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Jewish students discuss antisemitism on college campuses ahead of fall semester

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Jewish students from Cornell University and SUNY Purchase told lawmakers in Albany Tuesday that this spring was a semester to remember — but not for preferred reasons.

They’re concerned about a rise in antisemitism in the wake of campus protests against the Israeli government, which sometimes got very ugly this spring.

“Jewish students don’t feel safe going forward and this is not even if it’s the end of the semester,” Molly Goldstein, a rising senior student at Cornell University, said.

Esti Heller recently graduated from SUNY Purchase, but she chose to skip her graduation ceremony because she felt unsafe.

“My senior has been marred by the vile antisemitism that has infected my campus,” she said.

The students described how they felt in the final days of the spring semester. Protests against the Israel-Hamas war erupted in April, sparking encampments they say all but shut down campus life.

It put New York lawmakers in the spotlight, and these students are asking for increased safety measures.

The American Jewish Committee traveled with students to Albany Tuesday, meeting with the state Senators who lead both the Higher Education and Education Committees and state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa.

“We should not have to be highlighting the fact that Jews do not feel safe in the United States of America and in New York state in 2024,” Myra Clark-Siegel, the Westchester director of the American Jewish Committee, said. “Students are unable to access their buildings, their classes, their professors in a safe way and we are telling university professors today, do better.”

“When there are language and actions that are harmful and are threatening, then universities and their leadership need to do better,” she added.

“There are codes of conduct that every campus has. University chancellors, presidents and administrators need to use their codes of conduct, enforce them and ensure that Jewish students are free on their campuses, and safe.”

Legislators said they have provided a variety of solutions on how to respond ahead of the fall semester.

“We have to consult and work cooperatively with the chancellor of SUNY and deal with the CUNY leadership, with the private colleges as well, we need to talk about what tools they need to make sure there is safety guaranteed,” state Sen.

Shelley Mayer, a Westchester Democrat who chairs the Education Committee, said.

But Republicans want the Democratic-controlled legislature to pass bills penalizing campuses that, they argue, don’t prioritize the safety of Jewish kids.  

“If administrators or faculty are engaged in antisemitic activity, that there needs to be action taken by the administrators of the institution and if they are not properly dealing with it, stopping the conduct, protecting all students — then their funding should be withheld,” state Sen. Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick, a Long Island Republican, said at a separate press conference in Albany on Tuesday.

The GOP also wants to grill Columbia University officials and other college presidents in a hearing before the end of the legislative session scheduled for June 6.

There’s a pending request in front of state Sen. Majority Andrea Stewart-Cousins from the chair of the Investigations and Government Operations Committee, James Skoufis, a Cornwall Democrat, to host a hearing.

But prominent Democratic Queens Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky said she hasn’t decided yet about moving forward.

“Everything is open for discussion,” she said during Tuesday’s roundtable.

Students and advocates also said the time to act is now, especially because May is Jewish American Heritage Month.

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