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Kingsborough College fails to protect pro-Israel Orthodox faculty, students

By Alan Zeitlin  

(JNS) Professor Jeff Lax says that in his 17 years working at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, N.Y, one of his worst days was one he never expected.

He said he was blocked from leaving a room by five members of the Progressive Faculty Caucus, known as the PFC, and that Matthew Gartner, an associate professor of English, lifted his hand over his head in a threatening manner and twice told him, “We’re just starting.” Lax said he found nails in the tires of his car on multiple occasions but said the culprit was never identified, and he didn’t know who was responsible.

“I was shaking,” Lax told JNS by phone, in reference to when he says he was surrounded. “I was scared for my safety. I didn’t want to meet up with any of them in the elevator. I didn’t leave till 8 p.m.”

Goldstein said security cameras should have shown who put nails in the car, but he was told by administrators that he could not see the tapes.

Kingsborough, established in 1963, is part of the City University of New York system and the only community college in Brooklyn.

Lax, who is an Orthodox Jew and an avowed Zionist, added that an Orthodox Jewish student complained that after requesting to take a test on an alternate date that was not a Jewish holiday, Gartner said that if the student wanted off for Jewish holidays, the student should have gone to a Jewish school.

In addition, he was mentioned by name as “Lax’s lawsuit” in a survey that went out to the Kingsborough faculty that also included, “As a faculty and as a college we do not know how to talk to each other.” Another line referred to “Zionist faculty who preserve positions of authority through nepotism.” Lax said he emailed college president Claudia Schrader that he was in tears, and she apologized in an email.

“Not only does the administration not care about discrimination against Orthodox or Zionist Jews, but they actively retaliate against them,” claimed Lax.

Lax, the department chair of Business said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (known as the EEOC), who is involved in an independent yearlong investigation (which is non-binding, meaning that it does not require any action be taken, but there is a hope that a settlement can be reached; the determination cannot be appealed) validated his claims. The determination stated that “the commission’s investigation reveals that the Charging party and other similarly situated individuals were discriminated and retaliated against because of their religion … .”

Lax said he and other Orthodox and or Zionist faculty members were rejected from the PFC and has asked for evidence from Jackson Lewis, the law firm working with CUNY, if anyone was rejected who was not Orthodox or Zionist and got no answer.

Lax said after the EEOC ruling, Schrader ceased communicating with him.

At issue was the PFC announcing a meeting would be open to anyone on a Friday night at 8 p.m., according to math department chair Rina Yarmush, who is also Orthodox. She said a non-Jewish Italian professor wrote in an email that it would be a good idea to have it at another time so as not to exclude Orthodox Jews. Another non-Jewish person wrote it was a bad idea, said Yarmush. But then a PFC member said that after consulting people, this was the best time for everyone.

Jeffrey Lax, a professor of business at Kingsborough Community College. Credit: Courtesy.

“The problem with her statement was they announced the time initially,” said Yarmush. “It was only later after the investigations where PFC members tripped up and admitted they scheduled it on purpose to exclude Lax and other Orthodox professors. This is a very common technique in academia for excluding religious Jews.”

She said CUNY students almost always pass anti-Israel legislation during Friday-night meetings.

“I wasn’t surprised at the lack of action because I’ve been around a long time,” she said. “This is very typical of CUNY. They bury things. The leadership of CUNY is not friendly to Jews.”

’They wanted to have me fired or resign’

Mike Goldstein, an adjunct professor who describes himself as Zionist but not Orthodox, says he was like royalty at Kingsborough. But now he is ostracized.

Goldstein, whose father, Leon, was the Kingsborough Community College President until 1999, said if his father would see what happened to his son “he’d be rolling over in his grave.”

He said people first soured on him when he was in a video ad explaining that he was initially a supporter of former President Barrack Obama and then shifted to support presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. But after some online posts a few years ago, he said he was called a racist by faculty and students, and people rushed his office door and defaced a picture of his father, including the phrase “F-Trump Goldstein … Kill the Zionist Entity.” There were also nails in his tires. He asked for a surveillance camera outside his office, and said instead, the campus decided to give him security when he was on the grounds.

“I was attacked because I was Jewish and proud,” said Goldstein. “I got death threats. It was insane and depressing. Even when I went to the bathroom, a guard stood by the wall. It was completely surreal.”

In How to Fight Anti-Semitism, a book by former New York Times editor and columnist Bari Weiss, the author refers to Goldstein as the victim of a dehumanizing campaign.

Goldstein said he was not allowed into the PFC because he was told he is an administrator. While it’s less of an issue now since classes are remote due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he said he wondered if he would have had a difficult time had it not been when the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip occurred last May. He said the situation is “Kafka-esque,” as he was referred to as the leader of a Zionist cabal.

He also spoke about “shadow-grading.” He said there have been about seven cases of students who have come to him—two who were not Jewish—and objected to anti-Israel books used or anti-Israel speech, coupled with what they believed to be the unfair lowering of grades when they questioned the professor. He said they told him when they complained to the provost, they were simply told to drop the class.

Goldstein said he was shocked by the campaign to get him fired and wondered if it was partly due to his having an Israeli wife. He said he was told for safety reasons that he would no longer be director of communications for the college, which he did not object to.

