NYCC Higher Education Committee Hearing
Testimony of Sophie Ellman-Golan, Jews For Racial & Economic Justice
June 30, 2022

Good morning Chair Dinowitz and Council Members. My name is Sophie Ellman-Golan and I am the Director of Communications at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, the largest grassroots Jewish organization in New York.

CUNY has played a historically important role in giving Jews access to higher education at a time when other schools discriminated against Jewish students. It must continue to be a welcoming home for Jewish students, Palestinian students, and all New Yorkers — a place where freedom of expression, exploration, dissent, and discussion are encouraged, not suppressed.

College is a place where we hear new ideas, meet new people, and are challenged to think beyond the specific confines of how we were raised. Those experiences can be uncomfortable. But discomfort and danger are two different things. Disagreement and dehumanization are two different things. When young people are excited to take moral stands and nonviolently engage in the civic life of our city and our country, that’s something we should celebrate and encourage, even when we disagree with their specific views.

As someone who has been personally targeted by white nationalists and neo-Nazis in the past few years, including with a death threat, I would like to address the broader context in which this hearing is taking place: We are currently witnessing a nationwide attack on public education and liberal academic institutions. These attacks have come in many forms: re-inserting Christian prayer in public schools; removing Holocaust education literature like MAUS; banning discussion — and even acknowledgement — of systemic racism; cracking down on student organizing; and of course, an outrageous effort to vilify gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, and intersex people as “groomers” who pose a threat to children. The funding behind these efforts, the sources of legislation relating to them, and the statements of people involved indicate that this is an explicitly white Christian nationalist project.

Republican members of the New York City Council have chosen to align with some of the most powerful leaders of that movement, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who one council member welcomed to our city with open arms just weeks ago. This council member went so far as to praise DeSantis as a “friend to the Jewish community.”

There are real threats endangering Jews in New York, on campus, and nationwide. Those threats are not student organizers or the PSC union. There is a difference between non-violent political action around Israel-Palestine, and violent white supremacist movements. I’m concerned that this hearing fails to adequately address the latter, and that it conflates the two.

Jewish New Yorkers face antisemitic street violence and harassment, spurred by the popularization and ubiquity of antisemitic conspiracy theories that increased under Donald Trump’s presidency. The numerous examples of swastikas on campus. On January 7, 2021 someone hung a confederate flag outside the door of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. In June 2021, Patriot Front members came into our city to deface a statue memorializing George Floyd. White supremacist Nick Fuentes came to NYC this past November, seeking to bring more people into his groyper movement under the guise of anti-vaccine protests. A defender of the Proud Boys sits in this very City Council.

This is the antisemitism that most endangers Jews in New York City and beyond. While anyone can use or act on antisemitism, antisemitic violence and legislation are overwhelmingly fueled by the kinds of people who stormed the capitol on January 6th, and those defending and rallying around them.

Antisemitism is part of a machinery of division and fear, created and used for specific material gain, to retain power, and to obscure the true causes of people’s suffering. It is the same machinery driving physical and legislative attacks on women, queer and trans people, immigrants, Black and brown people, Muslims, Asian people and so many other groups. And these attacks are overwhelmingly coming from an emboldened, well-funded, and decades-in-the-making white Christian nationalist movement.

Harassment and hate are never acceptable — on campus or anywhere else. Given both the ongoing and nationwide attack on public education and the real threats to Jewish safety that do exist, focusing on student organizing and legitimate and non-violent criticism of the Israeli government is puzzling. But conflating that non-violent organizing and legitimate criticism with violent attacks is actually dangerous. It uses Jews as an excuse to advance repressive, anti-democratic, and anti-free speech policies. Cutting funding to CUNY, or using McCarthyite tactics to silence teachers and control student organizing will not make Jews safer. The best way to ensure that New York and CUNY are safe and welcoming to Jews and everyone else, is to secure a truly open, pluralistic, and responsive democracy with dignity for all.

Thank you, Chair Dinowitz and committee members, for the opportunity to testify.