The controversy over a “panel discussion” at Brooklyn College has little to do with free speech, and everything to do with politicization of the academia — in this case, by disingenuous anti-Israel ideologues.
Back in December, the political science department at Brooklyn College, a public institution partially supported by taxpayers’ dollars, formally voted to sign on to a talk that took place on February 7th. A student group had scheduled an address by University of California professor Judith Butler and graduate student Omar Barghouti to propagandize on behalf of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This movement seeks to isolate Jewish state for its security policies.
Though the political science department referred to the event as a “forum,” only one view – extreme anti-Israel activism – is represented. Professor Butler so despises Israel that she has unapologetically whitewashed Israel’s foes, labeling Hamas and BDS.”
The BDS double standard smacks of anti-Semitism: Targeting Israel and only Israel, advocates hold the world’s only Jewish state to a far different standard than other democracies, much less Islamic, African, or Latin American dictatorships. Amidst flowery anti-imperialist rhetoric, the movement misleadingly implies that ending specific Israeli policies, generally deemed “apartheid,” would satisfy its backers. In fact, BDS supporters envision the replacement of Israel as a Jewish state with a bi-national, majority Palestinian, entity.
The Brooklyn event is, in short, not an academic forum, but little more than agitprop designed to drum up hostility to Israel – just as similar BDS events at institutions such as Penn and Duke have done. What happened at Brooklyn could have occurred at virtually any university; few places in the United States are as hostile to Israel as the typical college campus.
And while the Brooklyn student group has every right to bring even vile speakers to campus, an academic department formally voting to endorse (or co-sponsor, as the political scientists subsequently, if disingenuously, described their tally) such drivel is a far different matter.
CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein has clearly and unequivocally expressed his personal opposition to the BDS cause, but Brooklyn’s president, Karen Gould, declined to do so. In two statements on the matter, she refused to condemn the BDS movement, while invoking “academic freedom” to defend her department’s actions.
On campus, though, any free exchange of ideas flows only in one direction: In response to media requests, the political science professors have refused to explain what so attracted them to these anti-Israel extremists that their department formally voted to get on board with the talk.
An optimist might hope that the faculty’s embarrassment for their actions explains this silence. A realist would understand otherwise. The forum is far from being the first problem with Brooklyn College’s flirtation with the BDS agenda. In 2010, as part of a “common reading” requirement, the college ordered all incoming freshman to read a book by yet another endorser of the BDS movement, Moustafa Bayoumi.
His volume asserted that between 1987 and 2001, the US government approach toward “Arab Americans” was “more often used to limit the speech of Arab Americans in order to cement US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Bayoumi offered no evidence for his wild claim.
It’s no wonder that several pro-Israel students at Brooklyn recently admitted their fears of grade retaliation from pro-BDS professors down the road. Virtually abandoned on campus, these students’ cause has been championed by a group of politicians led by Jerry Nadler.
The congressman joined three House colleagues and every prominent New York City Democrat running for mayor in penning a public letter urging the department “to withdraw their endorsement of this event, rather than send the message to its students and to the world that the divisive perspective offered by the organizing groups is Brooklyn College’s official view.”
Those outside the academy who have witnessed an academic department’s exposing its hollow core on matters related to Israel should continue to ask hard questions about how on campuses around the country handle matters related to the Middle East. People of good faith need to continue to search for remedies that will restore a true diversity of ideas to American higher education.
KC Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Asaf Romirowsky, is acting executive director for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies