Brooklyn College is once again on the defensive from local pro-Israel forces.
Brooklyn Democrats have harshly criticized the school and academic departments over an event featuring Ben White, an author and activist who is critical of Israel. He is set to speak at the school November 14.
The fracas comes nearly a year after Brooklyn College found itself at the center of a storm over the school’s hosting of an event featuring proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Like last year’s controversy, this year’s features ardent supporters of the state of Israel accusing the speaker of anti-Semitism and the school’s departments of supporting the event, which will feature White arguing that Israel is an apartheid state.
“It is predictable and unfortunate that defenders of Israeli apartheid seek to smear me as an individual in order to distract from the ongoing violations of international law and Palestinian human rights,” White told me in an e-mail. “I oppose anti-Semitism as a form of racism, and in fact, it is precisely because of opposition to racism that I am in solidarity with the Palestinians’ struggle for their basic rights in the face of Israeli policies of systematic discrimination.”
Members of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter at the school are the ones organizing the event. The Political Science Department and the Sociology Department have agreed to co-sponsor the event, though the school says that does not connote endorsement of the speaker and the event.
“Ben White is not just anti-Israel, he is also an anti-Semite,” state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an influential Orthodox Jewish politician who got into hot water for wearing blackface as part of a Purim costume, told the website Matzav.com. “Brooklyn College’s continued co-sponsorship of anti-Israel hatefests is abhorrent.”
Fueling the outrage at Brooklyn College is the claim that the departments are “supporting” the event, though the claim rests on a misunderstanding of new Brooklyn College policies on student events.
The first salvo in the campaign against White and Brooklyn College came on November 4, when New York Daily News reporter Reuven Blau published a piece calling White “a controversial author who has likened Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazi Holocaust is bringing his act to Brooklyn College.”
“It’s unfortunate that Brooklyn College seems to be consistent in sending a message to their Jewish students that they are not respected on campus,” Brooklyn City Councilman David Greenfield told the Daily News.
The reporter, Blau, charged that White defended “Iranian hatemonger” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and that White has “defended anti-Semitic comments made by the former German politician Jurgen Mullemann, who likened the Israel’s policies to those of the Nazis.” The proof offered up is White’s 2007 statement that “Palestinians…in the name of a social-democratic experiment, had to endure massacres, death marches and ethnic cleansing.”
In 2009, White explained that his 2006 piece on Ahmadinejad was “critiquing the mainstream analysis of some recent remarks by Ahmadinejad, and the politicised context in which they were being framed.” He went on to say, “I make no bones about it – Ahmadinejad is either a Holocaust denier himself, or cowardly encourages those who are (and probably both).”
Joining the campaign against White is state Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, who sent a letter to the interim chancellor of the City University of New York, a system Brooklyn College is a part of. “Publicly funded institutions do not have the right to spew hatred without permitting an equal response,” he wrote, according to the website SheepsheadBites.com.
But it’s the claim that the college is “supporting” the event that is driving the story. Alan Dershowitz, the pro-Israel attorney, told the Daily News that “If these departments deny they are taking sides, I challenge them to ‘support’ a speech by me on the Mideast.” Dershowitz’s criticism that academic departments are “supporting” the speech is rooted in new guidelines disseminated by the college on student events, likely drawn up in response to last year’s torrent of criticism over an event on BDS.
Under the new draft guidelines–whether it is the official policy of the college is unclear–the word “supporter” takes the place of what used to be known as “co-sponsor.” A “supporter,” the new guidelines explain in a footnote, is the “preferred term that is used at Brooklyn College to describe the type of assistance provided in a manner that was previously described as a ‘co-sponsor,’ meaning the group lends its name only for the purpose of encouraging attendance at the event.” To a lay person, though, “supporter” means something much different.
The Brooklyn College Political Science Department released a statement clarifying that they “decided explicitly to co-sponsor these events; it is not a ‘supporter,’ advocate, champion, or endorser of these events and the views that will be expressed there.”
The college released a similar statement from Director of News and Information Keisha-Gaye Anderson, who also said, “Brooklyn College will continue to support the right of student clubs to host programs of interest to them, including those that may be controversial.” The statement also emphasized that “there are a number of scheduled and proposed events this semester hosted by the Israel Club.”
Those explanations, though, are unlikely to tamp down the furor over White’s talk.
Both Hikind and Dershowitz are no stranger to campaigns targeting those critical of Israel–especially at Brooklyn College. Last year, they led the charge against Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler, who spoke at the college on BDS. The event went on as planned despite calls to cancel it and threats from a City Councilman to cut funding for the college.
But it was marred by controversy over the fact that four Jewish students were tossed out of the event. A report by a law firm and CUNY concluded that there was no anti-Semitism in the decision to toss them out–despite the claims from Israel advocates–though there was no justification for the tossing either.