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Home » Clarion » 2021 » August 2021 » Responses on Israel and Palestine

Responses on Israel and Palestine

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Debating the Delegate Assembly resolution

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The Delegate Assembly approved a Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People on June 10. The PSC’s International Committee, Anti-Racism Committee and Academic Freedom Committee cosponsored the first version of a resolution on the topic in May. The Executive Council reviewed this resolution, voted against it and proposed a substitute, also circulated to delegates prior to the June 10 meeting. During the Delegate Assembly, four motions were made to amend the substitute resolution, three of which succeeded. The resolution was approved as amended: 84 in favor, 34 opposed, 43 did not vote. Since then, hundreds of members have contacted the PSC to express their views on the resolution, more than any in recent years. Some have been positive, but the vast majority have been critical. This letters forum, which includes unsolicited letters and solicited statements, reflects some of these views. By illustrating the thoughtfulness and the depth of feeling members bring to these issues, this forum seeks to model an open dialogue.

PRINCIPAL OFFICERS STATE POSITION

We respect and appreciate the deeply held feelings that members have expressed on all sides of the resolution on Israel and Palestine. It is because, where they are engaged, PSC members disagree so sharply, that we opposed the original resolution forwarded by committees to the Delegate Assembly, and that we also voted against the resolution that passed. We each found the resolution as adopted problematic for our own reasons, but together we believe that any position the union develops on Israel and Palestine should be preceded by conversation among the members in our chapters. To our minds, such discussion would not only take up what any union position should be, but also whether our union should take a position on an issue that polarizes large numbers of members and that we have relatively little ability to influence.

Since the resolution passed, we have heard from hundreds of members and dozens of them have resigned. Our conviction about the priority of chapter discussions before a controversial vote has only grown. Over many years of fighting to make CUNY a better place to study and work, the PSC has engaged deeply with issues of social justice and human rights. We reject the opposition between “bread-and-butter” issues and social policy, but we feel that such campaigns should unify and strengthen the union. Pressing challenges are in front of us that demand maximal solidarity and campaigns that build our power. Engaging the contentious issues of Israel and Palestine should not detract from that work.

The committees and the Delegate Assembly adhered to the PSC constitution and policy on resolutions. But the process that led to the June 10 resolution reveals a need, in our view, to modify our policy and practices regarding resolutions to enhance member engagement and affirm the representative role of the delegates. We are determined, as principal officers, to keep our union focused and resilient in order to reach our common goals. The PSC has advocated tenaciously for quality public higher education and social justice. As we recover from the pandemic and head toward another round of contract negotiations, our challenges are greater than ever, and we need all of us in the fight.

James Davis, President;
Andrea Vásquez, First Vice President;
Felicia Wharton, Treasurer;
Penny Lewis, Secretary


WEAKENS THE UNION

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict draws fiery passions from many corners. These debates tend to be long, heated and rarely get settled quietly. This is why we are dismayed that the PSC has initiated the debate, especially after campuses have cleared out for the summer. Why is our labor union meddling in divisive Middle Eastern politics?

This issue is brought up at the precise moment when our union needs solidarity. We should be unifying to fight to receive our previously negotiated raises, to ensure safe working conditions and to prepare for our next contract. Instead, we are debating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The resolution is (conceivably unintentionally) steeped in antisemitic tropes. By delegitimizing the existence of Israel as a nation-state, this motion sends a clear signal to all members.

Over the past five years, the PSC has addressed only one other foreign policy issue: a statement in support of China which opposed a U.S. policy of a “Cold War” against China. This despite China’s well-documented human rights abuses. This Israel-Palestine resolution was written and passed without campus-wide consultations and stands out as being distinctly different from every other resolution passed by our union.

This motion compels us to debate Middle Eastern politics. These debates don’t end quickly quietly or with consensus. It’s a land mine. The union is unwise to touch it, especially without more consensus and a more carefully worded resolution. In the Fall we will be continuing our advocacy. We will continue to voice our serious disagreement with the content and the process by which this resolution was passed. We will also advocate against the rise of antisemitism within American society.

