How CUNY’s Faculty Union Bet on Israel Hatred, and Lost

KC Johnson

August 12, 2021

Originally published in Tablet on August 12, 2021.

On June 10, the delegate assembly of the Professional Staff Congress, the union representing around 30,000 City University of New York (CUNY) faculty and staff, overwhelmingly passed a resolution declaring that Israel massacred innocent Palestinians during the spring conflict in Gaza. The measure did not mention, much less condemn, any actions by Hamas.

It’s no surprise to see U.S. academic organizations, even faculty unions, issue one-sided statements denouncing Israel. Yet the PSC’s resolution has stood out, albeit less for its mendacity than for the significant resistance it has encountered from CUNY professors: Since June, more than 100 have publicly committed themselves to resigning from the union in response to the resolution, generating an unanticipated crisis for the PSC. The affair suggests that it’s possible, even in contemporary higher education, for anti-Israel zealots to go too far.

The New Caucus, a faction armed with fiery rhetoric about the evils of organized wealth and the benefits of intersectional alliances, has led the PSC since 2000. Its curious obsession with Israel, though couched as a professed concern with human rights, has a Corbynite feel. On other international issues, especially involving nondemocratic regimes hostile to U.S. foreign policy, the union consistently looks the other way.

The PSC struggled during the pandemic. New York’s state government did not fund the paltry 2% raise the union had negotiated for full-time faculty. Citing falling enrollments for the fall 2020 semester, CUNY chose not to rehire 2,800 part-time employees; the union’s legal effort to overturn the decision was laughed out of court. The PSC’s political instincts were no sounder. Just as Joe Biden’s presidential campaign started to rack up primary victories in March 2020, the union’s executive council jointly endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the nomination; in this year’s New York City mayoral primary, the union urged ranking the scandal-plagued (and ultimately losing) campaigns of Scott Stringer and Dianne Morales.

The Gaza conflict provided a useful distraction to this tough stretch. Three PSC committees, led by the union’s International Committee, quickly introduced a resolution accusing Israel of having “murdered” more than 2,000 Palestinians and describing Israel and the United States as “settler colonial states built on the logics and through the mechanisms of white supremacy.” The union’s Executive Council countered with an offering dropping the murder claim but retaining language about “the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state.” The leadership’s measure, which lamented Israeli “state-sponsored policies of settler colonialism,” curiously cited May 15—five days after the initial Hamas rocket attacks on Jerusalem—as the beginning of hostilities.

In an email sent to fellow delegates before the vote, James Davis, the PSC’s newly elected president, expressed hope for “a strong statement of conscience about these atrocities in which the U.S. is complicit.” Davis then opened debate at the union’s June meeting by suggesting that the leadership’s resolution, with its claim of an Israeli massacre, would help persuade CUNY faculty that the topic was “a union issue, a PSC issue.”

It remains unclear why union leaders believed that a resolution condemning Israel, even a more plausibly fair and accurate one, would show how Israeli security policy is a “union issue, a PSC issue.” The entire debate seemed to rest on the premise that because most CUNY faculty members likely sympathize with the Palestinians, most also share the union’s anti-Zionism. The delegate assembly ultimately added even harsher language about Israeli actions before approving the amended resolution, 84 to 34.

Before the vote, PSC engagement with CUNY faculty was minimal. The union did not post (and still hasn’t posted) either the Executive Council’s proposed resolution or the International Committee’s competing offering on its website. The PSC’s Twitter and Facebook feeds likewise remain silent on the matter. I only obtained copies of the proposed resolutions from a union source troubled by their contents.

Union leaders’ sense that they could keep the debate about the resolution confined to the Delegate Assembly, shielded from membership protest, was perhaps understandable, albeit misplaced. For decades, even nonmembers of public employee unions had to pay an “agency fee” to the union. But in 2018, the Supreme Court held in Janus v. AFSCME that these fees violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against compelled speech.

Democrats (who receive a disproportionate amount of backing from public employee unions) predictably criticized Janus, and Republicans likewise welcomed it. More surprising was how the ruling altered the relationship between individual faculty and an activist union like the PSC. CUNY professors suddenly had to ask themselves whether they were willing to continue personally funding an organization that took such a morally questionable position.

