When a provocative Tiktok video uploaded by Nerdeen Kiswani, a second-year student at CUNY law school, went public recently, the anti-Israel sentiment of the clip came as no surprise to those who were aware of Ms. Kiswani’s long record of toxic activism. In the video, Kiswani is seen attempting to light on fire an IDF-emblazoned sweatshirt worn by an individual sitting with her, expressing her hatred for the IDF and the nation it defends—a loathing that apparently animates Ms. Kiswani’s life, since she is fully engaged as the former vice president and president of the virulent student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Hunter College and at the College of Staten Island (CSI), City of New York University (CUNY).
And, as evidenced by the video clip, Kiswani (pictured above) is perfectly willing to use and celebrate violence against Israeli Jews. In fact, when in 2017 Palestinian terrorists killed four people and injured 17 others by ramming them with a vehicle on a Jerusalem promenade, Kiswani lauded and encouraged celebration of the murders, ghoulishly noting that “Palestinians in Palestine are giving out sweets in celebration. I will not hide from this. I will not be ashamed or embarrassed by this. These celebratory actions are what keep the resistance moving forward, they are what keep it alive.”
Needless to say, this type of murderous activism can poison the climate of a university campus, exactly what took place at CUNY for another law student there, Rafaella Gunz. Gunz, a Jewish journalist who studies LGBT and feminist issues, herself became a target of pro-Palestinian students, including Kiswani, and eventually dropped out of the law school this year after she was relentlessly targeted by anti-Israel activists. “It came to my attention that there was this petition,” Gunz wrote. “It was inspired by me, it doesn’t say anything by name, that it’s me, but it says ‘a certain subset of Zionist activists.’ And that’s just me. I’m clearly outnumbered on this campus, right?”
“All the student groups signed it, professors signed it, a bunch of my classmates signed it, so it’s basically saying that if you are anything less than unequivocally supportive of the Palestinian groups, you shouldn’t be at this school,” Gunz wrote. “And then I was accused of ‘Zionist violence.’ I don’t know how my words are violent, but there it is.”
CUNY’s anti-Israel campus activists, and particularly the virulent Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), use the victim mantle to shield their actions from self-examination, feeling that, as representatives of the dispossessed and perennially-oppressed Palestinians, they can adopt any tactic to campaign against Israel, Zionism, occupation, and purported Israeli apartheid. That has meant that at several campuses in the CUNY system, for example, SJP used the 2015 Million Student March, a nationwide student demonstration for free public college tuition, to also slander Israel, Zionism, and Jews. The protest, advertised on Facebook by “NYC Students for Justice in Palestine” and other affiliate groups, ascribed, using the tropes of classic anti-Semitism, the financial situation at CUNY to its “Zionist administration [that] invests in Israeli companies, companies that support the Israeli occupation, hosts birthright programs and study abroad programs in occupied Palestine, and reproduces settler-colonial ideology … through Zionist content of education… [aiming] to produce the next generation of professional Zionists.” Signs held by protestors at the College of Staten Island, demanded “Divest CUNY tuition from Israeli Apartheid” and “From New York to Palestine Education is a Right.”
A 2016 report requested by the University itself to review the controversial event, “Report to Chancellor Milliken on Allegations of Anti-Semitism,” noted that “Several pro-Israel students attended the rally. When a pro-Israel student asked what Zionism had to do with tuition, someone in the crowd responded that ‘Jews control the government and the banks.’ Another pro-Israel student was told that Zionism and tuition hikes were not directly linked, but that the protestors were seeking common causes and that ‘the occupation is one of them.’ There is evidence that some members of the crowd shouted ‘Jews Out of CUNY’ and ‘Death to Jews.’ A video of the event shows a person in the crowd saying ‘Is that all you can do, come along, take for your people, Jewish people, come along, you racist sons of bitches.’ One student told us that a protestor shouted “Go back home, and get the fuck out of my country”. . . One student told us that as he was leaving the rally, a person behind him said ‘We should drag the Zionist down the street.’”
Troubling videos of the event revealed such endearing chants from the protestors as, “Zionists go home!”; “Zionists out of CUNY!”; “When we take control of CUNY, we are gonna kick you out and make sure you don’t graduate!”; “Get out of the Middle East!”; “Get out of America!”; “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” (i.e., Israel will be destroyed and replaced by a Palestinian Arab state). And if there was any doubt that this demonstration was only about the politics of Israel and not about Jew-hatred, the chants such as “Jews out of CUNY!” and “Jews are racist sons of bitches!” should dispel that fantasy once and for all.
