justice, the PSC has a special obligation to do what is right even when it is controversial. We should support the demands put forward by Palestinian labor unions, calling for unions in the US to stand with Palestininians.
Our union must say loudly and clearly that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. Our union must say loudly and clearly, not one cent to the Zionist state of Israel: fund education, not apartheid.