A campaign reminiscent of past academic battles over Israel is afoot, this time targeting Brooklyn College professor Moustafa Bayoumi, who edited the newly released book titled Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How it Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict.
Critics of Bayoumi say it is inappropriate for the college to assign his book, How Does It Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, to the approximately 1500 incoming freshmen, a longstanding tradition meant to engage students in collective dialogue through writing. Critics are accusing Bayoumi’s book of seeking to “inculcate students with a political viewpoint,” claiming the decision lacks “balance.” But upon closer examination of the concocted controversy, it becomes clear that the targeting of Bayoumi is principally for his advocacy for Palestinian human rights. His adversaries are using the college’s decision to have his book read by freshmen as a tool to raise questions about his stance on Israel/Palestine.
Assigning the book to incoming freshmen is meant to “humanize a population that’s being increasingly dehumanized,” Bayoumi told a group of Brooklyn College students today in an afternoon meet-the-author session where students had the opportunity to ask questions.
Bayoumi has been labeled a “radical pro-Palestinian” professor by Brooklyn College alumni Bruce Kesler, who recently wrote that the college will no longer be receiving a “significant bequest” from him. Kesler, a contributing editor to the right-wing group Family Security Matters, a project of the Center for Security Policy, whose members include former Vice President Dick Cheney and neoconservatives like Elliot Abrams, has brought the most attention to Bayoumi, with an article citing him appearing in the New York Daily News.
Kesler is not the only person to join in on the smear campaign. The Jewish Week has joined in the fray, citing anonymous professors from the college as saying that Bayoumi’s book will “indoctrinate” students.
Professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, Jonathan Helfand, told Ashley Thorne of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group that opposes “racial, gender, and other group preferences,” that the book on the flotilla “is at best biased, at worst vile propaganda.” The NAS also opposes the use of Bayoumi’s book, referring to it as “polemical,” and the decision to assign it as “troubling.”
Abigail Rosenthal, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Brooklyn College, called Bayoumi the “author of a blatantly one-sided collection on the Gaza flotilla” whose book on Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. “will intimidate incoming students who have a different point of view.”
One of the criticisms directed at How Does It Feel to be a Problem? is the claim that the book draws a parallel between “the horrible and pervasive discrimination and injustices that Blacks were subjected to a century ago and Arab-Americans today,” which Kesler labels “ridiculous.” But in their zeal to make it look like Bayoumi’s book on young Arabs in America is their real problem, as opposed to his advocacy for Palestinians, the critics don’t seem to have read the book. The first footnote in Bayoumi’s book, whose title comes from a famous W.E.B. DuBois line, explains that by making a link between blacks and Arabs in the U.S., he means to “draw attention to how difference operates in American society, but this certainly does not mean that Arab-American life since September 11, 2001, is in any way equivalent to the ravages of slavery and segregation.”
Bayoumi’s How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? has also been used at other colleges, like Johnson State College in Vermont.
So far, Brooklyn College has stood its ground. In a statement given to the Daily News, the college says that it is “regrettable that Mr. Bruce Kesler misunderstands the intentions of the Common Reader experience and the broader context of this selection.”
However, there’s bound to be sympathy among pro-Israel Brooklyn College and City University of New York donors with regard to those sentiments expressed by Kesler and others. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, for one, who sits on the board that governs the city’s public college system, is a prominent supporter of Israel, and was a key player in the witch hunt against the Khalil Gibran International Academy.
The smears against Bayoumi bring to mind similar campaigns, like the one that undid Norman Finkelstein’s tenure bid at DePaul University and the failed attempt to deny Joseph Massad, a professor at Columbia University, tenure.
Those campaigns may be a harbinger of things to come for Bayoumi.
Correction: This article inaccurately reported that Bayoumi is not a tenured professor at Brooklyn College. He is, in fact, tenured.
Zoe Zenowich is a Senior in the Scholars Program at Brooklyn College, where she is the managing editor of the Excelsior, a student newspaper. She is currently interning for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and has interned for the Nation and the Economist.
Alex Kane is a college student, journalist and blogger based in New York City. He is a reporter for the Indypendent, and a frequent contributor to this site. His articles have also appeared in Common Dreams, Electronic Intifada, Extra! and Palestine Chronicle. He blogs at alexbkane.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter here.