‘Tablet’ gets it wrong: Student Israel activists passed out anti-BDS flyers during Brooklyn College event (updated)

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A screenshot of the inaccurate Tablet magazine article on student Israel activists getting “ousted” from the event.

Tablet magazine published a story today that claims that “four students affiliated with Hillel were ousted” from last night’s Brooklyn College talk on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. But they only quote from the students themselves–and get much of what occurred wrong, according to witnesses I spoke to. The reporter who wrote the story was clearly not at the event, and did not reach out to the student organizers of the event to get their side of the dispute.

Here’s what Tablet reporter Natalie Schachar writes:

“I heard probably about half of what Judith Butler said when I got kicked out,” said Ari Ziegler, a 23-year-old CUNY graduate student studying experimental psychology. “CUNY police escorted us out and when we asked them what we did wrong they said, ‘we don´t have an answer.’ It’s disappointing because they had said that it was a forum for asking tough questions and trying to understand.”

According to Ziegler, the students had anti-BDS material in their laps and were planning on using the material to help inform their questions during the Q&A session following the panel discussion…

“I was escorted out for nothing more than the fact that I was holding a paper that would help me assess my decision on my feelings over BDS,” said Michael Ziegler, a senior at Brooklyn College.

I witnessed the kerfuffle from afar, and was told that they were quiet hecklers, which is what I reported earlier today. And I spoke with students involved with organizing the BDS event and it is clear that the students did not tell Tablet the full story. They spun it, and Tablet went along with them.

Ziegler claims that the Hillel-affiliated students, of which he was one, merely had anti-BDS flyers in their laps–the implication being that security picked them out of the crowd just for being opponents of the BDS movement. But there were people who were clearly against BDS that got to ask questions, so it is clear opponents of the BDS movement were not barred from the event. 

According to Sarah Aly, a student volunteer with Students for Justice in Palestine at Brooklyn College who witnessed the mini-controversy, the students were passing out anti-BDS flyers in the middle of the event, while Judith Butler was talking–contra the claim that they had flyers “in their laps.” They were also talking during the event. When a student volunteer asked them to stop passing out the flyers and to quiet down, the Hillel-affiliated activists refused. That’s when a volunteer asked a security guard to remove them. Two other witnesses who preferred not to have their names published also confirmed this story to me. So yes, these students were removed, and you can debate whether that was the right move or not. But it wasn’t about them getting kicked out because they were “pro-Israel” or had flyers “in their laps.”

The Tablet reporter goes on to write:

The crowd largely seemed to consist of students in favor of the BDS movement though, and some pro-Israel supporters with some such opposing views were turned away. The Scroll continues to investigate, but the event may be at odds with a non-discrimination policy that states that students will not be excluded from participation in the programs of the college because of national or ethnic origin, or religion.

Melanie Goldberg, an Israel Campus Coalition intern, said she had registered three weeks ago and received two emails confirming that she had a spot reserved, but then arrived and was turned away because her name was not on the list.

“I knew I´d have problems getting in,” Goldberg said.

Norma Chiabott, a 20-year-old undergraduate, had a similar story. “I signed up yesterday and was second on the wait list and still didn´t get in,” she said.

So here Tablet is implying students were turned away because they were Jewish. But that’s false. In fact, I sat in front of two attendees who were wearing kippahs and clearly Jewish. 

Goldberg’s and Chiabott’s stories ring true–but that’s only because many people had problems initially getting into the event. I spoke with Leena Widdi, a student activist helping out at the event, who explained that there were technical and logistical problems with the RSVP list. Many supporters of Palestinian rights were also initially turned away. Widdi said that the RSVP list was done manually, and that “we missed a few names.” The SJP student e-mail account was overwhelmed with messages from people wanting to get in, and it was tough to keep up, Widdi explained. But about halfway into the event, everyone waiting outside was allowed to come in.

The aim of the story was to make the claim that BDS supporters are hypocrites about free speech and academic freedom. But the truth of the matter is that Tablet has published a questionable claim based solely on the testimony of Hillel-affiliated students. If they had spoken to students who had organized the event, a much different story would have emerged.

Update: Algemeiner, a Jewish publication, adds more details to the story. While the tenor of the story is in favor of the Israel advocates’ accounts, a statement from school administration spokesman Jeremy Thompson confirms what SJP activists said:

My understanding is that these students were in the room along with the rest of the audience. From the first speaker they began to speak out, they were becoming vocal and disruptive to the members around them and one of the student organizers of the event went to them and said ‘you really need to be quiet you’re disrupting other people around you.’ They then did not comply and a couple of police officers asked them to come out into the lobby.” Thompson also claimed that school officials in attendance, including Morales, confirmed this account.

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