Lisa Amowitz, Maida Landau,
Mary Jo Ben-Nun, and Roni Ben-Nun,
Art and Music;
Laurence Brenner, Teresa Fisher, Jeffrey Wisotsky,
Joshua Halberstam, Ellen Mareneck, and Debra Gonsher,
​Communication Arts and Sciences;
Elizabeth Cahn, Janet Heller, Nigel Thomas, and
Elyse Gruttadauria,
Health, Physical Education and Recreation;
Randi Shane, Social Sciences;
Seth Offenbach, History;
Howard Clampman, Business and Information Systems;
Anthony Weaver, Mathematics and Computer Science;
Kathleen Urda, English
Bronx Community College


YES, IT’S APARTHEID

It is extremely significant that Israel was accused of being an apartheid state earlier this year by two leading human rights organizations, Israel’s B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch. What exactly do these organizations mean when they use the term apartheid? Both draw on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998), which criminalizes inhumane acts committed in the context of, and to maintain, “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group.” The prohibition of apartheid has assumed the status not simply of international customary law, but of a peremptory rule of international law (a jus cogens norm), a status that obliges states and other international organizations to cooperate in order to end serious breaches of such norms. Given these obligations to intervene in situations that constitute apartheid, the question of whether Israel is an apartheid state is of critical political importance.

As a white South African, I benefited substantially from the oppression of the country’s Black majority. Now, living in the United States, a country which is a major funder of Israel’s apartheid policies, I cannot stand by idly. This is why I support the call of Palestinian civil society organizations for nonviolent policies of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israeli institutions. And it is why I support the PSC resolution in support of the Palestinian people.

Ashley Dawson
Professor, English
College of Staten Island
The Graduate Center


CAMPS TO CAMPUS

My parents were survivors of Auschwitz. I know antisemitism when I see it, despite [the union’s] tepid denouncement of such added to the resolution as an afterthought. The one-sided manifesto fails to mention Hamas, an organization with no other goal than the destruction of Israel. Whether one agrees or disagrees with some of Israel’s policies (and I strongly support a two-state solution), Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is undeniably a blueprint for dismantling the only democratic nation in the region.

It is abundantly clear that the rising chorus of BDS support has brought on an epidemic of antisemitic violence. I never dreamed I would feel unsafe on my own campus in the heart of New York City. I cannot financially support a union that is at odds with my security and that of my Jewish colleagues and students. If the PSC is willing in the future to spend all of its time, energy and our money on working and advocating for improved faculty salaries and benefits, I will gladly rejoin. At the present time, you do not represent me.

Steve Greenbaum
Distinguished Professor, Physics
Hunter College


NO OPEN DEBATE

This resolution was passed with no indication that the PSC was debating it and with no invitation for broader discussion among PSC members. We only learned of it from the new PSC president after the resolution was passed. It is clear that this resolution does not adequately represent PSC membership.

As teachers and scholars of Jewish Studies, we consider the right to academic freedom – the ability to engage in intellectual debate, research and exploration without fear of retaliation – to be fundamental to all of our endeavors. The resolution argues for the right to criticize the State of Israel and calls for discussions at the chapter level regarding whether to adopt the demands of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. In doing so, the PSC appeals to freedom of speech only to silence it by advancing a movement that explicitly advocates for academic boycott of Israeli academics and those employed by Israeli institutions. This is the opposite of academic freedom and the fundamental tenets of free speech. Peace and justice are born out of dialogue, discussion, conversation and mutual understanding.

Hate crimes are being documented at historic highs in this country and globally. These are generated in large part by a rise in heated rhetoric that leads to violence against people for their religious, ethnic, national, racial or gender identities. There has been a documented rise in antisemitic attacks that frequently correlate to anti-Israel rhetoric. These forms of violence are unacceptable.

It is the responsibility of the PSC, which represents a diverse array of faculty, to ensure that all are valued. This resolution fails to do this.

More than three dozen
Jewish Studies faculty members
from around CUNY


WE CAN’T BE SILENT

As a Jewish American, I’ve long felt the obligation to speak out against atrocities being committed in my name and with my tax dollars on behalf of Palestinians. As such, I was deeply moved by the decision of the Delegate Assembly members to pass this resolution, and I know many other PSC members are as well. By taking this action, we join a growing number of trade unionists and people of conscience around the world standing in solidarity with Palestinians who engaged in a general strike under tremendously difficult circumstances. For members who wish there had been more discussion of the resolution prior to the vote, I hope our union will take the opportunity to not only look for ways to communicate more effectively with members but to more deeply engage members in decision-making and political work of all kinds.

