Of all the insults that Michael Goldstein has encountered over the past year, it was not the nails in his tires that bothered him the most, nor the morning he discovered hate-filled graffiti scrawled on a photo of his father, who served as president of Kingsborough Community College, where Goldstein now works as an administrator and adjunct professor. It wasn’t the attempts of another professor to get him fired and it wasn’t even the more than a thousand fliers posted throughout the campus calling for his termination. The lowest point, Goldstein said, was the reaction of the college’s administrators, which was, he said, a collective shrug.
“The only action they took was collecting all the fliers and throwing them in a garbage can, while I was running around petrified,” Goldstein, who lives in East Brunswick, N.J., told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. He said the harassment is coming from a group of far-left professors who are targeting him because he is a conservative and a Zionist.
While the fliers were distributed nearly a year ago, Goldstein’s plight only became public recently, when he wrote an op-ed about it in the New York Daily News. Since then, The Jewish Week has talked to four additional professors, three of whom are not Jewish, who have expressed concerns about anti-Semitism at the college, and a group called the Progressive Faculty Caucus (PFC) — including two members who received threatening notes following the op-ed’s publication — have struck back, saying that they are the ones being persecuted.
The dustup over political speech at Kingsborough comes as President Donald Trump signed an executive order protecting free speech at colleges by directing federal agencies that fund university research to withhold funding for universities that do not uphold their current free-speech policies. The order is aimed at faculty who may try to stop conservative students “from challenging rigid, far-left ideology,” Trump said at the signing ceremony.
Tensions have been brewing for years on the South Brooklyn campus, which, with its private beach and grassy campus, offers a peaceful setting for this microcosm of the steadily growing divide across the United States. Jews say they’re being attacked from the far left with anti-Israel protests that sometimes bleed into anti-Jewish chants and speeches, and from the right with an increase in swastika graffiti and other hate speech. In 2016, a different Kingsborough professor filed two lawsuits alleging that anti-Semitic discrimination against faculty has been going on at the college for more than a decade. The lawsuits are still in litigation. (More on that here.)
Goldstein said his experience of being targeted began just over a year ago when he came to work and saw hate speech, including “F**k Trump Goldstein, Kill the Zionist Entity,” defacing a photo of his father, Leon Goldstein, who served as president of the college for 29 years. He believes that a Kingsborough sociology professor, Katia Perea, and a handful of other organizers of PFC are behind the vandalism. Shortly before the slurs appeared on the photo, Goldstein got into a debate with several professors active in PFC on an email forum regarding the college’s public safety officers. Then Perea heard about some posts on Goldstein’s Facebook page that she said showed that he is bigoted. Some of the posts criticized Democratic lawmakers including President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). Others criticized Muslims, including one in reaction to a London bombing by “Muslim extremists” that asked “How many Jews and Christians were involved?” and another showing a photo of a woman in a hijab holding a poster saying: “Trump, making America hate again,” followed by the statement: “That says a lot coming from a religion that executes gays, chops heads off, stones women.”
Goldstein said the posts were shared memes from other sites and gleaned from about 10,000 posts over five years, “99.9 percent” of which were pro-Israel posts. Goldstein described himself as a “defender of Israel, but socially liberal,” and said he has never said or posted anything racist, homophobic, or Islamophobic. Perea said she didn’t have to go back to find the posts, that they were all recent.
According to Goldstein, Perea “went running from office to office to office at the college … slandering me, showing these Facebook posts … and demanding that I be fired.” A department chair who asked to remain anonymous due to the near-electric sensitivity of the topic right now, corroborated Goldstein’s assertion, saying that Perea met with him and showed him some of Goldstein’s Facebook posts; while she did not specifically say he should be fired, she asked that the chair stop giving Goldstein classes to teach.
The next day, Goldstein’s father’s photo was vandalized.
Perea, a sociology professor specializing in gender, media and culture, said in an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week that she never asked that Goldstein be fired, but rather that someone should talk to him to make sure he wasn’t discussing his political views inside the classroom. She said she brought her complaints to the college’s diversity officer, who told her that the complaint would be sent to then-college-President Peter Cohen, so she decided to take her concerns directly to him. She flatly denied she was behind the vandalism of the photo or the fliers. “I didn’t have anything to do with that because that’s not my style,” she said. “I believe in direct communication.”
Once the accusations against her appeared in the media, Perea, who identifies as queer, said she began getting hate letters and emails calling her such insults as “ugly dyke skank” and “Jew-hating fascist bigot.” One said that she “should have been an abortion.” The death threats began two months ago, including one that said “I’m going to rape you until I kill you.” In all she’s received about 30 such missives, three were mailed to her on campus and eight were death threats. Two weeks ago, after she received two death threats she believes are from the same person, she asked that a security guard accompany her on campus at night.
“It would be naïve to not feel unsafe when people threaten violence and you’re on a college campus,” she said. “It’s not just me that needs protection. I have 40 souls in my classroom.”
