Jumaane Williams and the Brooklyn College BDS Controversy Revisited

6 Jun

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.”

28 Responses to “Jumaane Williams and the Brooklyn College BDS Controversy Revisited”

  1. hophmi June 6, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    Spoken like someone who has never served in elected office before.

    • Wrong! Spoken like the deservedly well-esteemed educator and scholar who is also understands history, social relations, and what it should mean to be an American. The vast majority of us don’t, and will never, serve in elected office. And because WE don’t, are we therefore to just expect (and thus tolerate) that those who we do send to elected office to represent us to instead just crumple like wet tissue paper in the driving rain exactly because reactionaries launch a campaign against academic freedom, a freedom that protects the left, the right, and everyone both in-between and outside those designations?!

      Really?

    • BillR June 7, 2013 at 8:56 am #

      By his early, first post this looks like the “Israel right or wrong” troll on mondoweiss who goes by the same moniker. Unless someone has tons of time it’s a total waste of time trying to “debate” single-issue nuts. It’ll be much more fruitful to read up on and disseminate Chas Freeman’s take on hasbara.

    • dimaniac June 7, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

      Power is in fascism.
      Absolute power is in free market fascism.

      >Free market capitalism provides fastest economic growth possible. However free market capitalism is “unfair”, leads to extreme income inequality and destroys jobs through automation. Economic cycles produce unemployment which can lead to revolution, or redistribution of capital by the democratic government to create demand for excess human supply (e.g. The Great Depression). If being poor and unemployed was a crime then revolutions/redistribution of capital wouldn’t happen. The first country to adopt free market fascism will experience huge economic growth because the bourgeoisie will be able to accumulate capital exponentially, and replace obsolete human workers with machines without any government intervention to protect the proletariat. In the end, such an economy will attain 90-95% of the world GDP. Everyone else will become mere natural resource exporters because keynesian/socialist/marxist economies won’t be able to compete with free market fascism.

      >Free market fascism comprises 3 social classes:
      >The 1st class(fascists) consists of people who guard and regulate the system, and protect the capitalists from jealous proletarians (the artificially created middle class in the USA). If there are elections within this system, then only members of this class can vote. Though consulting the capitalist class is still possible. 1 to 10 million people are needed for this class. Tax revenue (approximately 10% of the GDP) from exploitation of capitalists is distributed more or less equally among members of the ruling class. They are the shareholders.
      >2nd class(“haves”): capitalists, entrepreneurs, investors, speculators, lenders, rentiers, etc. Up to 1 million people.
      >3rd class(“have-nots”): proletarians, including highly skilled workers, scientists and intellectuals. They are needed in the beginning, but most of them will eventually be replaced with machines and AI. Up to 100 million people.

      >Japan and Germany have huge economies, yet relatively small territories (less than 400,000 km2). In free market fascism a large population won’t be needed either. A territory of similar size can be created (sea platform/artificial island), or the population of a country that nobody cares about can be displaced (Somalia, Colombia, Uganda, etc.)

      TL;DR Free Market Fascism is based on inverted Luddism, inverted Marxism, Malthusianism and technological singularity, it leads to fastest technological progress, economic and military power.

  2. Naomi Allen June 6, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    Jumaane Williams’s letter of Feb. 1 went beyond calling for the BC Political Science department to withdraw its sponsorship of the BDS event. He also repeated the fake title of the event circulated by the JCRC, calling it the “BDS Movement Against Israel” (it was titled “The BDS Movement for Palestinian Rights”), accused the BDS movement of “blacklisting Jewish Israeli academics,” and likened BDS to the Ku Klux Klan. When a group from Brooklyn For Peace tried to meet with him after the event to discuss these issues, he refused to meet with us, assigning us a staff member instead, even though we included constituents from his district. Not a good sign from a man who wears an “Occupy” button on his jacket.

  3. Malcolm Schosha June 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    Corey, one comes away from reading your blog posts on the BDS fiasco at Brooklyn College with the impression that you assume you are 100% right on every single point of disagreement, and (additionally) that you think those who are critical of the BDS event are either fools, or at best are misguided and have failed to understand democracy because they need you to explained it to them. The combination of your self-dramatizing stance as the brave and embattled defender of democracy and academic freedom against ignorant opponents of BDS, combined with your apparent total dismissal of every criticism from those who oppose your assumptions on these issues, is problematic. Problematic because your arguments continue to evade the issues.

