CUNY faculty union divides over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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When the Professional Staff Congress, the faculty union at the City University of New York, last month adopted a resolution strongly criticizing Israel for recent violence against Palestinians, the reaction was intense.

“Whereas, Israel’s pattern and practice of dispossession and expansion of settlements, dating back to its establishment as a settler colonial state in 1948, has been found to be illegal under international law, international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem have designated these practices of Israel as ‘apartheid’ and a regime of legalized racial discrimination perpetrated against the Palestinian people; and the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into these practices,” reads one of the clauses in the resolution.

The resolution goes on to say that the Professional Staff Congress “condemns the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state” and calls on individual chapters of the union to “facilitate discussions at the chapter level of the content of this resolution and consider PSC support of the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) -- a movement launched by 170 Palestinian unions, refugee networks, women’s organizations, professional associations and other Palestinian civil society organizations.”

The resolution also calls on the Biden administration to “stop all aid funding human rights violations and an occupation that is illegal under international law.”

The resolution hasn’t had a major impact on Israel. But it has renewed debates at CUNY over whether the faculty union should take stands on political issues that are not directly related to the City University of New York. The CUNY faculty union does so and has rankled its membership as a result.

A union spokeswoman said that “dozens” of faculty members have quit the union. (Under a ruling by the Supreme Court, they can do so, but the union still has to represent them.)

Many more faculty are upset about the resolution. Although they have not left the union, they point to specific problems they have with the language.

Eugene M. Chudnovsky, Distinguished Professor of Physics at Lehman College and the Graduate School of CUNY, said that he and others took offense at calling Israel “a settler colonial state.”

“Many CUNY faculty and students -- including those, Jewish and non-Jewish, who criticize both sides -- see the assertion that Jews are not the indigenous people of the land of Israel as anti-Semitic, an assault on Jewish heritage,” he said.

Chudnovsky also criticized the “unexplained fixation of the union on the topic not related to its primary mission. The call for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel by the union, regardless of the position, makes no sense at the time when it negotiates the new contract and post-COVID recovery” with politicians who are opposed to a boycott, he said.

Ilya Bratman, executive director of Hillel at CUNY’s Baruch, City and John Jay Colleges and an adjunct instructor in English at Baruch and John Jay, said although the union has taken political positions in the past, it has never spoken on the human rights problems in China or Syria.

“This is about anti-Semites pushing an agenda,” he said.

Bratman said the union shouldn’t be saying anything about Israel unless it directly relates to CUNY. The union, he said, should be focused on the academic and financial issues facing CUNY employees.

Bratman has been involved with an effort to circulate a counterstatement, signed by more than 2,500 people, which says, “A great university must champion diversity and cultivate a tradition of civil discourse and engagement on complex issues and conflicts. Watching the latest needless suffering of Palestinians and Israelis, we suffer with them. A just and lasting peace can only emerge by building trust through mutual respect and by recognizing the aspirations of two peoples, both with legitimate claims for a sovereign homeland.”

A separate “CUNY Community Statement of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” offers reasons to take a stand against Israel: “We assert that this is not a ‘conflict’ that is too ‘controversial and complex’ to assess. Since its inception, Israel has used violent force, punitive bureaucracy, and its legal system to expel Palestinians from their rightful homes and to remove Palestinian people from their land. Israeli law systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Palestinians are cut off from each other by a network of checkpoints, laws, settler-only highways, and a separation wall that swallows illegally occupied Palestinian land.”

James Davis, president of the Professional Staff Congress, said, “The terms of and conditions of work for CUNY faculty and staff are the PSC’s first priority.”

“But our union has often taken positions on issues of national and international political import that extend beyond our contracts,” he said. Davis added that “members of the PSC’s International Committee and Anti-Racism Committee felt strongly that the PSC should take a position in support of the Palestinian people, and the majority of the PSC Delegate Assembly ultimately voted for a resolution.”

He noted that the “principal officers” of the union (himself included) “opposed the resolution because they felt that any position on an issue this controversial should go to the membership for discussion before, not after, a vote of the Delegate Assembly.”

Davis said the actions referenced by the resolution would be “a small part” of the union’s fall program. “The union’s top priority is to ensure the safety of our members and students as CUNY returns to in-person activities.”

As far as reaction to the resolution, he said the union “has heard mainly from a relatively small number of members who are adamantly opposed and deeply hurt and from some who are enthusiastic about it. We are engaged in active discussions with as many of those members as possible. Over time, we are hoping to hear from a broader range of members and make an inclusive set of conversations possible.”

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