Hunter College this week abruptly pulled a screening of a documentary film critical of Israel, creating a backlash from faculty members and students who have charged the New York school’s administration with undermining academic freedom.
The documentary, “Israelism,” investigates what it calls the uncritical love of the Jewish state inculcated in American Jews, through the stories of two young Jews who travel to Israel and the West Bank. There they encounter a different reality from the one they said they learned at their religious day schools and summer camps.
Since its release in February, “Israelism” has won several prizes, including sharing an audience award at the prominent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It has had dozens of screenings at universities and community spaces, including some sponsored by campus Jewish groups and Jewish studies departments.
The schedule included a screening at Hunter on Tuesday, organized by the school’s film and media department, which was to be followed by a conversation with one of the directors, Erin Axelman, and one of the film’s protagonists.
But that morning, Hunter’s interim president, Ann Kirschner, announced that the scheduled screening had been canceled because of safety concerns.
“The first priority of Hunter College is to ensure the safety of our learning community,” Kirschner said in a statement posted online. “We seek constructive dialogue that avoids targeting any students, faculty or staff based on their identity: the essence of bigotry. In the current climate, we seek to balance our commitment to free speech and academic freedom with the danger of antisemitic and divisive rhetoric.”
The school declined to provide further specifics about why it made that decision. But faculty members said there was an email campaign criticizing what it described as the film’s “anti-Israel sentiment” and calling for cancellation.
The decision caused an outcry among some faculty members, who see it as an attack on academic freedom and the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, which public universities like Hunter — part of the City University of New York — are required to uphold.
At a meeting on Wednesday afternoon, Hunter’s Senate, which is composed of students and members of the faculty and staff, passed a resolution criticizing the decision.
“This is an egregious and illegitimate violation of the academic freedom necessary for departments to pursue their academic missions and institutions of higher education to operate with integrity,” the resolution said. The Senate also demanded that the administration provide a venue for the film this month.
“People will disagree about Israel-Palestine, and a lot of other things,” Jennifer Gaboury, a lecturer in gender studies and head of the faculty union, said in an interview. “But academic freedom is a bedrock of the academic system.”
On Thursday, following the outcry, Vince DiMiceli, a spokesman for Hunter, said the film would be rescheduled, “as was always the plan.”
“Hunter College is looking to encourage a conversation as part of the showing and create space for multiple perspectives,” he said.
The turmoil at Hunter, which has an enrollment of 22,000 students, is part of the long-running campus debate over free speech, student safety and the limits of legitimate criticism of Israel, which has intensified during the Israel-Hamas war. At campuses across the country, Jewish students say they feel threatened by growing antisemitism. Donors and alumni for some schools, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, have threatened to pull financial support unless administrators took a stronger stand against antisemitism on campus.
At the same time, pro-Palestinian students complain that they have been doxxed and threatened, and have received little protection from administrators, who they say have been much quicker to censure or shut down pro-Palestinian speech. On Tuesday, roughly 400 students at Columbia University held a protest against the administration’s decision to bar two groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, for the rest of the semester, citing safety concerns. Two hundred faculty members also walked out in protest.
The screening of “Israelism” at Hunter had been planned since June, according to Tami Gold, a professor in the film and media department who organized the screening. The movie, made by a nearly all-Jewish team, follows two young Jews, Simone Zimmerman and Eitan (who withholds his last name). In the West Bank, where Eitan served in the military, they meet Palestinians and Israelis, encountering the realities of the more than five-decade-long occupation.
The film also features outside experts, including the philosopher Cornel West, a supporter of Palestinian rights who is now running for president; Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of the liberal Jewish group J Street; and Abraham H. Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who connects his staunch support for Israel to his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. (In June, Foxman wrote on social media that he regretted participating, calling it “an anti-Israel and anti-American Jewish community film.”)
Daniel J. Chalfen, one of the film’s producers, said there had initially been some “pushback,” including when a screening in June was hosted by the Israel studies center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Otherwise, there was no safety or security issue prior to Oct. 7,” he said.
After the Hamas surprise attack that day, which killed about 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government, screenings were paused for about 10 days, Chalfen said. Since then, some venues have asked to postpone, and a screening at Grinnell College in Iowa was canceled.
Hunter’s decision, Chalfen said, was the result of “a very organized campaign to shut it down.”
Kelly Anderson, the chair of the film and media department, said that on Nov. 8, she received an email from an administrator with the subject line “Just in case you thought this had died down.”
The email said that over the previous 14 hours, Hunter had received between 250 and 300 copies of an identical email calling on the college to cancel the screening.
“It’s not portraying an interesting viewpoint,” the emails said of the film. “It’s simply promoting anti-Israel sentiment. There is never a time to air this film, but especially not at a time when the A.D.L. reports that incidents of harassment, vandalism and assaults against Jews have increased by 388 percent over the same time last year.”
Last week, another email campaign emerged on Facebook, encouraging people to send a different, more harshly worded email urging Hunter to cancel the film, which was described as “antisemitic.” The film was “solely created with the goal of convincing its viewers that Israel is an apartheid state, and that the Palestinians have been victimized,” the letter claims.
On Friday, Anderson and Gold said, they were approached by the dean, Andrew Polsky, about security issues. He suggested hiring an extra security guard, but was generally supportive of going forward, they said.
But then Polsky got in touch again, saying that access would be limited to students and faculty and staff members. Anderson said she was not worried about safety, particularly once no outside audience was permitted. “Our students are so used to being in classrooms with people different from them,” she said. “I think the heat is really online, with these groups that are riled up.”
But on Tuesday morning, Anderson was told that Kirschner had decided to cancel the screening entirely. (DiMiceli said that both Polsky and Kirschner were unavailable for comment.)
In a meeting that morning, Anderson said, Kirschner reiterated her concerns about safety, and also said she found the tone of the film’s trailer “mocking.” No one in the room, including herself, had seen the full documentary, Anderson said.
On Tuesday night, even though the screening was forbidden, roughly 70 students and faculty members met to talk with the director and one of the people featured in the film.
“Everyone was extremely respectful of one another,” Anderson said. “It was a very mixed group. They were unhappy with this decision. They felt censored.”
Marc Tracy contributed reporting.