“They wanted to have me fired or resign,” he said of the campaign against him. “I wasn’t fired because I did nothing wrong, and I’m not rich so I need my job.”

He also said he feels bad for young Orthodox or Zionist teachers looking to work at Kingsborough or CUNY, as well as students.

“I just wish the college would do something, but there is a culture of fear,” said Goldstein. “Jewish students who wear yarmulkes are now going to Queens College. And I feel bad for Jewish teachers who are pro-Israel coming up in the ranks. Good luck getting hired. You might have to try Yeshiva University.”

’What does that mean, I’m a trouble-maker?’

Susan Aranoff, who teaches at KCC is an Orthodox Jew but is not a department chair or administrator. She said she went to a meeting where she was told everyone was welcome. She said she spoke to a PFC member and asked to be put on the list for the PFC. Months went by and she heard nothing. She said she got an email that they needed to talk. He called her and said she needed to be interviewed in order to be allowed to join.

“This was very weird,” said Aranoff. “It was an open invitation and now he said there was an interview. … I asked if anybody else needed to be interviewed.” She said she hadn’t heard of anyone being required to have an interview but her.

She said that while she is Orthodox, she lives close to the campus and could walk to the meeting and asked where it was being held but was told it’s secret to keep out troublemakers.

“So what does that mean, I’m a trouble-maker?” she asked.

She said her friend who is not Orthodox and not publicly pro-Israel was accepted without incident or request for an interview.

Aranoff, who taught at KCC for 40 years, mostly in economics, said she’d never seen a professor mentioned by name is a survey, and that superficially mentioning a difficulty with Zionists was problematic.

Michelle Davidowitz, a professor in the business department at Kingsborough and a board member of SAFE CUNY—founded by Lax, Goldstein and others—said it will be aimed at protecting people from discrimination. She and Goldstein said it will be safe space for anyone who feels discriminated against.

Davidowitz, who is not a department chair or administrator, has taken issue with a report by Jackson Lewis, a law firm retained to investigate reports of discrimination. That report, which confirms that there was discrimination and that three PFC members admitted the purpose was to exclude Lax who could not come on a Friday night, but says it was due to a concern that Lax would take over the meeting. She said she was surprised that the Jackson Lewis report referred to her as saying there was no discrimination.

“Why the hell am I talking to you?” she told JNS in explaining her surprise at why she would be meeting with the lawyers if there was no discrimination. “Why am I wasting my time? Why would I do that if it wasn’t a discrimination issue?”

She said emailed to get on the PFC list and never heard from them again.

Last May 26, The New York Daily News reported that a KCC student allegedly was among three who pummeled and choked Jewish men when they refused to say “Free Palestine,” and who also shouted, “Kill you Jews.”

’They are afraid of the radicals’

In a statement, Elisha Wiesel, the son of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, hoped for a full investigation in response to the EEOC determination and Lax’s video testimony.

“My father not only taught but was the Martin Luther King Jr. graduation commencement speaker at CUNY’s founding institution, City College, in 1973,” Wiesel wrote JNS in an email. “Both my father and MLK stood for hope despite the hate they had seen firsthand. Both also spoke out against those who fanned hatred against Israel—those who thought they could hide their anti-Semitism behind anti-Zionism. I hope CUNY’s leadership of today will remember these things as they ponder what they want their own legacy to be.”

Dov Hikind, founder of Americans Against Anti-Semitism and a former Democratic New York State Assemblyman representing Brooklyn, said he is disappointed with leadership from the college level to the CUNY level to the congressional level.

“The wort part is the cowardice of the otherwise good people,” Hikind told JNS. “They are cowards because they are afraid of the radicals. The same is true even in Congress. Jeffrey Lax … isn’t afraid to stand up and speak out. He’s a fighter, and if more people would speak out like him, maybe it wouldn’t be as much as a problem.”

“Lax is a bone in their throat,” he said. “They can’t deal with a proud Orthodox pro-Israel Jew.”

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who used to work for the FBI from 1980 to 1985, served as a trustee of CUNY for more than a decade until 2013. He said there was a campaign to fire him after playwright Tony Kushner was about to get the vote to get an honorary degree. He said he made a speech highlighting that in an interview given in a Yale magazine, Kushner said that Israel was guilty of ethnic cleansing. He said that as a result, they voted not to give Kushner the award, prompting fury and a response from Kushner himself. Eventually, Kushner did get the award.

Wiesenfeld said these are gloomy times due to a lack of leadership. He said there were improvements under Gov. George Pataki (for whom he was an executive assistant), and New York City mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. But now ask any pro-Israel or Orthodox faculty member of CUNY, and they know the score, he said.

“It’s open season on Jewish students and faculty,” said Wiesenfeld. “If you are openly a Zionist, you will be confronted. It’s ugly. It’s an ugly time to be a Jewish professor who cares about Israel. It’s an ugly time for a Jew to wear a yarmulke. There’s a woke sickness. [CUNY Schools Chancellor] Lois Matos Rodriguez is a very decent guy. But they are all afraid to be accused of tampering with academic freedom.”