According to PSC Vice President Andrea Vásquez, before the current controversy, only 74 members had left the union in the three years since Janus. Now, more than 100 CUNY faculty members, including former CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, have committed to leaving the union in connection with the resolution. (The PSC has refused to release a precise number of resignations, relying instead on vague statements about “dozens” of departing members.) Groups of CUNY faculty have penned two public lettersone of which I co-signed, condemning the union’s handling of the resolution.

Several faculty members who resigned spoke about their personal connections to organized labor before castigating the PSC. Hunter College professor Leah Garrett recalled growing up in “a Socialist minded Jewish family,” but felt she had no choice but to dissociate herself “from these peddlers in racist tropes and ideology.” A. Jay Adler, an adjunct professor at Queens College, described himself as “an ardent, lifelong supporter of organized labor,” but recoiled from the resolution’s “propaganda and distortion, displaying no regard whatsoever for facts, let alone truth.” The union’s chapter chair at York College, Scott Sheidlower, stepped down to protest the resolution’s passage.

The mass resignations, which could deny the union a significant amount in annual dues, appear to have caught the PSC leadership off guard—unintentionally confirming the ideological bubble in which the union’s officials operate. In contrast to the union’s hands-off strategy to post-Janus departures, PSC chapter chairs reached out to the recent resigning members individually, trying to persuade them to change their minds by downplaying concerns about the resolution’s wording. “I realized then and there,” Hunter College’s Garrett wrote, “that the union couldn’t care less about this or the rising antisemitism on campus.”

In a CUNY-wide email earlier this month, Davis, the PSC president, revealed that he had voted against the final resolution (the PSC doesn’t publish roll-call votes) despite his assertions about Israeli “atrocities” and his introduction of a measure labeling Israel as a settler-colonial state that perpetrated massacres. He quickly pivoted to the real villain in the affair: “anti-labor groups like the Manhattan Institute and New Choice NY” who, he insinuated, had exploited the fallout from the resolution.

Anna Kaplan, a Democratic state senator from Long Island, deemed this unsubstantiated allegation “a further knife in the back” of Jewish professors already “facing the difficult decision of whether or not to continue being a member of an organization that has chosen to be openly hostile to their very existence.”

The PSC probably could end this crisis by rescinding the resolution, but recent discussions among delegates suggest that this outcome is unlikely. One delegate proclaimed that “imperialism never ceased to be the core of the Zionist message”; another termed the Israel Defense Forces “the only threat to the children” who attended schools where Hamas had concealed nearby rocket launchers. A delegate from Borough of Manhattan Community College criticized the focus on “a very narrow issue” before telling a colleague, “If you were a Palestinian child you would want to throw a few rocks yourself.” A Kingsborough Community College delegate expressed pride that “we are defending Palestine now, for the first time, as a union.”

All of this ensures that the resolution’s impact will linger as CUNY begins its fall term later this month. Indeed, it seems likely that the controversy will intensifyBeyond condemning Israeli security policies, the resolution also called for campus-level discussions to “consider PSC support of the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).” During the June meeting, one PSC official welcomed “structured conversations” with individual CUNY professors “that have a specific guide to them.”

Baruch professor Marc Edelman was one of the few CUNY faculty to explicitly address this issue in his resignation letter. He observed “that the State of New York has not only rightfully described [the concept] as ‘hateful’ and ‘intolerant,’” but also had forbidden, through an executive order, any New York state agency or department from promoting BDS. Unlike most of his departing colleagues, Edelman has not received a call from a union leader asking him to stay in the PSC.

In normal circumstances, a powerful faculty entity planning BDS-related “structured conversations” with, among others, untenured and contingent faculty might generate pushback. Perhaps the administration would step in to uphold the academic freedom of those subjected to the effort. Or maybe the campus union would intervene to protect the interests of vulnerable professors who oppose BDS.

But in this instance, CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodríguez has washed his hands of the affair, and the union has, at the very least, a conflict of interest. As a result, it seems likely that the wave of resignations will continue until the PSC concludes that it costs too much in lost dues to indulge the anti-Zionist sentiments of its delegates.