An anti-Semitic harassment campaign appears to be being waged against identifiably Jewish and pro-Israel professors at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn – one of the storied City University of New York’s (CUNY) 25 colleges and graduate and professional schools, which educate some 275,000 students.
Despite tens of formal complaints filed with college and CUNY administrators over the past three years and the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a lawsuit filed in federal court in 2016, leaders there appear to have taken little action.
While there are many documented instances of anti-Semitic graffiti at other universities and student government efforts to adopt resolutions backing divestment from companies that do business in Israel, Kingsborough’s situation involves what Business Department Chair Jeffrey Lax, describes in his 2016 federal lawsuit against the CUNY system and a former Kingsborough provost, a “pervasively hostile work environment” for “outward Jews.”
In 2016, CUNY’s chancellor ordered an outside investigation into charges of anti-Semitism at several other colleges, though not, at the time, at Kingsborough.
The report detailed multiple allegations of sporadic, isolated anti-Semitic behavior over several years and concluded that there is “no unchecked anti-Semitism” at CUNY schools.
However, the Journal spoke with several CUNY faculty members who have been victims of anti-Semitic harassment. Michael Goldstein is a 20-year-veteran business communications teacher and administrator at Kingsborough. An indefatigable cheerleader for the community college, which sits perched on Brooklyn’s shoreline, a public high school on the campus is named for his father, Leon Goldstein, who served as Kingsborough’s president for 29 years.
Michael Goldstein became a victim of anti-Semitic attacks last year. In February 2018, he arrived at his office on the Kingsborough campus and discovered that a photo of his father presiding over a college graduation, hung outside his office door, had been defaced with swastikas and epithets written in pen: “F*** Trump Goldstein, Kill the Zionist Entity.”
“The vandalism marked the start of a systematic and pernicious campaign in which I have been targeted and harassed because of who I am and what I believe… this is an orchestrated, aggressive movement to destroy me,” Goldstein wrote in a Feb. 13 op-ed for the New York Daily News.
Goldstein told The Jewish Journal that he considers himself Kingsborough’s ambassador and resident school historian, organizing and speaking at events on campus and off, at high schools and community gatherings. The recent attacks, he said, have dimmed his enthusiasm for such activities.
Last May, as students arrived for final exams at the college, 1,500 fliers were left in classrooms and offices with images grabbed from Goldstein’s Facebook page, including a photo of his 13-year-old daughter. Goldstein is as energetic a re-poster of memes and cartoons on Facebook as he is a Kingsborough booster. His posts are visibly pro-Israel and opposed to progressive politicians including 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. While he is liberal on social issues including gay marriage and immigration, and voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, Goldstein said he was disappointed with Obama’s relationship with Israel and in 2016 voted for President Donald Trump because of his stance on Israel.
Goldstein said at least one faculty member was caught on college videotape distributing the fliers, but that Kingsborough leaders have refused to make that video available to attorneys working with Goldstein.
In addition, a Communist newspaper called “Challenge” published four separate articles between June and November of 2018 calling Goldstein racist, anti-Muslim and anti-gay. The paper was distributed widely just outside the campus gates, Goldstein said, adding that colleagues warned him that those campaigning to get him fired are “trying to get students to constantly harass me. I’m afraid one will take it too far by getting physical. I’m afraid of getting punched. I’ve never had a problem before this. I don’t want to be seen as racist or anti-Muslim. I like people for who they are.”
Now, among the academic left this anti-Israel attitude crosses into anti-Semitism all the time. I’m very pro-Zionist, so I’m automatically an oppressor — Michael Goldstein
Goldstein told the Journal fliers were put under his office door attacking him. They were also distributed widely around campus. In addition, he said, students banged on his office window, frightening him. Following these incidents, Goldstein requested campus security protection. He received it months later, but only after multiple requests and after a Christian administrator’s office was papered with crosses. Goldstein now has a campus safety officer escort him everywhere he walks on campus, and sit outside his office door whenever he’s inside.
“I can’t go to any community events anymore, even though I used to create and run them,” Goldstein said. “I used to be called ‘the mayor of Kingsborough.’ For many years I knew everyone, knew their families. Now I am isolated.”
He said he believes he’s being targeted because, “now among the academic left this anti-Israel attitude crosses into anti-Semitism all the time. I’m very pro-Zionist, so I’m automatically an oppressor, and they think I hate Palestinians. I teach Palestinian students all the time. They’ve identified me as someone they can go after because I have no power. I’m low hanging fruit. They see me as a capitalist overlord and it’s funny. I make less than they do, probably.”
Last October, someone put nails in both Goldstein’s and Lax’s car tires while they were attending a faculty council meeting. They both filed complaints about the tire damage with campus security, but said nothing was done to track down those responsible.
This latest attack against Lax comes two-and-a-half years after Lax filed his federal lawsuit in February 2016, alleging his career has been damaged by Kingsborough administrators who, he claimed, have created a hostile work environment for those who are visibly Jewish.
