NYC Councilwoman pulls CUNY law school funds over anti-Israel stance

CUNY Law has been embroiled in multiple anti-Israel scandals, including having a BDS leader give the 2022 graduating class's commencement speech.

Activist Nerdeen Kiswani speaks out for Palestinian rights while taking part in a rally on International Women’s Day in Manhattan in New York City, New York, US, March 8, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/LUCAS JACKSON)
Activist Nerdeen Kiswani speaks out for Palestinian rights while taking part in a rally on International Women’s Day in Manhattan in New York City, New York, US, March 8, 2018.

New City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov is set to pull $50,000 in funding for the CUNY Law School over the faculty's support of a Boycott, Sanction and Divestment (BDS) movement resolution, New York Post reported on Friday.

Funding pulled over BDS

"I have pulled funding from the program and redirected it to Legal Services NYC,” Vernikov, who is a Ukrainian-born Jew, told The NY Post. “It seems as if antisemitism is the only politically acceptable form of racism which exists. We must stop handing out free passes to antisemites like candy.”

The institution has been embroiled in multiple scandals connected to anti-Israel sentiment, including having a BDS leader give the 2022 graduating class's commencement speech.

The faculty adopted a BDS resolution on May 11 that had been originally introduced and passed by the student government in December. The resolution officially endorses BDS, and calls on the institution to divest from Israel, end-all Israeli student exchanges, and cut ties with any groups that "repress Palestinian organizing."

The self-described "anti-Zionist" CUNY Law Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA) celebrated the faculty's decision "recognizing that the Palestinian people's struggle for freedom, justice and equality needs our support and calls for us all to fight against the institutional complicity that funds and supports their genocide."

 City University of New York (CUNY) (credit: Wikimedia Commons) City University of New York (CUNY) (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“During a time when antisemitic hate crimes are up by 300%, it is incumbent upon our academic institutions to do everything in their power to protect their Jewish and pro-Israel students, not pass resolutions which directly place them in harm’s way.”

New City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, to New York Post

SAFE CUNY, an NGO which describes itself as an alliance of CUNY students or scholars, welcomed Vernikov's "moral and courageous decision to withhold funding from the CUNY School of Law for its blatantly discriminatory, bigoted, and antisemitic adoption of BDS on its campus."

The NGO called on Governor [Kathy] Hochul to pull further funding from CUNY.

BDS leader speaks at graduation

Nerdeen Kiswani, the founder of the anti-Israel group Within Our Lifetime (WOL), praised the faculty's adoption of the BDS resolution in her May 12 CUNY Law graduation commencement speech, which was a subject of controversy in its own right.

"We've been able to pass a BDS resolution through student government that CUNY Faculty just officially endorsed yesterday. And CUNY law is the first university in the country to publish a statement standing with the freedom of speech of those fighting for Palestinian liberation."

Nerdeen Kiswani, founder and leader of Within Our Lifetime

Kiswani in her speech criticized CUNY for not being as supportive of Palestinian movements as CUNY Law, and chastised the university chancellor for n going on a trip to Israel in defiance of BDS resolutions. She also said that the chancellor engaged in double standards, releasing "selective" statements on freedom of speech but "is silent on Palestine."

The WOL leader said that there had been a campaign to prevent her from speaking at the law school graduation and that she had been long "facing a campaign of Zionist harassment by well-funded organizations with ties to the Israeli government and military on the basis of my Palestinian identity and organizing. Beginning in the Fall 2019 semester — my very first semester as a law student — It has lasted ever since."

"No, she's under scrutiny because she says really outlandish things and does things like go up to people wearing IDF sweaters and threatens to light them on fire," said Rafaella Gunz, a former classmate of Kiswani's at CUNY Law, who left the institution due to what she described as a "toxic" antisemitic environment.

"It's not because of her Palestinian identity, it's because she interrupts Holocaust memorial ceremonies and says that she hopes the last thing Zionists hear in their life is 'pop pop.' She says crazy, violent things and it's f**king cheered on."

"Not just in this speech, but in other venues, Kiswani has demanded 'Zionism out of CUNY.' In other words, that Zionist Jews should be discriminated against based on their religion, ethnicity, and/or national origin as students, faculty, or staff members and be thrown out of CUNY," SAFE CUNY told The Jerusalem Post.

"Kiswani is unqualified to hold a law license in New York state because she emphatically expresses views that violate the attorney's oath of office and religious liberty for all religious beliefs, including Zionistic ones, under the New York State constitution. It was even more shocking to observe CUNY Law Professors on stage applauding and cheering Kiswani's discriminatory rhetoric."

JLSA condemned what it called "racist attacks" against Kiswani.

"Toxic" CUNY environment

Gunz said voting for Kiswani to speak was just one indication of how uncomfortable it was for Jewish and Zionist students on campus. 

"There was just a big sort of like, icing out of me, a big culture of exclusion amongst the Jews that don't full-heartedly endorse the Palestinian cause by any means necessary," said Gunz, who said the anti-Zionist JLSA was of no help. "Basically, I was just not welcome in the community, despite the fact that I agree with them on, like, 99% of issues."

"I felt like I was targeted by the student body for being a Zionist."

Rafaella Gunz, former student at CUNY Law

"CUNY's persistent and longstanding practice of ignoring antisemitism has enabled it to foment the horrifying Jew-hate that we are all seeing now across its campuses," said SAFE CUNY.

"I have spoken to Jewish faculty and students across CUNY, and so many of them are concerned. Many are scared. I get calls from parents of prospective Jewish students who ask me, 'is it safe to send my child to CUNY?'"

Within our Lifetime

WOL made headlines on March 30 when they chanted “globalize the intifada” – armed uprising – and “there is only one solution, intifada, revolution.” 

On April 20, the revolutionary movement organized a rally in support of Arab participants in clashes with Israeli Police at Jerusalem's Temple Mount. Promotions for the rally stated that “Zionism has no place in Palestine and it must be eradicated to achieve full liberation.”

The posters for the event called for "resistance and liberation by any means necessary," which critics argued condoned violent action. At the event, a local Jewish man wearing an Israeli flag was allegedly beaten.

In 2020, Kiswani shared a video of herself threatening to set a man's IDF sweatshirt on fire. That year she was named by the NGO StopAntisemitism as their "antisemite of the year."