USS, the student government of CUNY, voted on Sunday afternoon to reject a controversial definition of anti-Semitism. The rejected definition said that it is anti-Jewish to challenge the existence of the state of Israel, something some activist groups on campus worried would prevent them from advocating for Palestine.
Both USS delegates from Hunter College, Kayla Benjamin and Alexis Fisher, voted no on the controversial definition of anti-Semitism. The vote took place after more than four hours of discussion, during which delegates said that they experienced unprecedented harassment in the past few weeks since the resolution was introduced. One delegate was even the target of death threats and hundreds of dollars in pro-Israel social media advertisements.
While the definition that USS rejected says that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic,” one of the examples of anti-Semitism it provides is “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”
This definition came from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental organization seeking to promote understanding of the Holocaust, in which around 6 million European Jews were killed. Under President Joe Biden’s administration, the United States has adopted IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism; so have City College, Brooklyn College and Baruch.
Zionism is the belief that anti-Jewish sentiments are so strong that there has to be a Jewish nation. But when Eastern European Jews immigrated to Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century, fleeing mass murder, to form the state of Israel, they displaced hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinian Arabs.
The proposed adoption of the IHRA definition at CUNY inspired controversy within the Jewish community. While Zionist organizations supported it, a Jewish group at CUNY’s law school opposed it, and Hunter Hillel, a Jewish club on campus, said it didn’t think USS should adopt any definition of anti-Semitism.
A change.org petition urging USS to vote for the IHRA definition received more than 5,300 signatures as of Sunday afternoon, though the petition and some people who signed it equated the USS vote with a vote to approve or condemn crimes against Jews. “The adoption of the IHRA definition is the simplest way to support and protect the CUNY Jewish community,” the petition said.
In addition to being shared by CUNY students, this petition was also shared by several Zionist social media pages, including one with over a million Facebook followers, suggesting that many people who signed it were not affiliated with the university.
Two groups at CUNY Law School, Students for Justice in Palestine and the Jewish Law Students Association, led the fight against USS adopting the IHRA definition. “The IHRA definition has been widely condemned as an attempt to silence Palestine solidarity efforts by equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism,” says the law student-activists’ resolution, which was backed by other advocacy groups including Free CUNY. They proposed an alternative definition of anti-Semitism that protects anti-Zionist activism. Their definition was also rejected by USS on the grounds that it required adjustments.
Hunter Hillel, a Jewish club on campus (in which the author of this article participates), put out a statement on Instagram urging USS to reject the resolution. “We do not believe that any single definition represents every Jewish student and their experiences with Antisemitism, and that it could be harmful to Jewish students for the CUNY USS to adopt any definition on a university-wide level,” Hillel’s statement says.
IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism is also vague, which advocates say leaves room for almost anything to be labeled anti-Semitic. The definition says: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
A Zionist organization based in New Jersey called BDS Report put out three misleading and provocative ads on Facebook and Instagram directing people to sign a petition saying that the CUNY Law activist groups’ definition of anti-Semitism is anti-Semitic. One of these ads used a darkened image of pro-Palestine activist Nerdeen Kiswani, the president of CUNY Law SJP and a USS alternate delegate, and accused her of having “attacked Jews.” BDS Report is estimated to have spent at least $1,300 on these ads, which falsely framed the USS vote as a vote for or against anti-Semitism.
Another one of the BDS Report’s ads used a misleading video of Kiswani bringing a lighter next to someone’s Israeli Defense Forces sweater. The New York Times reported that the man in the video wearing the sweater is Kiswani’s friend, and in the video, he smiles when Kiswani says she wants to set fire to his sweater.
After the controversy over the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism played out, even Yehuda Wexler, a USS delegate from Baruch and an original sponsor of the CUNY resolution, abstained from voting on it. “We don’t have a consensus of the Jewish community,” Wexler explained.