The lawsuit was filed with the assistance of The Lawfare Project. Lawfare Project founder and executive director Brooke Goldstein told the Journal, who also represents both Lax and Michael Goldstein told the Journal, “The lawsuit is a symptom of a much larger problem, which is a very dangerously hostile environment at CUNY for Jewish students and professors. Multiple violations of basic civil rights of Jewish professors and students are taking place on campus, and instead of dealing with the situation as it is legally obligated to, the administration is at best wilfully ignoring it, and at worst aiding and abetting it.”
The 2016 lawsuit names Stuart Suss, former interim president and provost at Kingsborough, claiming that Lax’s civil rights, along with state and city laws, were violated by religious discrimination and harassment in a pervasively hostile work environment. Lax, who teaches employment law, identifies as a feminist and has supported legal workplace protections for LGBTQ employees.
“Everyone in my classes seems to get along. If you don’t mention [Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], it won’t explode. Once the issues are raised, it can be combustible.” — Sharon Flatto
Suss allegedly told another professor that “there are too many Jews” on Kingsborough’s faculty. While Suss himself is Jewish, Kingsborough professors said he is not religiously observant. When Lax filed a complaint at Kingsborough about earlier anti-Semitic harassment of other faculty members, he said that then Kingsborough president Farley Herzek told him to “let it go.”
The lawsuit alleges that Suss was orchestrating an effort to get rid of current religious Jewish faculty, and worked to not hire new ones.
Suss “ridiculed, intimidated, and insulted Jewish employees through systematically eliminating Jews from the faculty, excluding and minimizing the roles of the Jewish faculty members who survived elimination, subjecting Jewish faculty members to frequent verbal harassment and disparate treatment, and encouraging anti-Semitism on Kingsborough’s campus,” Lax’s lawsuit states. Suss “insisted upon scheduling the interviews of Jewish candidates for positions at Kingsborough on Jewish holidays. By mid-2015 the religious discrimination became so palpable that some department chairs encouraged Jewish candidates to remove all religious head coverings, and any other personal items symbolic of their religious beliefs, before meeting with Suss. Discriminatory hiring practices have reduced the number of Jewish faculty members at Kingsborough and contributed to the pervasively hostile work environment.”
Suss did not return multiple requests for interviews by the Journal.
After Lax filed his lawsuit in federal court in February 2016, Lax claimed in legal documents that the retaliation increased, stating, “CUNY significantly reduced [my] compensation and excluded [me] from a compensation increase that a majority of Kingsborough’s chairpersons received.”
Lax is seeking a jury trial and damages from Suss and CUNY. In September, CUNY filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Both sides are awaiting the judge’s response.
The Journal reached out to Kingsborough’s President Claudia Schrader, and to CUNY’s media relations head seeking an interview with Interim Chancellor Vita Rabinowitz about anti-Semitic incidents on campus.
Kingsborough’s director of marketing and communications, John Aaron, responded with a statement: “The incidents to which you refer are under active investigation and, as such, we are not at liberty to comment beyond providing the following assurances: So long as the investigations are ongoing, and until the process is resolved in accordance with college and university procedures, we are taking all necessary measures to safeguard those who feel threatened, and to uphold the rights of those accused.”
However, in a Feb. 21 leaked email to CUNY trustees, Schrader wrote that recent positive developments at Kingsborough have “been overshadowed, to some extent, by the spate of negative news coverage that has recently appeared in the local press regarding allegations of anti- Semitism on our campus. The campus is also being besieged by a torrent of angry emails, expressing outrage on the part of individuals who are unknown and external to the college.”
“Last spring, the Progressive Faculty Caucus (PFC) held a meeting focused on discrimination. The group scheduled it for a Friday night, declining to change the date even after non-Jewish PFC members complained that those who kept Shabbat would be unable to attend.”
On Feb. 25, Schrader sent an internal memo to Kingsborough’s faculty decrying the fact that “our community continues to be embroiled in tension.” She wrote, “In times of heightened emotions, we must take lengths to resist ad hominem attacks and strive to maintain constructive, inclusive dialogue. I urge every member of this campus community to refrain right now from the temptation to point fingers and cast blame. Doing so is counterproductive to the kind of engagement we all need at this time…let us resolve to do the difficult work needed to reach a mutual, workable understanding and chart a unified course forward.”
Other observant Jews or pro-Israel faculty members also say they have been harassed, to lesser degrees.
Economics Professor Susan Aranoff has taught at Kingsborough for 35 years. She told the Journal the climate has changed markedly in recent years. She used to attach two small flags – an American flag and an Israeli flag – to her car. Two years ago the Israeli flag was broken twice and at one point was stolen, while the American flag was left alone. After those incidents, she decided not to replace them. She filed complaints at the time with college authorities who, she said, dismissed it as “ordinary vandalism.”
