Brooklyn-born Orthodox Jewish attorney Jeffrey Lax has been a professor since 2004 and business department chair for 12 years at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY). Lax, whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors and great-grandparents were murdered by Nazis, is distraught over how sharply antisemitism has escalated at CUNY, his alma mater, in the past nine years.
Students frequently contact Lax to report antisemitic incidents, oftentimes perpetrated by professors. One professor told an Orthodox Jewish student to take off his yarmulke so he could see that he has “white privilege”; another student had a table she reserved for a Jewish Yavneh Club event taken from her by a group of professors. Desecrated Israeli flags and flyers stating that chasidic and Orthodox Jewish men are spreading diseases because they immerse in mikveh together were circulated throughout the Kingsborough campus. Swastikas etched into the walls of classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, elevators, and lounge areas have been covered up with paint, but the antisemitism remains.
“It is clear to me and others that there has been a concerted effort to limit Jewish hires at CUNY, especially when it comes to Orthodox and openly Zionist Jews,” Lax told The Jewish Press, “At my campus, there used to be many Jews in high levels of the administration. They are all gone. Many ‘retired,’ but had no interest in retiring…. There used to be a dozen or so Jewish CUNY presidents. There is one left. That is not an accident…. It’s the worst kept secret at CUNY. They’re not even embarrassed about it.”
On April 4, 2019, five union faculty members, whom Lax did not know, menacingly surrounded him at the dining room during an election campaign. He recounted, “I was just sitting there, minding my own business at a table and they literally surrounded me, they encircled me, they closed me in. They were screaming all sorts of crazy, incomprehensible things.” Lax believes they were accusing him of taping an event he was not present for.
He tried to get away, but was physically stopped by English professor Matthew Gartner, who raised his hand above Lax’s head and said, “No, we’re not done. We’re just starting, we’re just starting.” Onlookers told Lax they were shocked by the aggressive behavior they witnessed.
These professors are members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), a union Lax and more than 300 Jewish and pro-Israel faculty members, including former chancellor Matthew Goldstein, resigned from after it passed a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) resolution against Israel on June 10, 2021.
Lax blames the union for most of the antisemitism at CUNY because it funds and helps to organize campus events, many of which are anti-Israel. It also has influence over the hiring of new professors.
In January, Lax and five other faculty members, four of whom are also Jewish, initiated a federal lawsuit against the PSC. They are seeking representation by a union that does not discriminate against them.
One of the faculty members joining forces with Lax is Michael Goldstein, a business communications teacher and administrator who has worked at CUNY for over 30 years. Goldstein’s father, Leon, who has since passed away, was the former acting chancellor of CUNY and president of Kingsborough. “He built Kingsborough to the modern campus it is. He was extraordinarily well-respected and loved. They named buildings at the college and the high school after him,” Goldstein shared. “He’s rolling over in his grave right now because of what the university has become. What makes it even more of a horror show for all of us is that they do nothing about it.”
Goldstein’s father had implemented an exchange program with Israel, which was discontinued when he retired. Goldstein believes a main reason he was targeted is because he shares his father’s Zionist beliefs. He explained, “They took a picture of my father and they wrote, ‘Stop Goldstein – Trump. Kill Zionist entity.’ They graffitied over my father’s face, over the picture.”
After attending a faculty meeting, he and Lax found nails in their car tires. Students banged on Goldstein’s classroom windows, yelled at him as he walked to his car, and shoved flyers under his door. “They distributed thousands of flyers throughout the campus with my daughter’s picture and my photo on it, claiming that I was homophobic and racist. They threw everything at me. They’re insane!”
Goldstein learned that faculty members he didn’t even know would host barbecues where they strategized ways to get him off the campus. “They trained the students in how to harass me,” He said. Security guards have had to protect him while he is teaching class.
The constant stress from these incidents has taken its toll. “I’ve gone to the police many times,” Goldstein said. “It definitely affected me and my health. I’m not the same person I was anymore.”
Lax described how, during a yearlong Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigation, the Progressive Faculty Caucus (PFC), a radical, anti-Zionist group that works with PSC, admitted to intentionally scheduling meetings on Friday nights so that he would not be able to attend. PFC members also commented in a survey that Zionist faculty members were “oppressors,” and called outLax’s religious discrimination lawsuit as being a problem. Lax said that Kingsborough President Claudia Schrader “circulated it to the entire campus. I wrote to her that I was in tears. To me, [it seems] she did that on purpose to embarrass me.”
In February 2021, The EEOC sided with Lax, Goldstein, and other Jewish faculty members, finding that observant and Zionist Jews were being discriminated and retaliated against. No remedial action was taken by the school, resulting in a hostile work environment that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964.
Since the investigation concluded, President Schrader will not respond to Lax. He stated, “I reached out to her repeatedly. I pleaded with her, ‘Will you do something? Please act on these findings.’ She repeatedly ignores me.”
Three months later, in close proximity to the campus, an Orthodox Jew was beaten up by a Kingsborough student who yelled, “Kill you Jews, free Palestine!” According to Lax, President Schrader customarily releases statements when something egregious happens to other minorities, but she never spoke out against this violent antisemitic act.
Six months after CUNY’s faculty union passed its BDS resolution, the School of Law’s Student Government Association followed suit, and most recently, the Law School faculty union passed a BDS resolution on May 12.
Lax and Goldstein recommend that CUNY implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. Since IHRA defines anti-Zionism as antisemitism, BDS resolutions would be abolished. “New York State has Executive Order 157 that doesn’t allow New York State to fund or work with institutions that support BDS,” Lax noted. “BDS is discriminatory and clearly violates state law.”
Goldstein believes CUNY needs an outside federal overseer to investigate antisemitic incidents and Lax recommends that CUNY create a subdivision of the diversity office to handle complaints from Jews. “There was a recent study that came out from the Heritage Foundation that the overwhelming majority of diversity officers at college campuses are anti-Zionist,” Lax noted. “I’d be happy to lead that [new] department.”
Lax, Goldstein and other colleagues founded S.A.F.E. CUNY (Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY), an organization devoted to advocating for Jews who are being discriminated against on campus: http://safecuny.com.
Petition urging CUNY to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism: https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/CUNY-IHRA.