Why the PSC Must Support Palestine: An “Alt-Clarion” Forum

As many of you know, our union passed a Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People at the June Delegate Assembly (84 yeses, 34 nos). A previous resolution was co-sponsored by the PSC’s International Committee, the Academic Freedom Committee, and the Anti-Racism Committee. The resolution that was passed uses the terms “apartheid” and “settler colonialism” to describe Israeli policies and draws connections between Palestinian resistance and struggles for self-determination and liberation by Black, Indigenous and other People of Color in the United States. In recalling the important role played by international solidarity in defeating the “injustice and oppression” of South African apartheid the resolution requires the union to “facilitate” discussions at the chapter level about the possibility of adopting the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) at CUNY. 

Subsequent to this vote, dozens of outraged union members have threatened to stop paying union dues, and the PSC held a letter forum in the August Clarion newsletter that promised to present “both sides” of the issue. While the forum claims to present an open dialogue, in reality it is heavily biased towards the Zionist position: 8 of 13 pieces present a negative view of the resolution (in the print edition, only one perspective in favor is presented on the first page) and the first article presented in the special issue is one opposed to the resolution, signed by multiple parties. The opening statement from the PSC Principal Officers implies that the resolution and its fallout have been a disunifying distraction from “bread and butter” issues, undermining the union’s own claims to social justice unionism. The statement also overlooks the important role of union committees in contributing to rank-and-file engagement, insinuating that the vocal disruptors who have chosen to address their differences through exploiting the anti-union Janus decision are more representative of CUNY workers than those who have contributed to writing and defending this resolution. The Cross-CUNY Working Group Against Racism and Colonialism suspects that this publication, rather than upholding the integrity of a democratic vote and standing behind the union’s anti-racist principles, represents PSC leaders’ attempts to appease the other side. 

Several solicited pieces in favor of the resolution were ousted in the final hour. Here, we print two letters in favor of the resolution that were initially solicited, but later rejected from the Clarion forum, followed by two accepted letters that were drastically cut to meet the word count requirements for publication. In presenting this alternative forum here, we hope to further educate PSC members on why Palestinian liberation is both a union and a CUNY issue. We hope that this extended conversation inspires more people to take a stand on the side of justice. Now is not the time to back down. We owe it to the people of Palestine, who are being killed and dispossessed with weapons purchased by our tax dollars and with the institutional complicity of our employer, to continue this struggle.

BREAKING THE SILENCE 

Jonathan Buchsbaum, Delegate and Professor of Media Studies, Queens College 

For many years, avoidance and silence have characterized the PSC posture on Palestine and  Israel. On those occasions when the issue did arise at CUNY, some members and students  loudly protested alleged discrimination against Jews. Though a PSC resolution quite properly condemned surveillance of Muslim student groups at CUNY, the loudest protests over speech  at CUNY came from those wanting to silence any discussion of Israeli policies toward the  Palestinians. At Queens College, full professors shouted down guest speakers at a panel  organized to explain the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).  

In more recent years, many new members have joined the union and new PSC leaders have  emerged. That the resolution passed overwhelmingly reflected deep changes in attitudes, most  especially everyone’s experiences with Black Lives Matter, together with the express linkage  made by members of the Anti-Racism Committee over liberation and anti-colonization. “The  Vision for Black Lives” released by the Movement for Black Lives in 2016 already called for  “direct actions of solidarity” with Palestine and defended the constitutional right to advocate  for BDS.1 That fresh intellectual energy has inspired renewed calls for solidarity with the  Palestine resistance. As progressive academics, we should welcome these grass roots  initiatives. 

The questions and objections are recurrent: why single out Israel? What about Hamas? Why  such incendiary language? anti-Semitism? But many members, including Jewish members with  whom I have spoken, readily acknowledge the injustice of Israeli policies: ceaseless seizures of  Palestinian land, in defiance of all international law; the confinement of the indigenous population in smaller and smaller Bantustans; the very occupation itself entailing the  permanent control of Palestinian movement in the occupied territories through checkpoints, the separation wall, etc. Chapter discussions offer an opportunity for the membership at large  to speak publicly of those injustices. 