    In terms of your arguments, the weak point I see is choosing to arguing from the consequences (as you perceive and present them), instead of actually addressing the criticisms made of BDS as being in large part an academic and cultural blacklist, and the criticisms of the Political Science Dept. for supporting such a blacklist.

    • Hampus June 6, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

      Corey never said much about whether BDS is justified or not, but more about how outrageous political pressure towards academic cenorship is. The rest of your post is a fanciful concoction of nonsense. The city threatening to pull funding because they host a discussion (not supported) of BDS is just plain wrong.

    • Wrong. The issue is whether or not continued public funding for a public university is contingent upon the whims of easily rolled politicians, listing always toward expediency, because cowed by the intimidations of reactionary hacks – hacks, who think that they can ALSO frighten students and professors into toeing their lines. And thus, ultimately, whether or not the public university system itself can remain an institution of learning and inquiry – or be bullied into becoming an extension and guarantor of the politics of the moment. In order to preserve its funding. Still not getting it, eh?

      • Malcolm Schosha June 6, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

        No. The issue is the Political Science Dept. co-sponsoring BDS, which is in substantial part an academic and cultural blacklist. There was never even a remote possibility of academic censorship at Brooklyn College. Presenting that as a possibility, and claiming that it was a possibility, was what I mean by argument from the consequences. That diversionary tactic misrepresented the BDS critics, and was used to avoid discussion the real problem of support for a blacklist.

    • Hampus June 8, 2013 at 4:23 am #

      Malcolm, The BDS movement wants to implement the same tactics used against South Africa to stop the occupation and get Israel to follow the international law. The Brooklyn college Political science department co-sponsered a panel on the BDS movement, exactly so that people can discuss what its issues are, just as they have sponsored sensitive questions in the past. Then the city tried to pull funding. THAT is the issue. Nobody cares what your opinions on BDS are, that’s not the issue. Academic freedom is so elemental to this question that you have to be pretty ingenious to bypass it and talk about your hobby-horse issue of the BDS being a “blacklist”. A diversion? So the city didn’t get several mayors to attack the event and threatened to pull funding?

  4. NoBigGovDuh (@NoBigGovDuh) June 6, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    I suspect that his initial criticism was influenced by a trusted person.

    People always deserve a second chance.

  5. j_900 June 7, 2013 at 7:07 am #

    What the strident opposition to the Brooklyn BDS event really highlighted is the knee-jerk antagonism to Israel criticism that masquerades as patriotic. Greenwald’s Guardian info re the threat by a ranking NYC Council member to cut off funding said it all. It was good to read that the event went off according to plan.

    • BarryB June 10, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

      It went off according to plan, and Williams was sandpapered to a nice even tone by Corey. But most people want hour-long tv episodes in which all is set correct at the end; and what Corey points out is that the only method of accountability will come at the election box. Williams has been shown to be severely flawed, at best, in this major test of principles. One can hope that primaries allow for better possibilities, but in far too many instances around the country, primaries either don’t happen, or are rigged for the party favorite. Leaving any in-office Dem in a Dem-leaning area to merely press the Evil!GOP!Candidate! button to get reelected.

      Political involvement and knowledge are the answer, but we’re taught as USians that all we need to do is pull a level. Information and thought are not required.

  6. Malcolm Schosha June 7, 2013 at 9:23 am #

    Naomi Allen wrote: <>

    It is probably a minor point, but a search of the BDS sit for the phrase “Movement for Palestinian Rights” gets no results. Perhaps it was a phrase used previously.

    BDS really is a movement against Israel, and not just a movement for Palestinian rights. Or do you dispute that?

    • Malcolm Schosha June 7, 2013 at 9:27 am #

      For some reason Naomi’s quote got deleted when I posted my comment. What she wrote was: …it was titled “The BDS Movement for Palestinian Rights”…

  7. BillR June 7, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    hophmi is an old-school hasbara operative. There’s even a Ministry of Hasbara in Israel:

    http://www.richardsilverstein.com/2011/12/10/ministry-of-hasbara-idf-has-become-israels-chief-delegitimizer/

    More from Chas Freeman on hasbara:

    http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article33770.htm

    • BillR, you have the best links! That Chas Freeman thing was outstanding. That explanation goes beyond “hasbara”, and provides a hermeneutic template for understanding the REAL way right-wing political culture works in the United States. Thank you, thank you for that link!