Perea, who is married to a Jewish woman, said that being accused of being anti-Semitic is contributing to a situation she sees as “Alice in Wonderland”-level weird. “How do you prove that you’re not an anti-Semite?” she asked.
A blog post on the site of the American Association of University Professors in response to Goldstein’s op-ed called his accusations “irresponsible and unsubstantiated,” and said he is using an “increasingly common tactic of the right: cynically deploying anti-Semitism — a very real problem — as a weapon to intimidate political opponents.”
But Goldstein is not alone in believing there is anti-Semitism on campus.
A (non-Jewish) faculty member told The Jewish Week via email that while, “A number of faculty were initially supportive of the PFC because they share some of their goals … The targeting of Michael Goldstein was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many … .” He said “the vocal leaders of the PFC seemed to be pressing a kind of far left ideology … [with] hostile attitudes towards anything associated with what it perceives as part of an oppressive (white, male, heterosexual) hierarchy, and privileging any voices it sees as the oppressed … of virtually every other identity group, except Jews.”
Several observant Jewish professors say they believe they were being intentionally excluded from the PFC, asking to be added to the email list to no avail. In addition, the PFC announced a meeting where professors could discuss discrimination on campus, but set it for a Friday night and organizers would not change the day when asked. One Orthodox professor planned to walk to it, but never received a reply after asking where it would be held. (Perea said she was not involved in setting up that meeting.)
Michael Smith, who teaches in the paramedic program, told The Jewish Week, “I am concerned that there’s not enough sensitivity around people who are observant Jews on campus. I have noticed that some of my students will take off their kipas when they come to class.”
PFC member Anthony Alessandrini said the group decided not to include department chairs (two of the six requesting entry were chairs) so that PFC members could feel comfortable speaking freely. He said that although the meeting wasn’t moved, the group scheduled a second one for a weekday afternoon. (Both meetings were canceled as tensions rose.)
Alessandrini noted that after the vandalism of Goldstein’s father’s photograph, he and 36 other Kingsborough faculty members — most part of PFC — sent an open letter condemning it. In a follow-up email he said that there have been both “horrific anti-Semitic incidents” and “repeated attempts … to use these incidents as part of an attack on progressive faculty.”
“Both,” he wrote, “deserve to be investigated.”
Alessandrini said that he now also has a security guard escort, accepting the college’s offer for one after he received an unsigned note early last month that ended with: “This is a warning to you and the other PFC. Watch your back!!!” The same day, he found graffiti on his office door reading “Od Kahane Chai (Kahane Still Lives)” — a reference to Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a terrorist group.
Goldstein also has security guard protection, which he requested after the photo was vandalized but just received recently.
In May, he arrived on campus to find more than a thousand fliers showing some of the memes Perea objected to, along with a photo of Goldstein with his daughter, calling him a racist and demanding that he be fired. He said he “went from office to office,” asking administrators to provide him with a security guard. After receiving no help, he went back to his office. “I closed my door and wept,” he said.
He went to the college president at the time, Peter Cohen, who Goldstein said replied, “‘Well, what do you want me to do?’”
Cohen did not respond to requests for comment. A Kingsborough spokesperson sent a statement saying that “the investigations are ongoing” and the administration is “taking all necessary measures to safeguard those who feel threatened, and to uphold the rights of those accused.”
Lori Tucker, an attorney at the Lawfare Project, a nonprofit that defends the rights of Jews and Israel supporters facing discrimination and is representing Goldstein, got involved with the case in August and has been engaging in a series of letters with the administration’s attorneys at CUNY and Kingsborough. She has filed complaints with the federal EEOC, which is considering opening an investigation, and NY State Division of Human Rights, which is investigating the case.
“We pointed out their failure to follow their own policies and federal law,” said Tucker.
“We asked to meet with them, proposed several solutions so Mike doesn’t have to work in such a hostile environment, but they refuse to meet with us. They only say the matter is being actively investigated as a bias claim.”
In October, days after receiving letters from Lawfare, the college confirmed it was not investigating the discrimination, harassment, and anti-Semitic aspects of the case, only the public safety issue because the position that would handle those issues is currently vacant. Tucker said this is illegal.
“They could have easily assigned the complaints to an outside investigator. Schools … do it quite frequently,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “In regard to federal law, when an employer has been made aware that a hostile environment exists for an employee, it is supposed to immediately take steps to resolve the issues. Again, other than provide Mike with increased security, they have done nothing to address the origins of the behavior.
“We are exploring every legal option available,” said Tucker, including possibly litigation. “We are done waiting.”
Meanwhile, tensions on campus continue. Smith believes that it is “a small sample” of people are “fanning the fire.”
But there are “a whole lot of people in the middle who really want it to be resolved,” he said, “and we don’t know how to resolve it.”
New Jersey Jewish News Bureau Chief Debra Rubin contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: Comments from Goldstein’s attorney were added to this article on April 4.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect count of the number of Jewish professors who asked to be put on the PFC email list but were never added. It was six professors not four.