CUNY MUST DIVEST: On the Recent History of the Struggle for BDS at CUNY

By Addy Malinowski

The recent history of the student-led struggle at CUNY for Palestinian liberation is incredibly rich and has been sorely overlooked or misrepresented by reactionary elements within the administration. In light of the revivified student movement for Palestinian liberation in response to the genocidal military campaign the settler-colonial state of Israel is waging in Gaza, it is worth revisiting prior instances of activism at CUNY to institutionalize Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in 2016, 2021, 2022 and late 2023. This article will focus on a number of formal statements and resolutions passed by multiple bodies representing students and workers at The Graduate Center and across CUNY campuses.

In 2016, the DGSC (at the time known as the DSC) authored and passed a resolution endorsing the internationally-recognized boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions, part of the larger BDS movement. The demand for BDS originated in Palestinian civil society and is supported by the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors, the General Union of Palestinian Teachers, and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. The DGSC resolution highlighted that academic institutions in the settler-colonial and “structurally racist” state of Israel are “complicit in the occupation and colonization of Palestine” by way of developing “military hardware, weapons, drones, and surveillance technologies.” Israeli universities also participate in military and police training as well as discriminate against their own Palestinian students. It is imperative that as academic professionals we take steps to honor the commitment made in 2016 by the DGSC to call on The Graduate Center and CUNY in general to sever ties with Israeli universities and academics. In doing so, we would only be following in the footsteps of major professional organizations — many of which we are members of — such as the American Studies Association (ASA), the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA), and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), amongst others.

It is worth noting that the authors of the DGSC resolution emphasized that the DGSC is an organization rooted in movements for social justice, their first resolution being one against involvement in the Vietnam War. However, statements in solidarity with Palestinians — who are facing a “plausible genocide” as was determined by the high court for justice of the United Nations — are sorely lacking from the current DGSC leadership. The DGSC waited five months after the start of Israel’s most recent genocidal attack on Gaza to issue a statement calling for a ceasefire. However, this statement was not only far too late, but also reproduces some of the worst rhetorical tropes and misrepresentations of Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza by referring to the situation in Gaza as simply “an ongoing conflict” which “has caused” (note the use of passive phrasing here!) “significant civilian casualties.” “Significant,” of course, only serves to render unclear the enormous death-toll in Gaza, which is set to exceed 30,000 this week. The UN has reported that 40% of the victims of Israel’s ethnic cleansing operation in Gaza are children, constituting a humanitarian crisis of world-historic proportions which the UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs has called “the worst ever.” (That said, “humanitarian crisis” is a misnomer for what is quite clearly an act of genocide.) Furthermore, to make things worse, last week’s DGSC resolution calls for a so-called “humanitarian ceasefire” and a return of “all hostages,” echoing State Department language issued by the Biden administration. Of course, the DGSC fails to mention the at least 7,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, many of whom are being held in indefinite administrative detention without the right to a trial. The Palestinian resistance has repeatedly agreed to return all hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners as part of an “all for all” deal. It is imperative that in the upcoming spring DGSC elections we fill vacant posts in the DGSC with members of the student body that are willing to stand up for Palestinian rights and Palestinian liberation from a morally conscious and historically accurate position.

The DGSC is small in scale and scope compared to the PSC-CUNY, which represents 30,000 faculty members, graduate student workers, and staff across 25 campuses. In June 2021, after the most recent (prior to 2023) “major” Israeli razing of Gaza, the PSC-CUNY authored and passed a resolution in “Support of the Palestinian People.” Unlike the most recent DGSC resolution, the PSC’s resolution is unequivocal in its historically accurate indictment of Israel as a settler-colonial state whose “pattern and practice of dispossession” of Palestinian lands dates back to its inception in 1948, in the wake of the Palestinian Nakba. The PSC aptly compares the Israeli apartheid regime to South Africa; points out that Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid and military assistance; and connects the right of self-determination of the Palestinian diaspora to struggles of Indigenous people and people of color in the US. Notably, for our current struggle inside CUNY, the PSC-CUNY affirmed the right of faculty, staff, and students to advocate for BDS “without penalty” and opened formal discussions within PSC chapters to advance support of BDS. Of course, the PSC is responding to the state-sanctioned repression — and in some cases criminalization — of pro-Palestinian activists, students, and faculty members. In its most formal authorization within the municipality of the State of New York, this persists in the disgraced ex-governor Andrew Cuomo’s (who resigned in 2021 over allegations of “forcible touching”) 2016 executive order which directs state agencies to “divest” public funding from institutions who are seen to be supporting BDS. This kind of McCarthyite attack on those fighting for Palestinian liberation is not only morally repugnant but also illegal, a violation of First Amendment protected speech and assembly — as well as a violation of the academic profession’s long-held dedication to academic freedom. Resolutions of this kind, which have cropped up in at least two dozen states over the last decade, serve not only to repress pro-Palestinian scholars, educators, and solidarity activists, but are also thinly-veiled excuses to wage attacks on public education as a whole.