Aranoff, Goldstein, and other faculty members the Journal interviewed said last spring the Progressive Faculty Caucus (PFC) held a meeting focused on discrimination. They scheduled it for a Friday night, declining to change the date even after non-Jewish PFC members complained that those who kept Shabbat would be unable to attend. Aranoff lives within walking distance of Kingsborough’s campus, and asked a PFC organizer where, exactly, the meeting would be held, so that she could attend. She said he refused to tell her.
The PFC is ostensibly open to any faculty member. Aranoff said she asked multiple times to be added to its email list. At the time, she said, she thought that the caucus’s purpose was to “enhance Kingsborough’s teaching environment.” However, after months passed and she wasn’t added to the distribution list, Aranoff said she eventually realized that the PFC is open to anyone but religious Jews.
Aranoff and other faculty members said not long after the request to change that Spring 2018 Friday night meeting, the university administrators blocked their campus-based messaging system and the PFC took their message system off campus.
Currently, the PFC has no website, no listing available on Kingsborough’s website and no listed phone numbers. Though publicly invisible the PFC is powerful, Aranoff told the Journal. Its members lobby “for candidates for positions on college council or various committees, so [Jewish faculty members are] disadvantaged in not being part of that group,” she said.
Aranoff and another senior faculty member, who is an Orthodox Jew and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, filed a complaint with Kingsborough’s diversity officer last spring. Aranoff said the officer, Victoria Ajibade, left the college about 10 days later. In March 2018, Aranoff and her colleague filed a complaint alleging discrimination by the PFC with the EEOC. Aranoff said she was told to call to make an appointment to give their statements at the EEOC office. She said she left multiple phone messages with the officer assigned to their case, but he never returned the calls and she eventually gave up.
Ajibade did not respond to the Journal’s multiple requests for comment.
Those being harassed at Kingsborough all cited Kingsborough Associate Professor of English Anthony Alessandrini, Associate Professor of Sociology Katia Perea and Associate Professor of Chemistry Patrick Lloyd, as being their chief antagonists within the PFC, none of whom responded to the Journal’s requests for comment.
Goldstein told the Journal that Alessandrini “is the head of the PFC, the puppet master, quiet and well spoken, and was a founder of (the anti-Israel) SPJ (Students for Justice in Palestine)” at New York University when he was a student there.
Alessandrini, an ardent advocate of the Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) effort. wrote a recent essay on the website Jadaliyya titled, “After the Elections: Solidarities Old and New.” In it, Alessandrini writes about the BDS movement and links Jewish “whiteness” to white supremacy.
Appropriating a 1984 essay by black American writer James Baldwin, in the essay, Alessandrini calls white Jews white supremacists, writing, “the struggle against Israeli apartheid needs to be articulated more clearly as a struggle against white supremacy, on a global scale.”
The Journal also reached out to religious Jewish professors on other CUNY campuses to see if they had experiences similar to those at Kingsborough.
David Gerwin, a professor of Social Studies Education at Queens College and chair of the faculty union there, wears a yarmulke. He said that in his 21 years there he has not experienced or heard about any ongoing anti-Semitic harassment.
Sharon Flatto, professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College and deputy director of its graduate program, is also an observant Jew. While there has been anti-Semitic behavior on her campus, as documented in the 2016 CUNY investigation, she said none of it has entered her classrooms, where she has many religious Muslim and Jewish students.
“It’s not so grim day-to-day,” Flatto said. “Everyone in my classes seems to get along. If you don’t mention it, it won’t explode,” she said, referring to Zionism or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Once the issues are raised,” she acknowledged, “it can be combustible.”
Aranoff said administrators, faculty members and students at Kingsborough are expressing anti-Semitic attitudes more openly today than in years past. About a year ago she said a male, Muslim student first muttered and then audibly said something anti-Semitic. She asked him why, and he expressed resentment that ‘Jews have their own ambulances and schools.’ “I told him that Hatzalah (a privately funded Jewish community ambulance service) will pick anybody up when they call. The student said, ‘why should we pay for that?’ and I told him that there is no charge. A Christian student present pointed out that Catholics also have their own religious schools.
“I realized that there’s ignorance combined with pre-existing animosity and I never heard such things from students before,” Aranoff said. “There has also been a big drop in the number of Orthodox Jews on the faculty.”
Although she emphasized that she loves her students and teaching, Aranoff said, “Now I feel uncomfortable as a religious Jew. And I can’t put my finger on why.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that When Lax filed a complaint at Kingsborough about earlier anti-Semitic harassment of other faculty members, it was Stuart Suss who told him to “let it go.”
Update: An earlier version of this article stated that Alessandrini had removed his essay comparing Jewish whiteness to white supremacy. He did not. The link to the essay is now in this story.
This article was updated on March 5 to include a statement from Brooke Goldstein of the Lawfare Project.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is the Jewish giving maven at Inside Philanthropy and is a freelance journalist in New York City. She is the author of Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.