Israel boosters threaten civil rights claim against Brooklyn College and suggest barring student activists from campus

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Neil Sher threatened to file a civil rights claim against Brooklyn College over the ejection of four students from the Brooklyn College BDS panel last week. On his right is CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who suggested that groups like Students for Justice in Palestine may have to be “excluded” from organizing on campus (Photo: Alex Kane)

In a press conference that mixed Israel advocacy with denunciations of Brooklyn College, a group of right-wing supporters of Israel threatened to file a Title VI civil rights claim against the college over the disputed claim that four Jewish students were ejected without reason from an event on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. One of today’s speakers, a trustee at the City University of New York (CUNY), also suggested that student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which organized last week’s panel event with Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler, may have to be “excluded” from campus.

Today’s press conference was held at the New York offices of 5W Public Relations, an agency that works with the Israeli government and right-wing Zionist groups like the Zionist Organization of America. One of the students who claims she was ejected without reason from the BDS panel, Melanie Goldberg, is an intern at 5W, though she was not present at the press conference.

The speakers included Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, an anti-Muslim right-wing Zionist who is on the board of trustees at CUNY, Neal Sher, a legal advisor to the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, and Dovid Efune, editor-in-chief of the Jewish publication Algemeiner

The dispute in question centers around the ejection of four Jewish students from the February 7th event at Brooklyn College. The students who were kicked out claim that they did nothing wrong, were not talking loudly and simply had anti-BDS flyers in their laps. Algemeiner has published audio of the event claiming it proves the students were ejected without reason, but the audio does little to clear up what happened that night. The SJP chapter of Brooklyn College issued a statement today saying, “Our organization, like the BDS movement as a whole, categorically rejects any and all forms of racial, ethnic or religious prejudice and bigotry, including anti-Semitism.” The statement continues:

Four students were removed from the room by security for disturbing others sitting near them. The individuals in question were speaking loudly enough to prompt people sitting around them to ask them to be quiet. They were talking, shuffling papers, and moving noisily around in their seats for several minutes, while Dr. Butler was talking, prompting complaints from other attendees sitting nearby.

Because the acoustics in the room were poor and Dr. Butler was speaking softly, their actions prevented those around them from hearing her well.

The decision to remove these individuals was made by organizers after consulting with security, after they failed to comply with requests to be quiet. Their removal was based solely on the fact that they were disturbing guests around them.

CUNY has now launched an investigation into the incident. Jeremy Thompson, a spokesman for Brooklyn College, also released a statement to Mondoweiss:

Due to the serious concerns raised by our students, [Brooklyn College] President Gould has asked [CUNY] Chancellor Goldstein to order a swift and thorough review in order to ascertain all the facts about the event held at the college on February 7. We look forward to receiving the report and reviewing the findings. In the meantime, Brooklyn College officials are already taking steps to assess what occurred before and during the event in order to identify any procedures that may be improved. Last night, the Policy Council, which includes members of the administration, faculty and students, agreed to review policies related to student-sponsored and co-sponsored events, and to make recommendations for necessary changes. We remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that Brooklyn College provides a learning environment where all students are free to express their points of view and participate fully in academic and co-curricular activities on our campus.

In the immediate aftermath of the claims that Jewish students were kicked out of the event, the Brooklyn College administration backed SJP students’ accounts. “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,’” Thompson told Algemeiner. “They then did not comply and a couple of police officers asked them to come out into the lobby.”

All the speakers at today’s press conference denounced the BDS movement as hate speech and as anti-Semitic. The BDS panel marked a “black day for Brooklyn College,” said Wiesenfeld, who once told the New York Times that there is no equivalence between the Palestinians and Israelis because “people who worship death for their children are not human.” Wiesenfeld made that statement in the context of his ultimately unsuccessful bid to deny playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree over comments critical of Israel. Wiesenfeld also called Kushner a “kapo.”

The BDS movement is an “anti-Semitic movement,” said Efune, who pointed to Norman Finkelstein’s statements against the movement as proof of its nefarious nature. He continued, “we saw quite some evidence” of “discrimination against Jewish students” at the Brooklyn College BDS panel. Efune also claimed the person who recorded the event for his publication did so at “great risk” and had “courage.”

Wiesenfeld repeatedly claimed that the students were ejected because they were singled out as Jews, despite the fact that there were many Jews in the audience who stayed throughout the entire event. “Students were denied the opportunity to ask questions,” he said, ignoring the fact that two opponents of the BDS movement asked questions to Barghouti and Butler. “These Jews were selected because they had notes…they were evicted as Jewish students.”

