Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti at Brooklyn College in February
(Image via Brooklyn College SJP)
An investigation over a high-profile event at Brooklyn College on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has absolved student organizers of charges that they were anti-Semitic. The inquiry, undertaken by the City University of New York’s (CUNY) General Counsel and an outside law firm, finds that the students behind the February event did not discriminate against four Jewish students they ejected from the event, nor did they discriminate against members of the media. It was released last Friday.
The publication of the CUNY report puts an end to a saga that started weeks before the actual event, as Israel advocates sought to alter or cancel the talk featuring Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler on the BDS movement. What most incensed local politicians and supporters of Israel was that the school’s Political Science Department had co-sponsored the event. One City Councilman threatened the funding of Brooklyn College, though he later backed off.
The report is a detailed examination of the procedures for entering the event, student organizers’ media policy and the removal of four Jewish students during the event–the action that caused the most controversy. While the report criticizes aspects of how the school and student organizers handled admissions to the event and media policy, it puts to rest the controversy over anti-Semitism. The CUNY General Counsel, Frederick Schaffer, and the law firm interviewed over 40 witnesses to determine what happened during the event with Barghouti and Butler.
“It is a relief that CUNY recognizes that we intended for this to be a forum for open dialogue about how to achieve Palestinian human rights,” said Students for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP) Sundus Seif, a student at Brooklyn College, in a statement. “It took us by surprise to handle a forum that went from being a normal student event to getting national media attention with hundreds of people trying to get in, and with unprecedented security, that we were not equipped to handle.”
The scrutiny did not die down after the event. While Butler was speaking, four Jewish students affiliated with Hillel were ejected from the event. Tablet magazine ran a story the day after reporting that the students said they were kicked out merely for holding anti-BDS flyers in their laps. The story also insinuated that the students were kicked out because they were Jewish. This line quickly spread to the New York Daily News, an outlet that also implied it was anti-Semitism that led to the students being kicked out. The student organizers with SJP strongly disputed how the media was telling the story. They told Mondoweiss in interviews that the students were being disruptive by passing out flyers amongst themselves and talking during Butler’s portion of the event.
The report gives voice to all sides of the story relating to the ejection, and criticizes aspects of how student organizers and the school handled the ejection of students. “It is clear that there was no justification for the removal of the four students. They did not create a ‘disturbance’,” the report reads. But the document also says that “the evidence does not permit a confident inference about whether the removal of the four students was for a discriminatory purpose. In our view, there is no support for an inference of discrimination based on religion.” The report also criticizes the Brooklyn College administration for giving the student organizers “primary responsibility for maintaining order unless there was a threat to physical safety.”
The report strongly rejects any claim that students had trouble getting in because of their political views–a claim Tablet published. “The evidence does not support a finding that religious or political discrimination infected the admission process. The mechanisms employed in creating the RSVP list were cumbersome and error-prone, and the repeated changes in the registration procedure led to confusion,” the report reads.
The student organizers’ media policy also came under scrutiny in the aftermath of the event. In particular, a Jewish reporter for the Daily News, Reuven Blau, implied that he may have been blocked from the event because he had a yarmulke on.
The report criticizes how the student organizers handled press policy, saying that it may have been a “mistake” for the college administration to allow students to bar full access for the press. The students organizing the event made that policy due to space considerations and a concern that the evening would turn into a press conference. Journalists who had signed up as any member of the public did were allowed in, though. But it again rejects any claim that journalists were turned away because they were Jewish.
Publication of the report likely puts to rest concern that Brooklyn College could have been targeted by a Title VI civil rights claim, a favored tool of Zionist organizations. In the week after the event, Israel boosters held a press conference where a right-wing CUNY trustee and a lawyer threatened to file a federal civil rights complaint over claims of anti-Semitism related to the ejection of the four students.
“Students are bearing the brunt of a nation-wide campaign to chill Palestinian rights activism. We are seeing this pattern all over the country, where accusations of anti-Semitism and threats of legal action are pressuring universities to unfairly obstruct and denounce the activities of those expressing one side of an important domestic and international issue,” said the Center for Constitutional Right’s Maria LaHood in a statement. “The threats of legal action and the university’s investigation in this case have already had a chilling effect on students and others supporting Palestinian rights. We hope the results of this thorough investigation will allow students to continue their First Amendment activities without undue interference.”