Her choice to defend Israel’s right to exist made her the focus of the pro-Palestinian groups
Rafaella Gunz describes herself as liberal, feminist and bisexual woman and activist. Growing up, she was always aware of her Jewish heritage, but it did not necessarily represent the strongest element of her identity and she would definitely not call herself a Zionist. However, after her experience in college and above all in her first year of law school at the City University New York, things have dramatically changed.
At CUNY, her choice to defend Israel’s right to exist made her the focus of the pro-Palestinian groups which enjoy broad support at the school.
As months went by, Gunz went through an increasing ordeal of disturbing episodes which saw her confronted and harassed by a number of fellow classmates as well as a teaching assistant, on campus and online with no support from faculty members or student body institutions.
After she wrote an op-ed on the Jewish Journal revealing how the experience prompted her to identify as Zionist, a petition titled “CUNY Law Student groups, Students, Alumni and Faculty stand with SJP and Palestinian students” started to circulate. Gunz explained that, despite not mentioning her name, the petition which, among other things, denounced a “subset of Zionist activists,” was directed against her as the only pro-Israel activist on campus. The document has been signed by dozens of student organizations, faculty members and students.
“There are many streams of Zionism and I definitely fall in the liberal Zionism category because I believe in a two-state solution and that Palestinians should have a homeland,” she explained. “I believe in all the things that liberals believe in, including gay-marriage and universal health care, except that I also think that Jews should have a homeland. This small part of who I am gave people at CUNY the license to demonize me, to call me racist and Islamophobic.”
The situation has taken a heavy toll on Gunz’s academic and social life, as well as her psychological well being. As a result she decided to drop out of the school – she plans to start social working school at Yeshiva University in the fall – and she is working to bring a complaint against CUNY.
“I am speaking to lawyers at the Brandeis Center and Lawfare Project about possible Title VI complaints or other forms of litigation we could pursue. I was approached by a very far-right organization interested in representing my case but I decided not to partner with them because they do a lot of things that disagree with my other morals,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
“I definitely want to file a complaint against the school so that they will know that this behavior is not acceptable,” she said, adding that since her story started to receive media coverage she has been contacted by other people who had similar experiences at CUNY.
Asked to share her opinion on why the situation arose in the first place, Gunz explained that the first problem she sees is a deep lack of education on Jewish history.
“People think that antisemitism started and ended with the Holocaust, and now Jews are just white people, very privileged with good jobs and a lot of money,” she said. “The idea that Jews are white erases our ethnic identity and paints us as oppressors. It ignores the fact that Jews are indigenous to the Middle East and that they come in all skin tones. It also ignores the reality of pan-Arab colonialism, that there were all sorts of groups in the Middle East and now by far and large it is all Muslim.”
Gunz also pointed out that American left leadership bears responsibility for the situation.
“For example, Bernie Sanders demonized AIPAC, calling it racist and right-wing, while in reality it is a bipartisan group and he also has antisemitic surrogates like Linda Sarsour, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. He says that Jewish identity is important to him and that Israel has a right to exist, which is great, but I don’t think he is doing enough about it,” she said.
The student pointed out that for things to change, people would need to confront biases that are uncomfortable to them.
“A lot of people on the left unfortunately are happy to do it when it comes to other groups, but not about Jews,” she pointed out. “I think many who have no ties to either side of the conflict should ask themselves why their reaction is so visceral and they hold Israel to a different standard than China, Iran and states where human rights are severely abused,” she said.
“I believe that they don’t want to come to the uncomfortable truth is that it is because it involves Jews,” she added.
Gunz described antisemitism as “the hammer that forges the horse-shoe theory.”
“The political spectrum is not a line, it is shaped like a horseshoe where the far-right and the far-left are a lot closer than they think. Antisemitism proves it,” she concluded. “You can dress it up as anti-Zionism all you want, but when you try so hard to demonize the one tiny little country the size of New Jersey which is home to half the world’s Jews, you have to think about how you feel about Jews.”