During the time I’ve been involved in the PSC, I’ve been proud that we’re a progressive union with a social movement vision. We know that the well-being of our members and our students depends not only on our salary and benefits, but on being part of larger movements fighting against racism and police violence and for fully funded public education and a more equitable, just and livable city. Because of this vision, members who care passionately about Medicare for All, a Green New Deal or electing a more progressive city council, can all find a home for their activism within the union. I see this resolution as a continuation and expansion of this work and look forward to the discussions and work it will enable.

Laura Tanenbaum
Professor, English
LaGuardia Community College


NOT BASED ON FACTS

There is no mention in [the resolution] that Hamas began launching rockets at Israeli cities, destroying buildings and killing residents. The wording in the resolution purports the untrue notion that Israel escalated violence out of blue.

The irony is that Hamas, a terrorist organization that works both against Israel and its own people, deliberately provokes Israel, not the other way around. That is why a great number of the rockets hit their own neighborhoods and why Hamas installs rocket launchers in their schools, hospitals and residential areas. Why doesn’t PSC condemn Hamas for preying on their own people?

Whether or not the League of Nations was wrong to decide that Palestine should become the Jewish homeland, the effect of that decision is that the hundreds of thousands of Jews who arrived in Palestine from the time the mandate was created in 1922 until the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, were pursuant to the international law that existed at the time. They came not as colonials or to take land away from other people, but to fulfill the decision of the League of Nations that Jews should be encouraged to settle in Palestine.

The Arabs who fought against the Jewish settlers and refugees may have thought of themselves as protecting their own country from invaders, but according to international law it was not their country (and it never had been in the past) and they were fighting against the existing law. In fact, there has never been any “Palestinian land” anywhere because there has never been a Palestinian country.

As for “apartheid,” 25% of Israel’s population are Arabs; there are Arabs in the Knesset (parliament). The heads of Palestinian government are treated at Israeli hospitals, since Israeli hospitals do not discriminate with regard to medical care.

I was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, where systemic antisemitism flourished. After my family left our home country, Israel welcomed us, and I lived there happily for 10 years. I then moved to the United States, where I have lived for the past 20 years. Recently, I have seen antisemitism in this country. Jews have been attacked across the states by means of beating, stabbing and shooting. If you truly condemn antisemitism, this resolution is of no help. It is only provoking more violence against us.

Galina Oksman
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Science Department
BMCC


UNFAIR AND WRONG

Those activists who have imposed this resolution on our union had to know how divisive it would be; they had to know that there are Israeli students and faculty at the university who, however opposed to Israeli policies they might be (and all whom I know personally are passionately opposed to them), will feel threatened and alienated by this resolution. They had to know that in a climate of mounting antisemitism and antisemitic violence, a text of this kind could only be fuel to a very nasty fire. They had to know all of that, and they didn’t care.

This resolution is a gross breach of that responsibility, not caring at all how many constituents it alienates. And this at a time when we face so many other crises on so many fronts, not only with budgetary issues but with core questions of democracy and academic freedom in the United States. This is why the resolution must be repealed.

Benjamin Hett
Professor, History
Hunter College
The Graduate Center


A CUNY ISSUE

Several PSC members have questioned the relevance of the resolution and of future chapter discussions on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to our union and to CUNY more generally. The answer is simple:

  • Our government provides Israel with $3.8 billion a year in military aid in addition to political and diplomatic support. CUNY itself invests heavily in companies that aid the violent Israeli occupation, as do the labor organizations that the PSC is affiliated with, the AFT and AFL-CIO, which own Israeli bonds totaling $5 billion dollars. The issue of Palestine is thus an important one for us as U.S. tax payers, as CUNY workers and as union members.
  • The community that CUNY serves and is embedded in is extremely international both in terms of demographics as well as outlook. The Palestinian struggle for self-determination has an iconic status internationally (and particularly in the Global South) as a movement for self-determination by a colonized people in the face of unending injustice, oppression and dispossession. The Palestinian cause is also supported by domestic social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Red Nation as an Indigenous rights movement against settler colonialism. Palestine is thus a CUNY issue because of the very nature of the community we serve.
  • It is important to note that NYC Muslims represent 22% of the U.S. Muslim population, and the metro area has the largest concentration of people of Arab and Middle Eastern origin. It is specifically home to the largest Palestinian population in the United States, which is reflected in our student body. Palestine is thus a CUNY issue simply because many of our students are Palestinian refugees.
  • The CUNY administration has itself made Palestine a CUNY issue. For years, it has tolerated and facilitated the surveillance and harassment by pro-Israel individuals and organizations of anyone (and particularly Palestinian, Muslim, Arab and other people of color) teaching about, speaking out on, or organizing around Palestinian rights and liberation. The case of Nerdeen Kiswani, a CUNY alum and current CUNY Law student is instructive, but only the most egregious and well-known of these cases.

