Reclaiming CUNY as a People’s University: Fighting against repression, censorship, and anti-Palestinian racism

On May 15th, as people around the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the ongoing Nakba- the oppression and forced expulsion of Palestinians from their own country by Zionist colonizers – the administration of the City University of New York (CUNY) ramped up its repression of student-led Palestine solidarity organizing. The administration of Hunter College attempted to censor the college’s Palestine Solidarity Alliance’s (PSA) Nakba Day Commemoration by trying to block Nerdeen Kiswani (CUNY Law ‘22) – a former Hunter College student and Hunter Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) Vice-President (16’) – from speaking at the event.

Members of the PSA were warned by the Hunter administration that Public Safety campus officers and administrators would be present to ensure that Nerdeen did not appear at the event, effectively threatening to use police violence against students to intimidate them into complying. They emphasized that if Nerdeen spoke, the PSA would be suspended for the following academic year while providing no information about the grounds on which they had decided to bar Nerdeen from speaking.

Upon confirmation from Palestine Legal that this act of interference was a violation of the students’ First Amendment rights and a clear assault on academic freedom, CUNY for Palestine quickly mobilized to launch an urgent action campaign. Within hours, around 100 emails were sent to Hunter and CUNY Central Administration, demonstrating the deep support for Palestine and Nerdeen across CUNY campuses. Thanks to PSA’s principled resistance, Nerdeen spoke from the floor in defiance of Hunter College’s fabricated ‘policy’.

That same week, the CUNY Law administration, under the watch of a newly hired Dean, suppressed the commencement videos of both the 2023 and 2022 graduating classes. The livestream of the 2023 commencement showed students rightfully protesting New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ unannounced presence. It also featured the class-elected commencement speaker Fatima’s powerful speech showcasing a rejection of Zionist settler-colonialism, capitalism, imperialism and the racist police/carceral state by the student community at CUNY Law. The administration continues to withhold both videos, suppressing the speech of students as a form of collective punishment for both graduating classes and as an attempt to divide students.

This increased repression is connected to an organized campaign undertaken by well-funded zionist pressure groups targeting CUNY due to successful organizing across campuses in recent years which has included student, faculty and union resolutions, protests and statements in solidarity with Palestine liberation. This campaign of intimidation consists of  groups such as Resign PSC, which urges union members to resign, as well as CUNY Alliance for Inclusion and SAFE CUNY, which have contributed to the fears and vulnerability of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim CUNY students and workers.

It is also a response to a blossoming social movement at CUNY, with new roads of solidarity paved between students and workers leading to several new initiatives including the establishment of the Reclaim the Commons space at the Graduate Center, the May Day walk out at Hunter College, and the March launch of the People’s Hearing on Racism and Repression at CUNY. These recent attacks speak to how successful our movements are and the credible threat they pose to racist and zionist violence at CUNY, whether from the administration or beyond.

There is a long history of CUNY students and faculty speaking out about Palestine and making connections between the struggle for Palestinian liberation and to issues of labor, police brutality, abortion rights, anti-racism and other social justice issues. Such defiance against systems that actively aid and abet harm against NYC/CUNY community members should be commended; the story on our campuses, however, is very different. CUNY students and faculty members are regularly left open to harassment, surveillance, defamation, and doxing by Zionist-led and/or Zionist-backed organizations; from Canary Mission, CAMERA, and StandWithUs to the NYPD and the FBI

Palestinian and Arab/Muslim students and workers are routinely invisibilized by the CUNY administration that responds to these outside attacks by amping up repression by creating bureaucratic and administrative obstacles on students organizing for Palestine that are not faced by students organizing around any other issues on campus. 

The Chancellor and other members of the administration have repeatedly claimed “neutrality” on the “Arab-Israeli conflict” while outwardly choosing to align themselves with anti-Palestinian propagandists and maintaining financial ties to the Zionist settler colonial regime. These ties were strengthened last year through the Chancellor’s “Scholars as Bridge Builders” trip to occupied Palestine along with 10 college presidents, during a period of accelerated settler colonial violence. Using the guise of dialogue, interfaith allyship, and tolerance, this trip was designed to not only whitewash the occupation but to train academics in normalizing so-called “israel’s” settler colonial violence and domination, including over Palestinian higher education institutions.

Just in the past year, we have witnessed the John Jay College administration’s decision to effectively cancel the Palestine Lives 2022 conference on May 14th, the CUNY administration’s failure to protect Kiswani against the multiple anti-Palestinian racist attacks and incidents of defamation against her, the censorship and online attacks on the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) Social Justice & Equity Centers (SJEC) after uplifting the Palestinian struggle through an educational event series, and the Hunter administration’s attempt to censor adjunct faculty member, Shellyne Rodriguez, for her Palestine solidarity work. An emboldened Hunter administration also deactivated the staff and student cards of two activists involved in a May Day rally at the college, without notifying either of them. 

CUNY for Palestine remains committed to building coalitions with other anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonial formations within and outside of CUNY, with the aim of transforming the institution into a genuine People’s University, beyond empty marketing campaigns. Together with the broader CUNY community, we work to demonstrate our solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle through exposing and challenging our university and our city’s complicity with the violence inflicted upon the Palestinian people for over 75 years. 

It is time for the CUNY administration to be held accountable for their failure to uphold the principles of academic freedom when it comes to Palestine and to reflect in their public statements, policies and practices the CUNY community’s solidarity and commitment to the liberation of Palestine and all oppressed peoples.


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