Investigation of Brooklyn College BDS event conflates anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism

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The City University of New York released a report this week quashing trumped-up accusations that Jewish and “pro-Israel” students were discriminated against at Brooklyn College’s speciously scandalous BDS panel in February.

The report’s conclusions seem reasonable. But its central question—whether “religious or political discrimination” was involved in the planning and execution of the event—is flawed in a way that typifies university administrators’ responses to attacks on campus Palestine advocacy. The problem is that, despite lip service to the word “or” between “religious” and “political,” the investigators don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between the two—and they can’t imagine that anyone else could either.

So, for example, the report investigates whether students with “Jewish names” were excluded from the event’s RSVP list because of their presumed religious and, by extension, political affiliations. Then it explores whether reporters with Jewish names were banned while reporters from Al Jazeera were welcomed, because those things are opposites. It does not, obviously, mention the Jewishly-named reporters (including Alex Kane and myself) who wrote enthusiastically about the panel, because people like us don’t exist.

The investigators can’t imagine that a multiethnic group of students organizing a panel that featured exactly one Palestinian and one Jew who had the nerve to agree about nonviolently ending Israeli apartheid might not share their own—frankly bigoted—assumptions about Jews and politics. Whether or not this was the intent, in practice this is another version of the tried-and-true campus speech repression tactic of collapsing “anti-Zionism” into “anti-Semitism.”

Here’s where this gets tricky: If you told me that Arab-sounding names were being trimmed from the list at a Hillel-sponsored Alan Dershowitz talk, I would in fact believe that students of Arab origin were being targeted for ethnic as well as political reasons. And Dershowitz would surely consider this a testament to my hypocrisy. But it isn’t, for two reasons.

Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti at Brooklyn College
Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti at Brooklyn College

The first reason is simply that, just like institutional racism is a thing and institutional “reverse racism” is not a thing, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has to be much more careful than Hillel about not stepping on the toes of the administrators who are so generous as to let them exist as an official school club at all. (See UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union for what happens when that relationship goes awry.) And that has never been more obvious than in this case. Discriminating against Jewish students while under intense scrutiny by the people who determine whether you will graduate from college and who’ve spent two weeks distancing themselves from you in the national press—how would you even pull that off?

The second reason is that it would be reasonably safe to assume, from the point of view of a Hillel organizer, that someone with an Arab-sounding name coming to an Alan Dershowitz event would be there as a critic, not a fan. Just like, from the point of view of a Republican governor, it might make sense to disenfranchise black voters, not only because of racism in the most direct sense, but also because black voters form a reliable Democratic voting bloc.

It would not, however, be at all safe to assume from the point of view of an SJP organizer that someone with a Jewish-sounding name coming to a panel featuring the most prominent academic of our time to write extensively about Jewish philosophy and identity would be there to represent the opposition. Anyone involved in Palestine activism in New York knows this. Quite possibly there are Arab-American SJP activists at Brooklyn College who at some point believed that Jews, collectively, were their enemy. In fact, I can imagine that Brooklyn College, which is unusual among American universities in that most of its very large Jewish student body is Orthodox and politically conservative, is a place that could foment that prejudice. But it’s hard for me to believe that any such activist could hold onto that notion in the course of putting on this event, which not only costarred but was cosponsored, co-organized, and attended by dozens of sympathetic Jewish individuals and organizations.

The students organizing this event, and the ones who have suffered all kinds of backlash, were primarily Arab- and Muslim-American, and it’s irritating to me that I feel compelled to aid and abet the report’s insistent focus on Jews. But its invisiblizing of Jewish Palestine advocates in the context of an event that included so many Jewish Palestine advocates is unacceptable.

Ironically, the report did produce one finding that struck me as evidence of both religious and political discrimination. The four student Israel advocates kicked out of the panel for allegedly creating a disturbance were there at the behest of Brooklyn College’s Hillel director, Nadya Drukker. Though Drukker “typically…does not encourage Jewish students to attend pro-Palestinian events,” the investigators write, “ she does like to have a few poised and articulate Jewish students attend so that these students can prepare and ask challenging questions and also so that they can report to her what was said at the event.” In the days leading up to the event, Drukker’s hand-picked students, like hundreds of others, tried to RSVP for the panel and encountered a logistical nightmare—exactly as one might expect would happen when a small student-run event becomes the center of a media circus. Unlike other students, however, when the Hillel activists found themselves wait-listed, they turned to Drukker, who called up Brooklyn College vice-president Milga Morales, who “said that she would take care of it.” And she did: Morales got five Hillel students and Drukker herself into the sold-out panel, as other students, reporters, and community members alike continued to be turned away.

Disturbingly, the investigators seem to have found the situation so unremarkable that they do not even consider whether, in this instance, preferential treatment of one religious/political group was tantamount to discrimination against others. Students at the top of the wait list who didn’t get in could certainly make that case. But something tells me that, without institutional backing from a group like Hillel, they’re not going to.

After all the hoopla that surrounded this serious, thoughtful little panel discussion, the report should put to rest any inkling that organizers discriminated against Jewish or Israel-supporting students. But its insistent conflation of the two categories needs to go. When it does, the Alan Dershowitzes of the world will have a much harder time manufacturing public outrage to begin with.

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This smells a bit like the usual these days, the idea that protection of “Jewish values which include support of Israel” means that attacking Israel means attacking Judism or Jewish values or Jews. What’s interesting and valuable is how often these words and attitudes, even though still held (or at least, still protested as if held) are being held in parallel with a view that these are OK topics to talk about — quite “as… Read more »

Weird that the investigators did describe the intervention by Hillel director Drukker and CUNY staffer Morales pushing six “Jewish” Hillel Israel advocates in, but did not check this against “whether Jewish students had been granted equal access to and participation in the event” (the complaint!). As if they have not reread their facts before drwaing conclusions.