Corinna Mullin
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Political Science
John Jay College

Saadia Toor
Associate Professor, Sociology
College of Staten Island


AN UNEQUAL PLACE

The PSC Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People is a small but important step for Palestinians like myself who work in the CUNY system, demonstrating that the union hears our calls for justice and takes them seriously, something that U.S. universities themselves have a track record of avoiding, if not obstructing outright. The Palestinian side of my family is from Nazareth, one of the few major urban centers not militarily targeted by Zionist militias in the Nakba of 1948. By 1952, nascent Israeli institutions – like the military government, which applied only to Palestinian locales, including Nazareth – were producing the key practices and documents that would shape material and political relations for the decades to come.

The Israeli Citizenship Law granted citizenship, not nationality to Palestinians who remained. Israeli citizenship and nationality are bifurcated. Israel defines nationality through ethnic descriptors, such as ‘Jewish,’ ‘Arab’ and ‘Druze.’ Aside from rights like voting in national elections and a passport, many of the most substantial rights are conferred through nationality. Complementing our exclusion from national rights in Israel, more than 65 laws exclude Palestinian citizens from equal access in myriad ways. While Palestinians with Israeli citizenship like myself hold the most freedom of movement and rights along the spectrum of Palestinian subjects under Israeli rule, these rights are categorically inferior to the rights automatically conferred on Jewish Israeli citizens. This is why Palestinians welcomed the late arrival of leading international and Israeli human rights organizations now describing Israeli rule over Palestinians as apartheid, an analysis pioneered by Palestinians.

Thayer Hastings
Graduate Assistant, Anthropology
The Graduate Center


GOOD STANCE

I am happily excited that my union is finally supporting the Palestinian people. I’ve been anguishing over the abuse of the Palestinians for many years and was dismayed that CUNY did nothing. There was a time when the word Palestine was banned from the media and banned in general discourse. A few years ago certain textbook publishers had been persuaded to eliminate Palestine from maps showing the region in ancient times.

Cathy Santore
Professor, Art History
City Tech


WHY ISRAEL?

Throughout the world there are terrible injustices being perpetuated by nations. Why have we chosen to target Israel? As you say, antisemitism is not equated with criticism of Israel. But when only a Jewish nation is boycotted for its actions, then that is antisemitism. Let’s either see some resolutions also condemning other nations or stop declaring boycotts of nations altogether.

Christina Sormani
Professor, Mathematics
Lehman College


DISTURBING

I cannot imagine such a deeply nuanced, sociopolitical, emotionally-laden resolution being adopted by the Delegate Assembly without the canvassed opinions of PSC CUNYs membership, including retirees. I am disturbed and feel demeaned, being co-opted as supportive of this resolution by so few of PSC CUNY members on behalf of its vastly larger membership. Whether I agree or disagree with the resolution is not the issue. It is the unwarranted and unethical usurpation of the general membership’s consensus for the purpose of advancing the Delegate Assembly’s agenda.

Warren Page
Professor, Mathematics (retired)
Baruch College
City Tech


A MIXED BAG

I both voted for the resolution, yet I’m disappointed by it. While I support Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself, I truly believe the Israeli occupation and related policies are ultimately driving the conflict.

Because of certain amendments added, it ended up with unnecessarily controversial language. Furthermore, whatever my own individual convictions, I understand that my primary obligation as a delegate is to faithfully represent my constituency. While it is true that previous resolutions were rarely vetted with membership, clearly this one was different, and greater care should have been taken to consult the body of members.

One of the stated intents when presented was that the resolution should stimulate meaningful discussion and debate regarding the conflict. I’m hopeful that it might be brought back to that purpose, on the understanding, of course, that all perspectives would be welcome and treated with respect.

Erik Freas
Assistant Professor, Middle Eastern History
BMCC


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