  8. Malcolm Schosha June 8, 2013 at 8:02 am #

    Hampus wrote: Nobody cares what your opinions on BDS are, that’s not the issue. Academic freedom is so elemental to this question that you have to be pretty ingenious to bypass it and talk about your hobby-horse issue of the BDS being a “blacklist”.

    …………………

    Nobody cares, or you don’t care?

    My point is that Cory, and many others, shifted the focus discussion by pretending there was a threat to academic freedom from those who were critical of the Political Science Dept co-sponsoring the BDS event. That shifting of the discussion was a smart move, but not an honest move, and there was never any threat to academic freedom from the critics of the BDS event. The actual threat to academic freedom is from the BDS attempts at academic and cultural blacklisting. Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein have both been critical of BDS, and apparently for exactly that reason.

    If I put my reasoning into the form of an argument it would be like this:

    *It is widely accepted that academic freedom must be defended against attempts at blacklisting.

    *BDS is an academic and cultural blacklist.

    *Academic freedom needs to be defended against BDS.

    If the two premisses are true, then the conclusion is also true. If you think the conclusion is not true, the burden of proof is on you. You will note the the BDS site itself uses the word “blacklist” to describe its goals.
    http://www.bdsmovement.net/2008/arab-league-may-blacklist-levant-jewellery-stores-17

    • Hampus June 8, 2013 at 11:40 am #

      Now you’re just being disingenous, there WAS a threat to pull funding, wasn’t there? Like I said, I don’t care about BDS that much, I don’t like them either, but to threaten to pull funding and drag high politicians to shut down the event is blatantly censorial. Corey, and nobody else, never said that BDS is justified or that you can’t criticise their approach, I don’t know where you get this from.

    • Malcolm Schosha writes:

      “If I put my reasoning into the form of an argument it would be like this:

      *It is widely accepted that academic freedom must be defended against attempts at blacklisting.

      *BDS is an academic and cultural blacklist.

      *Academic freedom needs to be defended against BDS.”

      Malcolm, you seem to be having some trouble in reaching the more recalcitrant of the respondents. Let me see if I can assist you in advancing your argument by suggesting an analogy of your argument’s structure in another more famous syllogism. By this means we hope to advance your position’s seemingly elusive, but soon to be made quite evident, clarity.

      #Ahem!#

      *All men have have beards*

      *Socrates was a man*

      *All men are Socrates*

      See? Clear as day! Oh, no need to thank me; thank Woody Allen, master of hermeneutics.

      Now, all of you stand back as the tide of the argument now turns inexorably in Mr. Schosha’s favor!

      • Malcolm Schosha June 10, 2013 at 12:56 pm #

        Your first premise (“All men have have beards”) is obviously false. I believe my premisses are both true, and you leave that untouched.

      • Malcolm Schosha June 10, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

        I should mention that I posted a comment two days ago that was “moderated” and as far as I can tell has not appeared in the discussion.

    • The order of your two premisses is not relevant — what is relevant is that one of them is false, prima facie. This is what ensures the false conclusion that you draw. But if you wish, I can re-order my model to more closely conform to your ill-logic. Behold:

      *Socrates was a man* [True, dat]

      *All men have have beards* [Uh, I, uh...]

      *All men are Socrates* [Wait, what?!]

      Hmm. This works quite well, actually. I haz been skooled by Malc’, and I am all better for it, yo! Thanks to him, the art of bad reasoning haz been raise-ed up a notch or three! Courtesy of ol’ MS, public university poli-sci departments everywhere will now tremble in face of our new anti-thought!

      And if that don’t work, we’ll get some elected hacks to threaten to pull ya’ll’s funding, ya hear?!

  9. edward scott June 11, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) – Is it closer to an organization or a list? Would their lists be “Blacklists” like McCarthy’s? Is BDS McCarthyism because it has a list?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Jumaane Williams and Dov Hikind | Corey Robin - December 6, 2013

    […] his stance on abortion, same-sex marriage, and the BDS controversy, I’m beginning to think Williams has a lot more in common with Dov Hikind than I […]

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