Brooklyn College stands behind BDS event as pressure from elected officials comes down hard

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Helen Freedman, a Meir Kahane supporter and leader of the right-wing Americans For a Safe Israel, stands with Assemblyman Dov Hikind yesterday at Hikind’s press conference denouncing Brooklyn College over a BDS event. (Image via New York Observer.)

A large group of New York state and city politicians from across the political spectrum have come down hard on a Brooklyn College event next week on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. One letter to Brooklyn College’s president from City Councilman Lew Fidler calls on the college to cancel the event or withdraw the school’s “official support” from the event. Another letter sent from a group of prominent progressive officials is calling on the Brooklyn College Political Science Department to rescind their sponsorship of the event.

The event, scheduled for February 7, will feature Omar Barghouti, a leading BDS activist, and Judith Butler, a world renowned philosopher from the University of California, Berkeley. The talk has sparked an intense controversy over free speech, academic freedom and the BDS movement. The BDS movement is a non-violent tool aimed at pressuring Israel to comply with international law and end its control over Palestinians.

“This event is by no means a `hate-meeting’,” Brooklyn College’s Students for Justice in Palestine told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Its aim is to inform people about the human rights violations committed by the apartheid state of Israel against the Palestinians.”

Fidler’s letter, sent to Mondoweiss from the councilman’s office, was delivered to college president Karen Gould on January 29, 2013 and threatens Brooklyn College’s funding, which comes from state and city taxpayers. “We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our City–many of who would feel targeted and demonized by this program–want their tax money to be spent on,” wrote Fidler. “We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong.” (Fidler’s letter is embedded below.) Progressive politicians like Letitia James, a City Councilwoman who has her eyes set on the office of Public Advocate, signed the Fidler letter as well.

A separate letter sent from progressive politicians is less threatening, but still calls on the Political Science Department to rescind its sponsorship of the event, which has been the main rallying cry of the opponents of the event. The Political Science Department decided to co-sponsor the event because “on college campuses around the country and across the world, this issue is being discussed. Brooklyn College should be no different,” according to a statement from the department.

The college administration has so far stood their ground. Brooklyn College spokespeople have said that the Political Science Department’s sponsorship of the event does not mean that it is endorsing the event, and that the college administration is “not going to tell members of our faculty what they can and cannot choose to support.”

In an interview, a member of Brooklyn College’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) praised the administration. “The way they’ve been handling it shows the true leadership of [college president] Karen Gould. She’s upholding academic freedom, and on top of that they’re not succumbing to bullies like Alan Dershowitz and Dov Hikind,” said Carlos Guzman, an SJP member, who noted that groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No! were sponsoring the event.

The letter sent from the progressive officials is addressed to Gould as well, and was initiated by liberal Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler. It calls the BDS movement “wrongheaded and destructive” and “an obstacle to our collective hope for a peaceful two-state solution.” It was signed by figures ranging from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, two mayoral candidates, to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

“It is our understanding that at this event, a strategy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel will be encouraged, and there will be no counter-perspective offered,” the letter reads. “We of course believe that students and academics should have the opportunity to openly express their views – however much we may disagree with them – and that universities have the responsibility to protect this important First Amendment right and the values of academic freedom. We are, however, concerned that an academic department has decided to formally endorse an event that advocates strongly for one side of a highly-charged issue, and has rejected legitimate offers from prominent individuals willing to simultaneously present an alternative view.” The reference to “offers” from “prominent individuals” is a nod to Alan Dershowitz, a Brooklyn College alumnus who has mobilized opposition to the event and has demanded that he be given a platform to speak in opposition to the BDS movement.

Another leading figure behind the push against Brooklyn College is Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Democrat and an ardent right-wing Zionist. Hikind was a follower of Meir Kahane, a virulently violent and racist figure, and the Jewish Defense League. He was also the main player behind the firing of Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a Brooklyn College academic who was canned after Hikind smeared him as being pro-suicide bombings. Petersen-Overton was reinstated after an outcry from supporters of academic freedom and Palestinian rights.

“They [Barghouti and Butler] call for the destruction of the state of Israel. They think Hamas and Hezbollah are good organizations. I would assume they feel the same way about al-Qaeda. These are individuals who are extreme radicals,” said Hikind, in a press conference yesterday. Hikind was joined at the press conference by Bill Thompson, a progressive Democrat and current mayoral candidate who also signed onto Nadler’s letter. Watch parts of Hikind’s remarks here, courtesy of Marissa Brostoff:

Hikind has also said that Brooklyn College President Gould should resign over the event.

Hikind’s rhetoric, though, has not been the most extreme. “We’re talking about the potential for a second Holocaust here,” Assemblyman Alan Maisel of Brooklyn said of the event. Another Democratic Assemblyman, Steven Cymbrowitz, has said: “No department or club in Brooklyn College, which boasts a richly diverse student body, has any business sponsoring events on the college campus that serve no useful purpose but to promulgate anti-Semitism.”

“In my time at [the City University of New York], I have never seen top government officials who have control over a good part of CUNY’s purse strings intervene like this, and seek to control the content and programming of college events,” said Corey Robin, a professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College.

In an interview with Mondoweiss, Councilman Brad Lander, a progressive Brooklyn politician, defended the letter that calls for the Political Science Department to rescind its sponsorship. Lander is a Jewish progressive who signed onto the letter. “Were this event sponsored solely by students, or student groups or by individual professors, I would brook no criticism of it and it wouldn’t in my opinion need any balance, because that’s not what the First Amendment requires,” he said. “But a political science department, a university department, is a part of the institution, an educational institution, and I believe that a public education institution does have a responsibility to provide a balanced viewpoint…This is about how the institution presents a balanced and broad point of view, and make an equal playing field available to them.”

I asked Lander about the fact that Brooklyn College sponsors many events that do not spark calls for “balance.” For instance, Alan Dershowitz himself spoke at a Brooklyn College Political Science Department-sponsored event where he advocated torture, and no other viewpoint was presented. Lander replied: “Fair enough that I have particular concerns about BDS and I can’t tell you that I’ve looked to see whether they sponsor on every issue a balanced point of view. BDS to me represents particular concerns.”

Lander emphasized that “I’m someone who has stood up many times for the rights of Palestinians who are critical of the state of Israel and what it’s done to them.” But he also said that “when criticism and tactics of Israel go beyond legitimate and specific criticism and uniquely call out the Jewish state for sins that unfortunately in my experience are perpetrated by almost all nation-states, that is concerning to me and I call it out and argue with it….It touches a particular nerve.”

For SJP member Guzman, the fact that politicians are coming down so hard on the event speaks volumes.

“It just shows how complicit our government is with the State of Israel and how they do not want the public to know how our tax dollars are used to fund the oppression of Palestinians.”
 

Letter from Lew Fidler by Alex Kane

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