So when, with not a bit of self-awareness or embarrassment, these moral narcissists at CUNY accuse the administration of being a sinister cabal of Zionist reprobates intent on promulgating racist policies for the good of Israel and to the detriment of good people like themselves (people who deserve, among other benefits, education without cost); when they call for the elimination of the world’s single Jewish sovereignty and Middle East’s only functioning democracy; and when they ghoulishly and malignantly shriek, “Intifada, Intifada, long live Intifada” and “There is only one solution: Intifada revolution!,” an unambiguous call for the murder of Jews at the hands of psychopathic terrorists, they should not be indignant when they are accused of being actually anti-Semitic, despite the fact that their rhetoric is draped in the language of so-called “social justice.”
Since its founding in 1993, SJP has a long history of bringing vitriolic anti-Israel speakers to their respective campuses (now numbering some 200 with chapters), and for such collateral activities as sponsoring the pernicious Israeli Apartheid Weeks, building mock “apartheid walls,” and sending mock eviction notices to Jewish students in their dorms to demonize Israel and create empathy for the Palestinian Arab cause.
SJP has a dismal record on campuses nationwide, with its pattern of radicalism, misbehavior, toxic speech, and regular instances of overtly anti-Semitic behavior. That radicalism has been problematic, particularly since research findings by the AMCHA Initiative, an organization that tracks anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activism at universities, “indicate a significant increase in actions which directly harm or threaten Jewish students, including physical and verbal assaults, destruction of property, harassment discrimination and suppression of speech, at schools with an SJP or similar anti-Zionist chapter,” clearly evident at CUNY and how this activism affected Ms. Gunz.
Equally serious was the report’s findings that SJP’s presence resulted in “incidents of Israel-related anti-Semitic harassment increase[ing] 70%.” And, based on SJP’s obsession with calls to boycott only Israel and suppress any and all dialogue in support of Israel, Zionism, or Jews—SJP’s actions on campuses have the end effect that “attempts to exclude Jewish and pro-Israel students from campus activities more than doubled, with expression calling for the total boycott or exclusion of pro-Israel students from campus life nearly tripling.”
No university would tolerate a white supremacist student group which purported to exist only to promote pride in being white but whose activities wholly involved agitating against minorities, staging Black Racism Week events, inviting white racist speakers to campus to trumpet the mental and moral defects of minorities in America, and regularly yelling out at rallies and elsewhere such charming chants as, “send them back to Africa,” or “string them up, string them up,” a call to lynch and murder blacks. Would any university anywhere ever even charter a white supremacist group like this and tolerate this type of behavior—even once—without immediate and forceful condemnation, sanctions, and punishment? Of course not.
But those are precisely the behavior and tactics of SJP, except that its target is Israel, Zionism, and Jewish students.
In a 2016 Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) letter to the CUNY administration in the wake of the vicious demonstrations, it was pointed out that, based on the U.S. State Department’s own working definition of anti-Semitism, SJP at CUNY had actually participated in anti-Semitic behavior and speech, despite its regular protestations to the contrary. “By threatening Jews with violence, harassing and intimidating Jewish students, engaging in name-calling, and marginalizing and excluding Jewish students,” the letter noted, “the SJP’s conduct is anti-Semitic. Its recent behavior on the CUNY campuses — calling for an intifada; accusing Jews of controlling CUNY, the government, the banks and the economy; blaming Jews and Jewish programs such as Birthright for the tuition problems; and demonizing Jews as racists, Nazis, fascists, terrorists and baby-killers – is also anti-Semitic, based on our government’s definition of anti-Semitism.”
A university should, and must, have the right and responsibility to its respective community to decide which student groups have a legitimate and valid mission and which are animated by extremist ideology and penchant for spreading bigotry, ethnic hatred, and misreading of history and facts—exactly what SJP has been guilty of wherever chapters have been established. That CUNY or any other university cannot with good conscience refuse to allow a chapter to find a bulwark on its own campus speaks to the moral vacuity of many administrators, as well as their fear of offending what they perceive to be a campus victim group. So while they would not hesitate for a moment to condemn and purge their campus of a group whose sole mission was to attack and dehumanize any other ethnic group, when Israel and Jews are the target, sadly there is an absence of clear conscience, justice, and equity.
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored,” Aldous Huxley once observed, and if universities like CUNY continue to ignore the poisonous radicalism in their midst, if they do not rid their campuses of toxic extremism and bigotry, they do so at their own peril.
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.