Photo: Stephen Yang
On Halloween morning, Governor Kathy Hochul announced more than $75 million in new funding for the police, primarily for new surveillance technology and surveillance program staff to be used against pro-Palestinian protesters and activists under the guise of fighting antisemitism. This move comes five days after the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning campus activism for Palestine as “pro-Hamas” and “pro-terrorism,” one day after the Biden administration also announced new support for surveillance programs, especially for use at colleges and universities, and one day after more than 100 university presidents and other high-level administrators formed a national coalition in support of Israel, blaming Hamas for the suffering of the Palestinians rather than the Israeli Defense Forces, which are actively bombing and laying siege to Gaza. It also comes one day after Biden’s press secretary compared pro-Palestine protesters to the white supremacist, antisemitic protesters in Charlottesville at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. Hochul’s announcement also includes provisions for a judge to review policies and procedures related to antisemitism at the City University of New York (CUNY). This increased police spending is part of a united and concerted attack by all levels of government against political speech at universities and against the movement for a free Palestine.
What Do Hochul’s Orders Mean?
Let’s be clear: these surveillance programs are not about protecting Jewish students or fighting actual antisemitism, but are about surveilling Arab and Muslim students to create a climate of fear designed to silence critics of Israel and U.S. interests abroad. Indeed, many Jewish people are actively participating in the pro-Palestine protests. In fact, anti-Zionist Jewish protesters are also being attacked and targeted by Israel’s supporters for siding with Palestine. These attacks on pro-Palestinian activists are happening because the media and the ruling class have managed to create the perception that anti-Zionism is antisemitism and that any support of Palestinians is an inherent threat to Jewish people, as if the two are incapable of coexisting. Because these government actions are framed using the language of antisemitism, those who oppose them will be called antisemitic. But increasing police power, especially surveillance power, is a threat to all oppressed peoples.
While Governor Hochul’s statement expresses concern for Islamophobia as well as antisemitism, the judge’s charge is only to review antisemitism at CUNY — not Islamophobia, even though NYPD officers have infiltrated Muslim student groups to spy on them in the past. At CUNY, students are reporting being scared to visit their professors’ office hours while wearing their keffiyehs for fear of what the professors might say, and other Muslim students are skipping class entirely. Their fears are not unfounded, considering multiple Islamophobic assaults in recent weeks, including the stabbing of 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume last month. Where is the concern for these students’ learning?
New York State and the U.S. State Department both use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which does not in itself refer to Israel or criticism of Israel, but of the eleven examples of antisemitism that accompany the definition, seven of them do relate to Israel, and serve to shelter the state from criticism. Many organizations use this definition as justification for the claim that criticizing Israel is inherently antisemitic and therefore as justification for suppressing anti-Zionist speech. This definition is such a useful tool for Zionists that hundreds of organizations have fought over whether or not the United Nations and its member states should adopt it.
Given the governments’ use of this definition, investigations into antisemitism at CUNY and increased surveillance to combat antisemitism necessarily include opposing, surveilling, and combatting pro-Palestine protests. Certain claims, like accusing the Israeli state of racism or comparing tactics used by the Israeli government to tactics used by the Nazi regime, are considered antisemitic under the IHRA definition, no matter how well-substantiated the claims may be. But Israel is not synonymous with Judaism. Like any large group, Jewish people have diverse political viewpoints, which includes diverse opinions about Israel, its policies, and its war on Gaza. Just last Friday, the NYPD arrested nearly four hundred Jewish people demanding a ceasefire at Grand Central Station.
These moves by the Governor, by the Biden administration, and by the Senate need to be seen for what they are: crackdowns on campus protests that will disproportionately harm students and workers of color, especially those who are Arab and Muslim. While fighting actual discrimination and hate crimes against Jewish people is important, being against the genocide of the Palestinian people and the ethnic cleansing of Gaza is not antisemitic. We must support all students and workers who are targeted for their organizing under these new programs, and never forget that the NYPD is not the ally of the working class and oppressed.
Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.