Israel has succeeded in resisting international calls for justice in Palestine for over 50 years,  trumpeting instead its commitment to peace, or more precisely to the ludicrously labelled  “peace process.” Whatever its already questionable meaning years ago, today “peace process” refers to a charade of negotiations, as Israel takes endless, ever more militarized, and heartless  security measures, each justified by its all-purpose “right to defend itself.” The world has  grown too accustomed to the horror of Israeli snipers killing or purposefully maiming unarmed  civilians in the name of Israel “defending itself.” 

At Queens College, some faculty and staff have organized events to inform the campus  community of Israeli perspectives on Israel/Palestine. On one occasion, Israeli military pilots  who refused to fly missions in the occupied territories spoke at a panel. For the first and only  time, hard-line Zionists in the audience were speechless. Why were those soldiers of 

conscience not anti-Semitic? Anyone following domestic Israeli discussion knows that criticism  of Israeli policies and of the settlers has been constant, loud, and part of normal political  discourse. Why should Israelis be the only ones able to question publicly Israeli policies?  

A colleague at Queens asked me “Why Israel?” While a simple answer may be difficult to give  here, everyone knows that our tax dollars fund the annual aid package of $3.8 billion to Israel,  largely for military support. The resolution includes that also as a topic for conversation, for no  other country receives that kind of aid.  

Finally, BDS. Why does that acronym cause such anxiety for some members? It is a non-violent movement proposed by Palestinian civil society to register disapproval of Israeli policies.  People object that it is unfair to Israelis! Maybe so, but what about the daily, often violent injustice to Palestinians? As UCLA historian Robin Kelley asked almost ten years ago, “what we want to do with the academic boycott is to force our colleagues to recognize, if you remain  silent, you are complicit. So what are you going to do?”2 

1 “A Vision for Black Lives. Power Demands for Black Power, Freedom, & Justice.” August 2016.  https://m4bl.org/policy-platforms/ 

2 Alex Kane. “’A level of racist violence I have never seen’: UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelley on Palestine  and the BDS movement.” Mondoweiss. Feb. 16, 2012.

IF NOT NOW, WHEN?

Renate Bridenthal, Professor of History (Retired), Brooklyn College; former Chair, PSC-CUNY International Committee

As a child refugee from Nazism, I am of course sensitive to anti-semitism. However, that experience also has made me sensitive to others who are brutalized by ethno-nationalism, as are the Palestinians. The solution to anti-semitism is not, I think. a garrisoned and expanding ghetto state as some Israelis and their supporters seem to want. There are many Jewish citizens of Israel both in Israel and abroad, not to mention non-Israeli Jews, who agree that Israel should be a democratic non-apartheid polity and who deplore its illegal seizure of ever more Palestinian land.

The humanistic strain of Judaism seeks fairness. To quote the Hebrew sage Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

So indeed, why now? Because it is time to break the silence. For too long, an atmosphere of intimidation has suffused CUNY when the issue of Palestinian rights has been raised, notably by students. But the escalation of violence by Israeli forces has become intolerable: forceful evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, the assault on worshippers at the Al Aqsa Mosque, the massacre by bombardment of Gaza. 

Some ask: what has this to do with the PSC, with unions?  First of all, as an academic union, we have a responsibility to freedom of speech, which is why the Academic Freedom Committee co-sponsored this resolution. Furthermore, as the union of a public university, we are dedicated to the idea of equal opportunity, which is why the Anti-Racism Committee co-sponsored – and originally drafted – this resolution. Finally, we stand in solidarity with unions abroad, in this case Palestinian unionists who have called for it, which is why the International Committee has co-sponsored this resolution.

The resolution calls for campus discussions, which we feel are way overdue, having long been smothered by forces external to the university. Before I retired, I personally witnessed that at Brooklyn College. And, speaking of memory, I also remember the heavy silence enforced by McCarthyism, having been a teenager at the time.

Fellow unionists, we need to talk.

WHY PALESTINE IS A PSC-CUNY ISSUE 

Corinna Mullin, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Political Science, John Jay College  

Saadia Toor, Associate Professor, Sociology, College of Staten Island

[NOTE: This is the full version of an abbreviated letter published by the Clarion]

In the aftermath of the Delegate Assembly’s May vote overwhelmingly backing the Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People, several PSC members have questioned the relevance of the resolution to our union and to CUNY more generally. The answer is relatively simple. Our obligation to act in solidarity with the Palestinian people derives from our shared positionality- as US taxpayers, as New Yorkers, as CUNY workers and as PSC members. This positionality makes us complicit in Palestinian oppression, giving us a special responsibility to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. 

