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CUNY Chancellor’s Words on Hamas Attack Ignite Outrage from Students and Protestors

The Palestine-Israel crisis has spurred tensions within the city’s public university system.

Dylan Rice Oct 23

The Graduate Student Center for the City University of New York (CUNY) takes up an entire block of Fifth Avenue between 35th and 34th Streets. On Wednesday, Oct. 18, a crowd of hundreds of students and supporters amassed outside the school’s entrance in support of Palestinian liberation and to condemn Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez’s statement on the attacks launched in Israel earlier in the month by the militant group Hamas.

‘The CUNY administration has not spoken or even acknowledged the suffering of the Palestinian people.’

The protest, organized by CUNY4Palestine, an unofficial organization made up of students from across the CUNY system, was one of the many across the city defending the cause of Palestinian liberation following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the devastation from the subsequent bombing campaign by the Israeli Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip.

Protesters urgently organized the rally over the preceeding weekend due to the war’s rapid escalation, according to Thayer Hastins, a Palestinian CUNY graduate student and a member of CUNY4Palestine. In spite of the short notice, a large crowd swelled to block off the entirety of the sidewalk. The NYPD, operating in increased numbers since the crisis, erected barriers around the gathering to corral pedestrian traffic through the rally. Some passers-by shouted curses at the protesters.

“They should close down this university. You should be ashamed!” one woman yelled.

Chancellor Matos Rodríguez released a statement several days after the initial attack in Israel, distancing himself and the university from pro-Palestinian rallies that critics have claimed support Hamas. “We want to be clear that we don’t condone the activities of any internal organizations that are sponsoring rallies to celebrate or support Hamas’ cowardly actions,” he wrote.

Hastins condemned the statement. “There are 457 words. In those words, ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinians’ was not mentioned once. So it’s very clear who he means, who is included, who is excluded, from the CUNY community when you make a statement like that,” he said. “That kind of a statement is never acceptable, but to do it at that moment of time–from the very first sentence, it is very clear whose lives matter and whose don’t.”

 ‘It is very clear whose lives matter and whose don’t.’

Tatiana Cozzarelli, a rank-and-file member of Professional Staff Congress CUNY which represents the school’s faculty and staff members, pointed to the catastrophic scale of the Israeli military’s blockade and bombing tactics.

 “We’re in the midst of a humanitarian crisis,” said Cossarelli. “There have been 6,000 bombs dropped on Gaza in the past 10 days — almost one a minute. There’s been over 4,000 deaths of Palestinians; there’s a blockade that’s not allowing food and has shut off the water,” she said. (As of this morning, the Palestinian death toll has risen to more than 5,000.)

The United Nations and other international bodies have been quick to condemn what many have characterized as a disproportionate response from Israel that has led to the deaths of thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. 

We spoke with Nerdeen Kiswani, chair of Within Our Lifetime Palestine about right-wing attacks on the CUNY Law School after its commencement speaker denounced Israel as an apartheid state.

Protesters are demanding an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, as well as an end to American aid to Israel, Cozzarelli said. She denounced CUNY’s position on the conflict as entirely one-sided.

“The CUNY administration has not spoken or even acknowledged the suffering of the Palestinian people,” she said.

CUNY is no stranger to the controversial nature of the conflict. In June, a commencement speech given by Fatima Mohammed, a graduate of the university’s law school, drew national outrage when she criticized Israeli policies toward Palestinians. CUNY Law has since quietly eliminated student speakers from next year’s commencement.

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