CUNY Gatekeeps its Students for Palestine
June 20, 2021
Over the past few months, CUNY students united in various rallies, calling for every institution within CUNY to meet their demands ― to divest from Israel ― and express solidarity to Palestine.
The most recent student demonstrations were outside of John Jay College, followed by a rally outside of City College of New York’s President, Vincent Boudreau’s Admin office. The gatherings have all shared the same goal, and the students do not plan on stopping until CUNY meets their demands.
The students in attendance ranged from CUNY-wide Muslim Student Associations (MSAs), Students for Justice in Palestine (SJPs), Student Councils, the Jewish Voice for Peace organization, and more.
The rallies radiated and released kinetic energy to its audience of over 100 participants on and offline. Flags representing the Middle East to clusters of keffiyehs joined at the epicenter all made possible by social media outreach and outrage.
Other organizations that sponsored the event included Strategy for Black Lives and CUNY for Abolition and Safety. A representative stressed, “that our [Black] freedom is not complete without the freedom of the Palestinian people.”
However, despite the religious and cultural diversity, the response from CUNY has not been grand thus far. The fear of making a stark stance appears to leave the institution, like many others, silent. Although especially for the many supporting the students’ demands, silence is a stance against Palestine.
“If we are to fight against antisemitism, then we are to fight against Palestinian racism,” said Andrew Berezhansky, John Jay’s Student Council President-elect. “We must fight against the oppression that other people are facing. We can’t continue to be atomized.”
Berezhansky is a Jewish student and an ardent supporter of the students’ demands. He said he was excited about the idea of long withstanding protests if it meant CUNY would eventually support its Palestinian students. However, he also admitted that being Jewish makes it challenging at times to advocate for Palestine. On occasion, his family lacks support and understanding for his activism.
A similar and more onerous challenge exists for the numerous students who advocate profoundly for Palestine. In the City College gathering, the students shared several stories about how their activism for Palestine has affected them on and off-campus grounds.
Husam Kaid, City College student and former Vice President of SJP, has long been an advocate well before the CUNY protest. And despite the pressure to end his activism, he has not succumbed, and he continues to fight for Palestine.
“We constantly get threats that [SJP] will be shut down,” he said. “Our members are constantly harassed.” He added that members had been called terrorist sympathizers, and on numerous occasions, the club’s Muslim women have been checked for bombs by asking them to raise their dresses.
For Kaid, the treatment of advocates for Palestine is unjust and extremely asymmetrical to advocates of other beliefs. At the very least, he wants CUNY to acknowledge that Palestinians exist in its institutions unapologetically.
CUNY institutions have forced student government and other school-affiliated student-led social media accounts not to post Palestinian solidarity. In addition, the schools told student governments that made a post on any such platform to remove it immediately.
The inability to express a simple dose of solidarity with anything associated with CUNY helped spark the rift amongst the students and the institution. Nevertheless, throughout the protests, the students have continued to contact the CUNY faculty, particularly those in positions of power.
Musabika Nabiha, John Jay College student, and MSA member had several discussions professionally and personally with John Jay’s President Karol V. Mason. However, she felt the results of their talks had not matched President Mason’s official statements regarding the topic.
“After we submitted the letter to President Mason’s office, we had a meeting with her, she essentially blew off our demands, while pretending to be supportive of Muslim students,” Nabiha said.
While it is understandable for John Jay’s President Mason to be selective and careful on such a controversial topic, the school’s Muslim population is growing increasingly fed up with the lack of support. Nabiha even later added that she alone had nothing left to say to President Mason, describing the entirety of the statement from Mason as “just horrible.”
Countless students continue to be gravely unsatisfied with CUNY, ready to unravel their displeasure at the institution at any moment. But instead, they have found peace in these continued rallies.
There is too much to lose for the student advocates if they became too vociferous in their fight for Muslim students on CUNY campuses. But as vehement as the students are, they understand the risk they run by supporting Palestine in any capacity― but they refuse to waver.
However, supporting Palestine alone is not the only backlash the many students feel they are receiving. The students are fighting off labels that they are too combative in their protests, which they feel results from their Islamic faith since many of the advocates are practicing Muslims.
“Palestinan voices are still being silenced, faculty is being silenced,” said Shza Zaki, a graduate from CCNY and former Undergraduate Student Government President. “And our reaction, to this and us creating a rally, I don’t find it aggressive at all.” Zaki, who helped organize several rallies, said she would participate in gatherings until CUNY protected Palestinian and Muslim students.
“Acknowledge the pro-Palestinian voices on campus that’s the least that they could do,” she added.
And she admits, she and every other organizer may face some consequences for supporting Palestine.
But to them, it is worth it.
The organizers of the protests would risk everything to see their goals come to fruition. Not because of a religious commonality, but because of a spiritual and moral obligation.
“Regardless of the consequences, I have to speak up not just not because Palestinians are Muslims, but because Muslims are supposed to speak up against injustice.” Nabiha said.