To begin with, as individuals we pay taxes to the US government, a government which underwrites Israeli human rights violations and war crimes to the tune of $3.8 billion a year in military aid in addition to copious amounts of political and diplomatic support. As US tax payers, we have a particular responsibility to stand up for Palestinian rights. 

Secondly, CUNY is a New York institution and we, as CUNY workers, are part of the most diverse city in the world in terms of the number of languages spoken and countries represented. The community that CUNY serves – that is, NYC (and particularly working-class New Yorkers) – is therefore extremely international both in terms of demographics as well as outlook. The international community of solidarity within NYC goes beyond Muslim and Arab New Yorkers. However, it is important to note that 9% of all New Yorkers are Muslim and NYC Muslims represent 22% of the US Muslim population, and the metro area has the largest concentration of people of Arab/Middle Eastern origin.  It is specifically home to the largest Palestinian population in the US, which is reflected in our student body. Palestine is thus a CUNY issue simply because many of our students are Palestinian refugees.

Thirdly, as workers in a public institution within a racial capitalist state we have a special responsibility to navigate the inherent contradictions of our place of employment. On the one hand, CUNY provides life affirming services to a largely working class, BIPOC student body and diverse workforce; on the other, it is deeply imbricated in institutions of organized violence (including various levels of collaboration with the NYPD, Department of Homeland Security, ICE, US military as well as the Israeli military) that underpin white supremacy and US empire. This includes CUNY’s investments in Palestinian oppression (as of 2014, CUNY was investing at least $1,093,900 in companies that aid in Israeli colonization, occupation, and war crimes). For years, the CUNY administration has also tolerated and facilitated the surveillance and harassment by pro-Israel individuals and organizations of anyone (and particularly Palestinian, Muslim, Arab and other people of color) teaching about, speaking out on, or organizing around Palestinian rights and liberation. The case of Nerdeen Kiswani, a CUNY alum and current CUNY Law student is instructive but only the most egregious and well-known of these cases. It is worth noting that, while the spectre of anti-semitism is immediately raised by Zionists when talking about Palestine advocacy, an independent commission formed by CUNY in response to allegations made by the Zionist Organization of America found no evidence of antisemitism at CUNY. What they did uncover, instead, was the incredible level of hostility experienced by CUNY’s Muslim students. 

Finally, our position as members of a union that that has a proud history of anti-racist and internationalist activism. For most of the world, Palestine represents the resilience of a colonized people in the face of continuing injustice, oppression and humiliation. Not for nothing has the Palestinian struggle been revered globally (and particularly in the Global South) by people’s movements from its very inception as an iconic movement for self-determination.  The Palestine cause is supported by domestic social justice movements such as BLM and the Red Nation as an Indigenous rights movement against settler colonialism. This, too, is part of a longer history of Palestine solidarity that stretches back to the radical freedom struggles of the 60s and 70s. The PSC has a duty not only to speak out about Palestine within CUNY, our place of employment, but also to raise the cause of Palestinian rights and liberation within the historically pro-Israel oriented labor federations with which we are affiliated, including the AFT and the AFL-CIO, which owns Israeli bonds totaling $ 5 billion dollars. 

This resolution along with further action to adopt the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement at CUNY, presents an opportunity for the PSC and unions across the country, to support justice and freedom and, as with the boycott of apartheid South Africa, be on the right side of history.

PALESTINIAN CITIZENS OF ISRAEL ALSO LIVE UNDER APARTHEID

Thayer Hastings, Graduate Student Worker, Anthropology, Graduate Center

[NOTE: This is the full version of an abbreviated letter published by the Clarion]

The PSC Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People is a small but important step for Palestinians like myself who work in the CUNY system. It demonstrates that the union hears our calls for justice and takes them seriously, something that US universities themselves have a track record of avoiding, if not obstructing outright. The PSC has committed to facilitating a chapter-based discussion of BDS in the coming months. I urge fellow members to join these discussions and to adhere to the BDS picket line. BDS is an global movement led by Palestinians to divest from the Israeli government and corporations. Aside from the moral responsibility of progressive institutions in the US to divest from violent profiteering, the PSC is accountable to its members, including Palestinian members with family and loved ones living under Israeli rule.