A statement endorsed by the CUNY Law Student Government — those in the CUNY community whose profession it is to protect things such as  First Amendment activities — is telling of the extent of CUNY’s deep relationship to corporations which further the aims of Israel’s genocidal settler-colonial project. The document, co-authored in December 2021 by the CUNY Law Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and CUNY Law Jewish Students Association (JLSA) (and endorsed by major institutions such as the National Lawyers Guild (NLG)) calls on CUNY to “proudly and unapologetically” endorse the Palestinian-led call for BDS and demand the institution cut all ties with corporations that repress Palestinians — as well as to end all Israeli academic exchange programs. The list of transnational corporations that CUNY invests in is almost inexhaustible. The list includes Boeing, which makes fighter jets and missile systems; General Electric (GE), which makes jet engines for fighter jets; Lockheed Martin, which makes fighter jets, helicopters, and missile systems; Northrup Grumman, which makes missile systems; Raytheon, which is the world’s largest producer of guided missiles; Hewlett-Packard (HP), which provides servers to maintain Israel’s system of apartheid; G4S, a private security firm which trains Israeli police; Motorola, which supplies license plate recognition software to maintain the apartheid system; Caterpillar, whose equipment is used to demolish Palestinian homes; Cemex, which provides building materials for illegal settlements; Dell Computers, whose founder Michael Dell backed Texas’s 2017 anti-BDS law; IBM, which runs the Israeli population registry (uncannily reminiscent of their work facilitating the Nazi Holocaust); Lenovo, which has a cybersecurity center in Israel; Cisco Systems, which partners with Israel in setting up a network of “digital hubs” in the Occupied territories; and BMC Software, which also has an R&D center in Israel.

In addition, the Law students’ resolution cites Thomson Reuters Corporation’s database Westlaw and RELX’s LexisNexis as having contracts with the CUNY Law School. Last (but certainly not least!) the resolution cites CUNY’s sale of PepsiCo products and the hummus of its subsidiary, Sabra Dipping Company, both known for “violating Palestinian human rights.” At the time this research was done in 2016, CUNY had over $1.1 million invested in these companies. (Because this information is not readily accessible, Graduate Center and CUNY Law students are currently working to produce an up-to-date picture of CUNY’s investments in Israel.) These relationships (which CUNY law students have made clear) between CUNY and transnational corporations that aid and abet the Israeli settler-colony’s apartheid regime highlight the necessity of a CUNY call to Boycott, Divest from and Sanction. Such a call means ending all relationships with Israeli academic institutions, ending contracts with the aforementioned corporations, and cutting all political-economic ties between CUNY and Israeli apartheid.

Furthermore, the CUNY administration’s April 2022 trip to Israel — funded by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (a Zionist organization whose mission is to “increase support for Israel amongst New Yorkers”) — misleadingly titled “Scholars as Bridge Builders,” highlights the pressing need to make-good on the demand for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. As CUNY4Palestine pointed out in May 2022, the administration’s trip not only “whitewashed Israel’s colonial domination of Palestinians” but also reproduced a “both sides” rhetoric that “erased the military, economic, media, and global power” that Israel — a country with a nuclear arsenal — has over Palestinians. The administration’s trip also spoke volumes in that they are willing to wholly ignore the demands of both students and faculty members in their calls for BDS. This is part of a larger trend amongst CUNY leadership in recent years that has attempted to further strengthen ties with Israel, urged on by Zionist city council members and a mayor and governor who staunchly support Israel. To add fuel to the fire, William C. Thompson, the chair of the Board of Trustees invested $15 million of NYC teacher pension funds into Israeli state bonds during his time as city comptroller.

In November 2023, three weeks into Israel’s latest world-historic genocidal assault on Gaza, CUNY students penned a letter to CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez demanding an academic and cultural boycott of Israel; divestment from the $1.1 million of investments in mainly weapons manufacturers and the ending of active contracts totaling $8.5 million with tech and software companies complicit in genocide; the banning of IOF soldiers off campus; and the release of an institution-wide statement of solidarity with CUNY’s many Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students and with the Palestinian resistance. As of the writing of this article, the letter has over 800 signatories, spread across multiple campuses. The administration has refused to respond.

It is crucial that students, faculty, and staff at The Graduate Center and all over CUNY’s 25 campuses stand up in solidarity with Palestinians who are under genocidal assault and demand that their campuses support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It is our imperative as humanists, scientists, educators, workers of the world, and morally conscious people to make this demand, especially as we are witness to the wholesale destruction by Israeli bombs of Palestinian civil society, including its universities, schools, and libraries. As of March 2024, all universities in Gaza have been completely and utterly destroyed, including the Islamic University of Gaza and University of Palestine. Academics in Gaza — our professional colleagues and interlocutors — have also been systematically targeted for assassination by Israel. To date, there have been at least 94 academics killed along with 4,327 students. As academics and scholars we have a moral responsibility to ask ourselves: What if those were our students? What if we were teaching down the corridor from our Palestinian colleagues? What if my English Department — at The Graduate Center — was blown up and instantaneously turned to rubble by a Hellfire Missile? What if the students I teach at Brooklyn College were summarily executed by an apartheid regime? What if my personal library and collection of books was found under the rubble of my apartment building, as was the case with the library and home of poet Mosab Abu Toha? Wouldn’t we expect our colleagues around the world to express outrage at such acts?  Ammiel Alcalay, professor of comparative literature and Distinguished professor of English at The Graduate Center, wrote that not to do so, “to remain silent, will come back to haunt us, seeping into our work like a corrosive substance that will leave little of the spirit and mission that originally propelled so many of us into academic life.”

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