Bloomberg backs Brooklyn College over BDS event as another official withdraws funding threat

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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BC Press Conf
Supporters of Brooklyn College’s Students for Justice in Palestine held a press conference yesterday to speak out against the attacks on the group’s panel (Photo via @ReclaimLanguage)

The tide has suddenly turned hard against opponents of the Students for Justice in Palestine-organized event that is set for tomorrow night at Brooklyn College. Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly denounced attempts by legislators to threaten the college with funding cuts over the event and also came out in support of the Political Science Department’s right to sponsor the event–a position that puts him to the left of the initial position that some members of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus took. Additionally, that group of progressive politicians, organized by Rep. Jerry Nadler, backed off from their pressure on the Brooklyn College Political Science Department, while another progressive who had signed on to a separate funding threat letter authored by Councilman Lew Fidler withdrew his name.

Bloomberg made the remarks defending Brooklyn College earlier today. “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea,” he bluntly said, according to a report by Dana Rubinstein in Capital New York. 

Bloomberg, an ardent Zionist who flew into Israel as the country waged a punishing assault on the Gaza Strip, emphasized that he “violently” opposed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israeli human rights violations. But he also said that he “could not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose.” 

Bloomberg continued by saying:

“The last thing we need is for members of our City Council or state legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students. The freedom to discuss ideas, including ideas that people find repugnant, lies really at the heart of the university system. And take that away, and higher education in this country would certainly die.”

The New York City mayor also jabbed political opponents of the BDS movement for bringing more attention to the event that it would have gotten without the controversy. “If they just shut up, it would have gone away,” he said.

Even more striking is the new letter issued by the very same group of progressive politicians who initially demanded that the Political Science Department rescind its co-sponsorship of the event. The first letter from this group, which included signers who were members of the Progressive Caucus in the New York City Council, demanded that “Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department…withdraw their endorsement of this event.” (In fact, the department did not “endorse” the event–they explicitly and repeatedly said they agreed to co-sponsor, and not endorse.) But their new letter, posted by Brooklyn College Political Science Professor Corey Robin, backs off. The demand directed at the department now seems to be gone. Instead, they write: 

The Political Science Department has put in writing its policy for considering co-sponsorship of student-organized events, making clear that requests from “any groups, departments or programs organizing lectures or events representing any point of view … will be given equal consideration.” However, as has been clear in this instance, the departmental practice of co-sponsorship of specifically student-organized events has caused real confusion among students regarding intent and endorsement of views (as evidenced by Student Body (CLAS) President Abraham Esses’ “Open Letter” in this regard). We, therefore, believe that the policy would be strengthened greatly by the explicit inclusion of language that you and the Department have used on this case – that sponsorship does not imply endorsement.

It’s not a direct repudiation of their earlier letter–you have read between the lines. But these progressives are quietly backing off from their pressure on the Department’s co-sponsorship of the event. (Still, the progressive letter continues to distort the BDS movement by claiming that ”advocates of the BDS movement have called for a boycott of Israeli scholars.” In fact, the academic aspect of BDS calls for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions–and not individuals just because they are Israeli.)

Relatedly, a Councilman who was among the signers of the Nadler letter, Stephen Levin, has withdrawn his name from a separate letter written by City Council Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler that threatened the college’s funding over the event. Levin’s withdrawal makes him the second legislator to back off from the funding threat, after Councilwoman Letitia James, another progressive official, withdrew her name as well. That leaves eight Council members who have left their names on the Fidler letter. 

All of this comes a day after Students for Justice in Palestine organized a press conference to speak out against the “escalating attacks” on their event. Donna Nevel of Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No! was there to show her support, and said:

I am pleased to be here today to have the opportunity to speak out in support of Students for Justice in Palestine and all those at Brooklyn College and across the city concerned with ensuring that bullying and intimidation do not succeed in denying students and others the right to engage in critical examination and inquiry of important political ideas.

What we have seen happening here is yet another example of an attempt to suppress and vilify voices critical of Israel and Israeli government policies, a pattern that has become far too common in this city and nation-wide.

It’s bad enough that Alan Dershowitz and Dov Hikind have engaged in a smear campaign. We’ve come to expect that. But city council members who threaten to take away city funding merely because they disagree with the views expressed on a college campus should be ashamed of themselves and should be held accountable for trying to interfere in this way. And they must not prevail.

Nevel also strongly defended the BDS movement:

About the topic that has become so controversial and caused so much condemnation–it needs to be made clear that Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) is a non-violent response to the Israeli government’s violation of basic principles of human rights and international law. It is, in my view, those violations that should be condemned, not strategies such as BDS that are designed to put an end to those violations, and the injustices that they inflict on the Palestinian people.

The entire controversy continues to garner media coverage. The chair of the Political Science Department, Paisley Currah, has authored a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education defending the event and calling out the hypocrisy of the panel discussion’s opponents.

And this morning, Democracy Now! had on Omar Barghouti, the Palestinian BDS activist who is one of the speakers at tomorrow’s event, and Glenn Greenwald. Watch it here:

Update: This post has been altered slightly to clarify the difference between the Lew Fidler letter and the letter organized by Rep. Jerrold Nadler.

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