About 14 million people live in the territory under the control of the Israeli government and military, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights. 7 million are Jewish-Israeli citizens of Israel. Nearly all the other 7 million people are Palestinian, 2 million of whom are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. I am one of the 21% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian. Israeli citizenship was conferred on the descendants of those who escaped, either through ingenuity or circumstance, the mass forcible expulsion of Palestinians between 1947-1949.

The Palestinian side of my family is from Nazareth, one of the few major urban centers not militarily targeted by Zionist militias in the Nakba of 1948. Because it was not attacked, Nazareth became a refuge for nearby towns and villages that were forcibly depopulated. In many ways, Nazareth continues to be a city of refugees to this day. My great grandfather, Amin, was on a business trip in Beirut, Lebanon when the British declared the end of their colonial rule over Palestine. My grandfather Bishara, then 19 years old, was tasked with travelling to Beirut to retrieve his father and return to Nazareth where the family anxiously witnessed widespread dispossession of Palestinians. In the process, the family lost much of their farmland, largely olive and fruit orchards in the Tiberias region, but retained their home in Nazareth. Travelling largely on foot, my grandfather and great grandfather made their way across new borders that interrupted a fluidity of movement that characterized the mid-century Levant. Stories of retrieval and return from this period are common amongst Palestinians, but more common are stories of refugeehood and denied return.

By 1952, nascent Israeli institutions—like the military government, which applied only to Palestinian locales, including Nazareth—were producing the key practices and documents that would shape material and political relations for the decades to come. The Israeli Citizenship Law granted citizenship to Palestinians who remained, but not nationality. Israeli citizenship and nationality are bifurcated. I am an Israeli citizen, but not a national because there is no such thing as Israeli nationality. Instead, Israel defines nationality through ethnic descriptors, such as ‘Jewish’, ‘Arab’, and ‘Druze.’ Aside from rights like voting in national elections and a passport, many of the most substantial rights are conferred through nationality (see the Jewish nation-state law for how this translates into legally codified material exclusions). Complementing our exclusion from national rights in Israel, more than 65 laws exclude Palestinian citizens from equal access in myriad ways. While Palestinians with Israeli citizenship like myself hold the most freedom of movement and rights along the spectrum of Palestinian subjects under Israeli rule, these rights are categorically inferior to the rights automatically conferred on Jewish Israeli citizens. This is why Palestinians welcomed the late arrival of leading international and Israeli human rights organizations now describing Israeli rule over Palestinians as apartheid, an analysis pioneered by Palestinians.

The hierarchy of rights under Israeli rule is enshrined in law but is furthered by state and communal violence. Culminating in May during the most recent Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip and during the emergence of a new phase of Palestinian struggle called the ‘Unity Intifada,’ Jewish Israeli mobs and vigilantes targeted Palestinians, as was reported, shared on social media, and confirmed by loved ones from Nazareth to Haifa to Jerusalem. Friends described a frightening coordination of racially-motivated violence against Palestinians. This scale of structural and everyday inequality cannot be maintained without a tremendous amount of state violence. The US is the primary supporter and financier of that oppression.

The PSC Resolution cannot change that on its own. However, the laudable statement of commitment to justice for Palestinians should be reinforced with a material one. The US grants Israel $3.8 billion a year, almost completely in the form of military and defense funding. Following Israel’s shelling of Gaza, the Biden administration immediately moved to resupply its weapons stockpile.

By divesting from investments in the Israeli state and economy which derive their profits through the violent exclusion of Palestinians from equal rights, progressive institutions can demonstrate their commitment to curbing US support for violence around the world and at home. I urge the PSC membership to take this opportunity to stand with Palestinian social movements who continue to affirm the political appropriateness of boycotting Israel as a form of international solidarity.

Several contributors to this special issue are members of the Cross-CUNY Working Group Against Racism and Colonialism. For more information or to join the organizing efforts in solidarity with Palestine at CUNY, email NoRacismCUNY@protonmail.com

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