Wiesenfeld expressed disappointment that what went on at the University of California, Irvine–a reference to the disruption by student activists of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren–has now come to Brooklyn College. “To now see this type of degradation is heartbreaking,” he said.

The CUNY trustee, who at one time joined the high profile smear campaign targeting Debbie Almontaser, also suggested that groups like SJP and the Muslim Student Association be barred from organizing on campus. Wiesenfeld said that those groups may have to be be excluded because they “stifle opposing opinions” and sometimes act “violently.”

“We’re not talking about academic freedom,” said Wiesenfeld. “What this is is propaganda and propaganda is verboten” in universities. After I asked him whether his suggestion would infringe upon students’ rights to free speech and organize politically, Wiesenfeld said that there are groups in democracies that need to be excluded. He said that some democracies have banned neo-Nazis from gathering, and that the same may have to be done now. Wiesenfeld also said that the Muslim Students Association advocates for “another Holocaust.”

Dima Khalidi, a cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights, criticized Wiesenfeld’s suggestion.

“This suggestion reflects the agenda of these individuals and groups actively seeking to shield Israel from scrutiny for its abusive policies towards the Palestinians: they wish to exclude the oppositional voice from the conversation entirely, and they attempt to do so by vilifying these views and equating them with anti-Semitism and racist ideologies. There is no comparison between neo-Nazis, whose ideology is based purely on racism and anti-Semitism and who have a history of violence in Germany especially, and these student groups that advocate non-violently for human rights for Palestinians,” wrote Khalidi in an e-mail to Mondoweiss.

“These attempts to smear student groups as anti-Semitic, violent, or somehow affiliated with groups designated as terrorist, is outrageous. These types of statements create serious consequences for students in this highly Islamophobic post-9/11 environment where Muslims and Palestinian rights activists are being illegally surveilled, discriminatorily singled out, and their First Amendment activities criminalized because of their religion, ethnicity and political views.”

Following Wiesenfeld’s remarks, lawyer Neal Sher said he was looking into whether to file a Title Vi civil rights claim against Brooklyn College. Sher’s organization, the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, has taken the lead in filing Title VI claims against campuses for allegedly allowing an anti-Semitic environment to flourish at universities. Sher is the lawyer behind a claim currently being investigated by the Department of Education focused on the University of California, Berkeley. Students for Justice in Palestine said in a February 5, 2013 statement that the Sher lawsuit targeting Berkeley “claims campus events like the mock checkpoints associated with Israel Apartheid Week are anti-Jewish, and makes inflammatory statements associating SJP and MSA groups with terrorism.”

Sher criticized the Brooklyn College administration’s statements in support of SJP students’ claims, and said that the administration “shot first and then looked for evidence.” Sher, a former director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was disbarred in Washington, D.C. when according to the Jewish Daily Forward he was investigated for “misappropriating funds for personal use” as chief of staff in the Washington office of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

Sher said he was closely monitoring the Brooklyn College situation. “It’s very clear that the City University of New York has got a problem,” said Sher. “It’s got a very serious Title VI problem.”

Title VI claims have been a favored tool of Israel advocacy organizations ever since the Zionist Organization of America and others successfully lobbied the Dept. of Education to allow religious groups with shared ethnic characteristics to come under the rubric of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. That paved the way for Jewish students to file complaints alleging discrimination at their schools.

Sher’s threat to file a complaint against Brooklyn College “exemplifies the way that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has become a tool for Israel-aligned individuals and organizations to try to silence and shut down activism for Palestinian human rights on campuses,” said the CCR’s Khalidi. “Unfortunately, despite the hyperbolic and inaccurate nature of the allegations, the threat of lawsuits and Title VI complaints has a serious chilling effect on the First Amendment speech rights of students expressing political views on Palestine-Israel that conflict with the political orthodoxy on the subject in the U.S. These threats, and the lawsuits and complaints themselves, are also putting severe pressure on universities to curb and otherwise scrutinize the activities of Palestinian rights activists on campus.”

It remains unclear whether Hillel, the Jewish organization that the four students who were ejected are a part of, will back the Title VI threat. Hillel has come out in support of the use of Title VI claims in the past. But the students whose claims have sparked the threat of a civil rights complaint were not at the press conference. Hillel officials also complained that the vociferous opposition to the Brooklyn College BDS panel ultimately backfired–and they distanced themselves from the more right-wing Zionist forces that led the charge against the event. A call from Mondoweiss to the Brooklyn College Hillel went unanswered this afternoon.

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