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US: Students denounce decision to pull CUNY funding after BDS endorsement

New York City council member Inna Vernikov pulled $50,000 in funding for a legal programme last month after law faculty unanimously agreed to support the boycott of Israel
Pro-Palestine activists take part in a demonstration in New York City to mark the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres (MEE/Zainab Iqbal)

Students at a prominent New York university have denounced a decision by a city council member to pull $50,000 in funding for a programme that provided free legal services to the community after faculty members endorsed a boycott resolution in support of Palestinian rights. 

Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, a Ukrainian-born Jewish Republican representing parts of Brooklyn, pulled the funding last week after claiming that professors at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law were engaging in antisemitism following their decision to support the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

Late last month, CUNY Law professors voted unanimously to endorse the BDS movement after the law school's student government passed a similar resolution in December.

Founded in 2005, the BDS movement aims to mimic the success of the boycott movement that peacefully ended apartheid in South Africa. That success was built upon the realisation that boycott, sanctions and divestment carried too high an economic price tag for South Africa to continue with its human rights violations.

In a statement announcing her decision, Vernikov claimed that CUNY, which enrolled over 260,000 students in 2020, was rife with "antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment".

'This unconstitutional defunding of CUNY Law should immediately be reversed'

- Palestine Legal, advocacy group

"Visibly Jewish and pro-Israel students no longer feel safe to express their views at their colleges, and many are concerned about their physical safety. CUNY School of Law has become an egregious example of that reality," she said.

Vernikov said that the $50,000 would instead go to Legal Services NYC.

David Orkin, a Jewish American and recent graduate at the CUNY School of Law, disputed the claims, telling Middle East Eye that he "never experienced antisemitism" during his three years at the institution.

"All the media attention around antisemitism is unfounded because the people making the claims don't understand that criticising apartheid isn't actually antisemitic," he said.

"The only times I've felt unwelcomed at CUNY is when some administrators retaliate when we criticise Israel."

The Jewish Law Student Association at CUNY also rejected Vernikov's claims, saying they fit "squarely within the intimidation and harassment tactic that pro-Israel activists rely on".

"Vernikov's latest campaign to smear our community joins a legacy of manufactured backlash which is not rooted in reality," a member of the student association told MEE.

'Unconstitutional'

When announcing her decision to pull the funding, Vernikov singled out Nerdeen Kiswani, a Palestinian-American activist and a graduate of the CUNY School of Law, for the anti-Israel position at the department.

Kiswani was elected by the class majority to give a commencement speech at her graduation last month, during which she criticised the university’s chancellor for the school's position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. She has since been the target of online harassment. 

“We will not be intimidated by these pathetic gestures from city council members. Plenty of racist Zionist council members have tried to stop the movement for Palestinian liberation but they have failed and will continue to fail," Kiswani told MEE. 

"She has been making quite a name for herself by attacking me and threatening to ‘cut funding’ to CUNY Law when in reality she's just cutting legal services to her own constituents.

NYC council member pulls funding for CUNY Law School after BDS endorsement
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"Why punish your own constituents in defence of a foreign country that’s killing journalists and children daily?"

Vernikov's announcement comes amid an aggressive campaign against BDS that critics say violates freedom of speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has warned of a "disturbing surge of government-led attempts to suppress the speech of people on only one side of the Israel-Palestine debate".

More than 30 states have passed laws that would penalise entities that boycott Israel, although federal judges have found anti-BDS legislation in Georgia and Texas to be unconstitutional.

"This unconstitutional defunding of CUNY Law should immediately be reversed," Palestine Legal, a Chicago-based advocacy group, said in a statement.

"The politically motivated attacks on CUNY Law from city officials for the protected expression of its faculty members is a clear violation of the First Amendment and an affront to the principles of free speech and academic freedom."

Middle East Eye reached out to the CUNY School of Law and Inna Vernikov for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.