Alert, on edge New Yorkers are increasingly stressed, fed by a media diet of bad news stories sensationalizing the radical Islamist threat. Moreover, with upcoming presidential elections, many residents expect such scare stories to increase their apparent justifications for increased military expenditure, war and civil liberties restrictions.
Over six years after the terror attack of 9/11, a significant sector of the mainstream media has continued to fan the fear of immigrants in general and of Muslims in particular. Last month, CNN’s Lou Dobbs spoke out, and the polls seemed to agree with him; and immigrant advocates were shocked to see the Governor of New York backtrack on Drivers Licenses for the undocumented. Yet far worse may lie ahead for immigrants and for Muslims. Mike Savage and Ann Coulter continue talk radio attacks unabated, while the transnational power of the blogosphere continues to churn out messages of extreme negativity, often focused on immigrants and Muslims.
While some threat most certainly exists, an army of self-proclaimed "experts" from neo-conservative think tanks have hyped the dangers of Islamic radicalization, seeing Muslim or pro-Arab radicals everywhere they look, and targeting academic freedom in the name of patriotism and the "War on Terror." FBI and Arab and Muslim community reports show hate crimes increase in relation to such media provocations as well as reports of real terror attacks.
With its history of immigrant assimilation, reviled by the far right as a haven for "illegals’ and the "sanctuary city," one might expect New York City to be an exception to this xenophobic trend. But sadly it is not an exception, with fearful residents influenced by tabloids and talk radio as well as class resentment of immigrant success. And yet one might at least expect the CUNY leadership to honor the multicultural character of this city. But with Jeffery Wiesenfeld on the CUNY Board of Trustees, CUNY seems to be providing sanctuary for yet another opponent of multicultural education who seems unafraid to make inflammatory statements against certain minority groups to achieve his radical ends.
In his first confirmation hearing for CUNY Board, State Senator Daniel Hevesi questioned Wiesenfeld sharply about these reports, including allegations from Community Advocate Isaac Abraham that he had called blacks "savages." As Hevesi remarked, "I don’t know what to believe, but if someone calls blacks ‘savages’ they have no business being on the CUNY Board of Trustees."
Even though Hevesi went on to say, "I know this nominee does not have the character to sit on the CUNY Board," Jeffrey Wiesenfeld was confirmed by the full State Senate in June, 1999, and then re-appointed by Pataki in a last minute "emergency" meeting of the state senate, just before the end of Pataki’s term on December 13th, 2006. For more on this see "Pataki Appoints Two Trustees in Last Minute Senate Meeting" in the February, 2007 edition of the GC Advocate.
Most recently, Wiesenfeld has been in the forefront of the attack on academic freedom in 2007. As New York Board Chair of the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, he has joined a group that has repeated baseless charges that a new dual language Arabic English public school, the Kahlil Gibran International Academy, would inevitably become a haven for terrorists and was already a radical "Madrassa" religious school. None of the coalition’s allegations against the school or against the Principal were or are grounded in fact. Nor were the numerous articles in the New York Post or the New York Sun, which linked them to its main web page.
After months of media harassment, the Principal of the Gibran school Debbie Almontaser was hounded out of her position when she was required to be interviewed by the New York Post, with minimal to no protection from the Department of Education. The New York Post demanded to know Ms Almontaser’s views about T-Shirts that a female youth group was selling, which displayed the slogan "Intifada NYC" to indicate Arab empowerment. Despite no direct involvement with the girls group, and despite denouncing any violence, Debbie Almontaser’s efforts to explain the significance of the slogan to the Arab community was distorted in the right wing media and she was forced out by risk averse city officials. She was successfully scapegoated– despite a long career of almost unmatched interfaith dialogue and community-based peace work.
Echoing the groundless assertions of both Daniel Pipes and Dan Gillerman, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Wiesenfeld argued that "we have to be concerned with this type of school on a different level for the simple reason that … while today most Muslims are not terrorists, virtually all terrorists today are Muslim," (Daily News, 9/4/07) ignoring, of course, the tragic scale of South American, African and Asian terror and guerrilla tactics, not to mention the various insidious forms of state terror – in order to cast suspicion on all Muslims.
Wiesenfeld then went on to assert, to his allies at Pipeline News, "I think we have to get really serious about demanding that people say what they mean and mean what they say…especially in this era, this kind of duplicity has gone on for too long…[Almontaser] is very smooth…there are a lot of these smoothies, they are all very good at this…we are just being sold a bill of goods." He concluded, "I will fight [KGIA] in every way that I can…the concept is bad, it’s dangerous…It’s a national security concern" (also quoted in Frank Gaffney’s Front Page blog).
Right Wing pundit Daniel Pipes and Wiesenfeld made it their "jihad" to shut down the school, before it even opened. Together with Pipes, Andrea Peyser of the New York Post did a hatchet job on Almontaser, and other pundits followed. New York officials (including Teachers Union President Randi Weingarten) distanced themselves from the school and then later quietly embraced it behind the scenes. Finally, in a minor media frenzy, the school opened on time on September 4 and currently offers a standard curriculum plus Arabic studies to 60 sixth grade students, mainly African American with some Arab American students as well. Wiesenfeld’s Stop the Madrassa Coalition, http://stopthemadrassa.wordpress.com/, however, continues to vow to close down the school.
Wiesenfeld has spoken at rallies against the school, and, according to the Jewish Weekly, he and Daniel Pipes met with former Mayor Koch to sway him to their side. Koch said he continued to back the school based on his understanding that its policies and practices would be closely monitored by the city’s Department of Education. Koch told Pipes that Schools Chancellor Joel Klein had promised to do just that; ""Pipes agreed with me," said Koch on the question of monitoring. "Not Jeff. He was for not opening the school. He did not believe any school devoted to Arab culture should be permitted to open."
Why this aversion to Arab culture? Is it racism or can the existence of alternative narratives of Palestine and Israel be a concern here? In his political roles, Mr. Wiesenfeld has facilitated meetings with representatives from the Ariel Settlement, where construction is ongoing despite repeated U.S. appeals that Israel freeze settlement expansion, and where the dividing wall chokes the economic life of the Palestinian population, costing over 6,000 jobs. But Wiesenfeld’s close colleague with Stop the Madrassa NY David Yerusalemi, has denounced all leftist critics of occupation as dangerous. And Wiesenfeld himself has denounced the Chris Hedges antiwar book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," as racist and anti-Semitic and therefore violating CUNY’s bylaws–despite disagreement from the Hillel chapter on campus.
Then who really is Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld? Why was he re-appointed at a special legislative session just before the end of the Pataki term? Formerly Patakis’ Jewish liaison to New York City, he does have important backing and there are reports that Rabbi Joe Potasnick of the New York Board of Rabbis went to bat for him. Like Clarence Thomas, he has clearly benefited from specific racial or ethnic-based preferences, and yet he denounces the use of preferences and special services for others.
Born of "two Holocaust survivors", and active in politics from a young age, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld also maintains active involvement with United National Development Program and with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co Global Wealth Management. He has done very well in some respects. In other respects, however, in his willingness to bait and defame others, on ideological grounds but often targeting vulnerable minorities, he resembles his ideological ally Rudolph Guiliani. He also shares some of the anti-Arab and Islamophobic paranoia of the far right in Israel, the Jewish Task Force, the Jewish Defense League, Betar, as well as Christian Fundamentalist groups. If he truly means what he says, Mr Wiesenfeld has proved that State Senator Hevesi was right–he does not have the character to be CUNY Trustee.