The office of the CUNY Chancellor declined to answer questions from JNS for this article and referred to a previous statement against the BDS movement that included: “To be clear, CUNY cannot participate in or support BDS activities and is required to divest public funds from any companies that do.”

Asked why Jews would be singled out in a survey and if anti-Semitism is a problem at Kingsborough, a spokesperson in Shrader’s office declined to answer questions and issued the following statement: “Kingsborough Community College is committed to a diverse and inclusive community where students, faculty and staff feel safe, welcome and free to pursue their studies and their work. We have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind, and allegations of this kind are taken very seriously. The college is unable to comment on pending litigation.”

Lax said he is one of dozens of CUNY professors who quit the union in disgust after the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York voted 83-34 on a June 10 resolution because that made no mention of the actions of Hamas and referred to Israel as an apartheid state.

’Lax’s antics tanked the thing’

Though a number of PFC members didn’t respond to email interview requests, attorney J. Remy Green, who represents Gartner and other professors named in the case, did. In an e-mail to JNS, Green referred to Lax as “a professional troll” and to the EEOC determination as a “nothing-burger.”

In a phone interview, Green disputed Lax’s claim about Gartner raising his hand over his head in a threatening way and saying, “We’re getting started.”

“No, that didn’t happen,” said Green. “Certainly, it didn’t happen anything close to the way he suggested.”

As to whether or not a Jewish student complained that Gartner said if the student wanted to be off for Jewish holidays, the student should have gone to a Jewish school, Green said: “I am aware of none. I have asked. There are none.”

Asked if Yarmush was lying about there already being a department chair on the PFC when she was told she could not be on the PFC because she was a department chair, Green said “yes.” But, he added, “would it entirely surprise me if there was somebody who at some point was there, who was a department chair, and then once there were two department chairs, they made the decision that there would be no department chairs? It wouldn’t.”

“We’re talking about a group of people who decided to get together in the wake of Trump’s election and try to effect some change on campus, and Lax’s antics tanked the thing,” he said.

Asked if Aranoff was lying about being told she needed an interview before being allowed to join the PFC, Green replied: “I think Susan Aranoff is making that up. Is it possible that some random person said that to her? Sure. The PFC didn’t have a leadership cause it’s not an entity. What I’m telling you is that it’s possible somebody who did not have authority to speak for the organization, not that anybody did have authority to speak for the organization, because it never existed.”

Green said even if there was discrimination, individuals could not be sued and that Lax would be paying the fees of her clients under New York’s Anti-Slap Law, which allows defendants an opportunity to challenge the basis of the suit, obtain a quick dismissal and seek recovery of lawyer’s fees if the lawsuit is determined to be a strategic suit against public participation.

Green said the PFK had “maybe half a meeting,” repeating that Lax’s antics tanked the group.

Lax, who is a lawyer and a legal consultant who appears on Newsy to talk about events, said he believes the facts are on his side.

Aiding and abetting it through their silence

Jonah Zweig referred to the EEOC determination as “a positive first step” saying that the EEOC often rejects claims.

“To call it a nothing burger is certainly dismissive, uncalled for based on these findings,” said Zweig.

In terms of CUNY’s own investigation, Zweig said Jackson Lewis has taken the public position that there’s been no wrongdoing by CUNY but a freedom of information request showed that there was.

Asked to respond to the Jackson Lewis report, Zweig said: “The report indicates that there was wrongdoing. Not only has Jackson Lewis confirmed by their own investigation that there was wrongdoing and breach of CUNY code, but they’re lying about it, demonstratively so … CUNY has joined the ongoing pattern in not just academia but in broader society of allowing rampant anti-Semitism to just go unchallenged. Even if they’re not participating in it, they’re certainly aiding and abetting it through their silence, and we’re intending on calling them out.”

He added that he believes CUNY will take the position they are not responsible for actions of faculty members not officially sanctioned, and his position is that CUNY was made aware of the problems, did nothing to stop it and “attempted to whitewash the whole process.”

Joseph DiPalma, an attorney for Jackson Lewis, declined to respond to questions for this article.

Davidowitz said Safe CUNY has been established out of the need to provide a safe space for Jews but will serve to help anyone who feels discriminated against due to religion or any reason. Goldstein, who said he founded the group with Lax and others, said it’s open to anyone and long overdue.

Brooke Goldstein, founder of the Lawfare Project, and an attorney who has represented Lax and Goldstein. called upon the college leadership and CUNY leadership to take action.

“ … The campus remains a cesspool of racism and hate,” she said. “Schrader even circulated a survey that contained anti-Semitic tropes and blaming ‘Zionist’ oppression for problems on campus. Until the university addresses Jew-hate and until it commits to protecting Jewish people as it does other minority groups, it will continue to remain a dangerous place.”

Goldstein said she hoped people would consider their conscience and take the needed steps.

“History will judge those who were silent as part of the problem and those who took action as part of the solution,” she said. “People can choose what side they want to be on.”

PHOTO: CUNY Kingsborough

CAP: Kingsborough Community College, part of the City University of New York system, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Credit: Kingsborough Community College.

PHOTO: Lax

CAP:

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