There’s a long profile of NYC Councilman Jumaane Williams in BKLYNR, a new Brooklyn-based magazine, by Eli Rosenberg. It’s a fascinating read of a fascinating politician, who played a less than fascinating role during the Brooklyn College BDS controversy. Williams is a former student of mine, and he and I wound up in a heated Twitter argument about his role.
In his piece, Rosenberg discusses the Williams and the BDS controversy at length. You should read the whole article, but I’m excerpting the BDS part here:
The perils of navigating the dual worlds of politics and activism were resoundingly clear earlier this year. Two leaders of a movement critical of Israel — pioneering gender theorist and activist Judith Butler and Palestinian rights activist Omar Barghouti — were scheduled to speak at Brooklyn College in an event billed as a lecture on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which advocates for economic protests against Israel. The event was sponsored by a student group, Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine, but the college’s political science department had signed on as a co-sponsor.
A couple weeks before the event, another student organization, the college’s United4Israel chapter, posted a petition online that expressed “deep concern” over the school’s co-sponsorship of the lecture. By the time Harvard law professor and Brooklyn College alum Alan Dershowitz weighed in a week before the event with a Daily News op-ed that called it a “propaganda hate orgy,” the story had bloomed into a full-blown controversy.
Local politicians like assemblymen Dov Hikind and Steven Cymbrowitz, who both hail from heavily Jewish districts near Brooklyn College, organized a press conference to denounce the college. Much of the city’s political establishment soon weighed in on the controversy, with nearly all of everyone coming down heavily against the school.
A self-proclaimed “progressive” coalition officials sent a letter to college president Karen Gould, signed by a who’s who of politicians in the city — including four of the top Democratic candidates for mayor — expressing “concern” that the college had signed onto the event and accusing it of stifling academic freedom. A group of ten council members, led by Lew Fidler, penned a letter to Gould asking her to cancel the event entirely, and hinted that the CUNY school’s funding, some of which passes through the city council each year, could be affected by the decision.
For a couple of days, as event spiraled into a larger and larger story, Williams and his office were quiet on the issue. It was a notable silence given both Williams’ strong connections to the school and its political science department, as well as the simple fact that its 26-acre campus lies squarely in his district.
But on February 1, Williams’ office released a copy of a letter the councilman had sent Gould. “I have concerns regarding the sponsorship by the Political Science Department of this event,” Williams wrote. “I am asking for your intervention with Chair Paisley Currah in an effort to allow both sides of this hot-button matter to be discussed with equity, preferably in the same forum. If that cannot be accomplished, I urge the removal of the department’s sponsorship of this event.”
The chorus of voices was getting louder for the department to cancel the event; media across the globe picked up the story, with articles in the Jerusalem Post and Al Jazeera in addition to the city’s major news sources. Glenn Greenwald weighed in on the pages of The Guardian, calling the liberal politicians a “lynch mob.”
For a moment, it seemed Brooklyn College would have to buckle. But it stood its ground and, at the last minute, received some support from an unlikely ally. At a press conference on Hurricane Sandy relief, Mayor Bloomberg, prompted by a reporter’s question, forcefully defended the college’s right to hold the event.
“If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea,” he said. “The last thing we need is for members of our city council or state legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run.”
In two minutes, any steam left behind the movement to get the college to cancel or change the event was gone. The idea of the mayor, the most powerful official in New York City and an avid supporter of Israel, announcing his support for the school caught the rest of the establishment off-guard.
Most of the city’s politicians who had so loudly protested the event released statements in support of it. The so-called progressive group of politicians sent a follow-up letter to Gould, thanking her for her “leadership on the issue,” and expressing support for the college and its forum. Council members Steve Levin and Letitia James revoked their support for the letter they had inked earlier in the week, claiming they “unsigned” it. And Williams released another statement expressing support for the forum and “confidence” in the state of academic freedom at Brooklyn College.
“No institution of learning should stifle voices in a debate, no matter how controversial or problematic they may be,” he wrote.
But the damage had already been done.
“The gr8 progressive @JumaaneWilliams ‘supports views expressed by my fellow alumnus Alan Dershowitz’ on #BDS event … SMH,” remarked Alex Kane, an editor at progressive sites AlterNate and Mondoweiss, on Twitter. Soon Williams’ feed and Facebook page were ablaze with comments from academics, progressive journalists, and enraged commenters.
Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College who served as the department’s unofficial spokesman during the controversy and a former professor of Williams, entered into the most heated debate with him, in a lengthy exchange that Robin published online.
By the end of the hour-long debate, during which Williams was thoroughly chided by Robin, the councilman conceded numerous points to the academic and had assumed the role of a chastened student, referring to Robin as “professor,” and admitting that he would definitely “do more homework,” in the future.
“What I was trying to get across was correct. I don’t think that got across in my first letter,” Williams said recently. “I had not spoken to the chairperson, which I should have done. So my intention with the first letter was basically to say that there needs to be some rules about how sponsorship happens, and that everybody should have access to that sponsorship.”
Still, if you believe people like Robin, the event may yet come back to haunt him.
“He’s the pride and joy of the department, but people were surprised and are not going to forget that easily,” said Robin. “Everyone expected that Christine Quinn would do what she did, but I think we all expected more of him. I expected more of him.”
Williams has made a career out of calling it like he sees it, cultivating the image that he is the rare politician who will speak the truth without regard for the consequences. But part of that veneer was lost with the week’s events.
“It takes a Republican mayor who is horrible on many issues that progressives care about to explain that politicians do not meddle with curriculum or extracurricular discussions to people like Christine Quinn, Jumaane Williams, and Brad Lander?” said Robin. “It shows there are real constraints on liberalism and leftism in New York.”
Dobbs said the dust-up demonstrated the fundamental conflict between Williams’ identity as an activist and as a politician. “They’re incompatible,” said Dobbs. “Most people believe that politicians and elected officials are leaders, but actually they follow much more than they lead.”
Perhaps most damaging for Williams reputation was the perception of him as weak and susceptible, vulnerable in the game of politics.
“The media misunderstands liberals and thinks they want someone who is pure, but what the left really wants politicos who are shrewd about power and use it to achieve progressive goals,” said Robin. “He got played on this one; the moral reasons are very troubling, but it’s also very a troubling politically. He should have been shrewder about this. He went to Brooklyn College, he should have called the damn school, found out the facts first and spoken as an alum, to say ‘I understand the issues around this, I understand the department. Let me tell you about what I learned.’ It would have been a very moving statement. Instead he comes out looking like a chump.”