Repression at CUNY: A Brief Report

By Benjamin Krusling

Nearly five months and more than 30,000 martyrs later, the carnival of anti-Palestinian repression continues across all campuses of CUNY, the country’s fourth-largest university system. Just days after Oct. 7’s Al-Aqsa Flood, the repressive apparatus against pro-Palestine speech and activism, sometimes called the Palestine Exception, bared its teeth even more fully.[1] The gnashing is ongoing.

Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez wasted no time in prophylactically condemning “internal organizations…sponsoring rallies to celebrate or support Hamas’ cowardly actions”[2] in a university-wide dispatch on Oct. 9. A few days later, Zionist Republican councilwoman Inna Vernikov of Brooklyn’s 48th district made headlines for displaying a handgun while counterprotesting a rally for Palestine at Brooklyn College while describing BC students as “nothing short of terrorists without the bombs.” She was arrested – but prosecutors dropped charges the following month.”[3]

On Oct. 31 – the same day the IDF killed at least 50 Palestinians and wounded hundreds more in an air strike on the Jabalia refugee camp – Governor Kathy Hochul announced the formation of an “independent party” to  , asserting that antisemitism is “seen most acutely in the City University of New York.”[4][5] It’s a surprising assertion considering a 2016 investigation, initiated after the Zionist Organization of America alleged widespread antisemitism in a letter to then-Chancellor James B. Milliken, found no pervasive antisemitism at CUNY.[6]

Regardless, Hochul, having declared CUNY the ground zero of antisemitism, announced the expansion of the New York State Police’s Social Media Unit and dedicated $75 million to new security measures intended to combat “hate crimes,” in a move obviously intended to chill expressions of support for Palestine.[7]

This is the pattern here and at other institutions across the country. In the eyes of our administrators and Board of Trustees, there is no zionist  atrocity glaring enough to legitimize the protests of students, alumni, faculty and staff against Israeli-American crimes. Instead, every tool of counter-insurgency is deployed to delegitimize, minimize and threaten the predominantly working-class students of color who speak out against mass murder and our university’s complicity in it.

When Vernikov called these students “terrorists,” she simply voiced the subtext – that vocal support of Palestinian people and their resistance to slaughter and dispossession constitutes an internal threat in the eyes of CUNY administrators and state officials. Zionist students get task forces, public statements of support and the political cover of the executive office; pro-Palestine students get surveillance, threats, condemnations, and the intimidating attention of the NYPD.

This is the CUNY administration’s proud legacy. In response to a campaign of death threats and zionist media targeting CUNY Law student Fatima Mohammed following her 2023 commencement speech, which named the ongoing violence of zionism’s settler-colonial campaign against Palestine, the CUNY Board of Trustees claimed “hate speech…has no place on our campuses.”

Again, this is par for the course. In 2021, when CUNY Law student and Within Our Lifetime Chair Nerdeen Kiswani was repeatedly doxxed and targeted by the zionist media and the far right, the administration did all it could to distance itself from and silence Kiswani, instead of protecting its student. Now, after two successive years of student speakers standing up for Palestinian liberation, the CUNY Law administration announced in September the end of peer-elected student speakers at the public commencement ceremony, in a move currently being contested by the student body at CUNY Law.

No surprise then when Chancellor Matos Rodríguez co-founded a coalition-of-the-willing of university executives in October which released a statement (“We Stand Together with Israel Against Hamas”) regurgitating the hawkish propaganda of the Biden-Netanyahu administration, including references to murdered babies, rape, and the “fight against evil.”[8] It goes without saying that no amount of debunking of Islamophobic lies[9] or documentation of Israeli atrocities against Palestinian children, schools and hospitals has caused the chancellor to renege his position. Much of the CUNY community does not share the chancellor’s reticence – but the administration representing us is certainly following his lead.

In November, in response to an Instagram post by the Queens College Muslim Student Association (MSA) questioning the now-disproven claims that Hamas beheaded babies on Oct. 7, Queens College President Frank Wu announced in an email that the administration was pursuing an NYPD investigation against the group. When news broke in 2012 that the NYPD had been spying on Muslim students at six CUNY campuses, including Queens College and Brooklyn College, administrators then paid some lip service to the idea that such actions constituted a chilling effect on free speech.[10] Now, at CUNY, our Muslim students are served to the police on a platter.

In February, several CUNY comrades reported on their experiences after Lehman College’s Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program invited them to form a panel on occasion of their “Engagement, Equity and Antiracism” conference. Their proposed panel, “Globalize the Intifada! Mapping struggles for Palestine from the streets to our classrooms,” was first retitled without their knowledge after a complaint about the term “Intifada”[11] – then, the panelists found out from the New York Post that the head of WAC, Jane Higgins, had canceled the panel altogether while insinuating in a public statement that they were interested in producing harm and unsafety at the event (the panel was instead replaced by another called “Reading Lab: Practices of Freedom in the Classroom.”)

Lest the trees of CUNY’s repressive apparatus overtake the blood-soaked forest, it should be noted that the language of “safety” and “freedom” is being cynically smashed and distorted in order to suppress the cause of the most radically unsafe and unfree population in the world right now.

To be clear, this is not a philosophical conjecture. The deputy executive of the World Food Program has said that Gaza is facing “the worst level of child malnutrition anywhere in the world” alongside an imminent famine which, by many measures, has already begun.[12][13] As of this writing, at least 15 children have died of starvation in Gaza,[14] another grim benchmark of atrocity when over 12,000 children have already been killed by Israeli airstrikes. Those who care to look have spent the last five months in horror at the images of men, women and children shredded, defiled and blown to pieces by American-Israeli bombs as they flood our social media timelines. Most recently, the image of a man zip-tied and flattened beyond recognition by an Israeli bulldozer has haunted my waking life. Palestinian liberation makes the world freer and safer. Zionism destroys worlds.

As Aaron Bushnell said on the way to his martyrdom, self-immolation in the face of such life-altering horrors is not extreme at all. At least we in the imperial core have something like a choice.

The CUNY administration has a choice, too. To continue to call the police on their students and obfuscate reality in the name of racism and mass murder. To smother the possibility of meaningful intellectual activity by condemning in advance the speech and knowledge of its community members who demand an end to genocide and occupation. To sign on to public statements repackaging the War on Terror so we can watch history repeat itself on the maimed, emaciated and destroyed bodies of our Palestinian siblings.

Or they could make a different choice – to, at the bare minimum, protect the freedom of expression of all our community members. To refuse the Palestine Exception and the weaponization of “safety” which serves to suppress all legitimate critiques of the apartheid state of Israel.

Until that time, the growing movement at CUNY against genocide will have to contend with arbitrary enforcement of questionable “policies,” cancellations, suspensions, intimidation from the NYPD and New York politicians, and the callous laughter and omissions of our “leaders.” But for those of us who refuse oppression – for ourselves and everyone else – there is no repression great enough to silence us. To CUNY we say: Until Palestine is free, we will not stop. What will you do?









[9] See January’s issue of The New York War Crimes. The Intercept’s thorough destruction of the New York Times’ credibility as it relates to their sensationalist, genocide-enabling machine of distortions in the December article “‘Screams Without Words: How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct. 7.”






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