From Alan Dershowitz’s just published autobiography:
I loved Brooklyn College, and Brooklyn College loved—and still loves—me.
He then adds a footnote, which reads:
I guess this little exchange was the last straw:
New York City Councilman Lewis Fidler, the assistant majority leader who led the charge against my department’s co-sponsorship of a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) forum in February, is back in the saddle.
This time, according to The Jewish Week, he—and four other members of City Council—are demanding that the CUNY administration
develop a plan to “level the playing field” at Brooklyn’s political science department by endowing “a chair in the department for a visiting professor from Israel who reflects a more sympathetic view” about the country’s future.
Hardcore supporters of the State of Israel, off and on campus, have been gunning for my department for some time. Last month, The Jewish Week reported that the campus Hillel group and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York had teamed up to issue a statement claiming that
…the [BDS] forum also raised other issues that need to be addressed by the college’s administration, including the “eagerness of the Political Science Department to take positions that are politically-oriented,” the department’s hiring practices and a perception on the part of Jewish students that the faculty is “woefully biased” against Israel.
So now we have Fidler and four other officials of the state trying to make good on that promise by having the government impose a state-approved litmus test about who can and cannot get hired at CUNY.
Fidler, you’ll recall, is not shy about using state power to impose his views on what gets said on college campuses. Not only did he oppose the department’s co-sponsorship of the BDS forum, but he threatened to withhold government money from CUNY if it didn’t comply with his ideological demands. As he wrote to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould in late January:
A significant portion of the funding for CUNY schools comes directly from the tax dollars of the people of the State and City of New York. Every year, we legislators are asked for additional funding to support programs and initiatives at these schools and we fight hard to secure those funds. Every one of those dollars given to CUNY, and Brooklyn College, means one less dollar going to some other worthy purpose. We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our City—many of who would feel targeted and demonized by this program—want their tax money to be spent on.
We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong. So, should this event occur, we must strongly oppose it and ask you to reconsider any official support or sponsorship.
Fidler lost that round soundly. Given that he’s entering this one with even fewer allies, I assume he’ll lose this one too. But who knows?
Update (May 7, 8:30 am)
Commenter Patrick Sullivan just brought this article to my attention. At a community forum over the weekend, mayoral candidates were grilled about their positions on the Brooklyn College BDS panel controversy:
Debate over the much-talked about Brooklyn College panel on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel broke out in response to an audience question. Save for Liu, the top candidates doubled-down on their positions. “If you look at Brooklyn College, that wasn’t a question of freedom of speech, it was a question of should the college Political Science department be sponsoring a forum that, in that case, that pushed hate,” said Thompson, who said that both sides should have been represented at the panel that featured Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler, two proponents of BDS. Thompson spoke out against the BDS panel before it occurred alongside Dov Hikind, a right-wing (though a Democrat) pusher of Islamophobia linked to Jewish extremist groups. Thompson was booed at the forum for the answer, and it prompted a rejoinder from Albanese.
“What you don’t want is telling academics what should be taught, be said on a campus. I believe in more speech,” said Albanese. After De Blasio agreed with Thompson–and said that public colleges in particular should provide all viewpoints–Albanese said, “let me say this…Bill was just pandering.” After Albanese’s remarks, Thompson added, “if the Political Science Department is sponsoring the Klan, I want to have both sides put forward. That’s all I said.”
Thompson, De Blasio, Quinn and Liu signed a letter organized by Congressman Jerry Nadler that spoke out against BDS and said that they were “concerned that an academic department has decided to formally endorse an event that advocates strongly for one side of a highly-charged issue…By excluding alternative positions from an event they are sponsoring, the Political Science Department has actually stifled free speech by preventing honest, open debate.” A second letter from the same group backtracked slightly.
At the forum, Liu backtracked further on his actions in the lead-up to the BDS panel and noted that the Political Science Department routinely sponsors a variety of events, which garnered applause. “It was a very quick letter, we were given very short time to do it, something that in hindsight I shouldn’t have signed, and that’s why we had the second letter to clarify our position.”
When Quinn doubled-down on her position and said that it was important to have “both sides” of the debate on BDS at the event, the crowd booed once again.
Kate Taylor, a reporter for the New York Times, just tweeted these.
.@mikebloomberg forcefully defends right of Brooklyn College to organize BDS conference, while noting he’s a strong supporter of Israel.
— Kate Taylor (@katetaylornyt) February 6, 2013
Mayor: “If u want to go to a university where the govt decides what…subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply…in N Korea”
— Kate Taylor (@katetaylornyt) February 6, 2013
Update (12:10 pm)
According to a transcription of Bloomberg’s remarks that was prepared by Emily Stanback, this is the entire statement he made:
Well look, I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS as they call it, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. As you know I’m a big supporter of Israel, as big a one as you can find in the city, but I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. I mean, 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.
The last thing that we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run, and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students.
You know, the freedom to discuss ideas, including ideas that people find repugnant, lies really at the heart of the university system, and take that away and higher education in this country would certainly die.
This is a city that loves and protects freedom—academic freedom, religious religious freedom, sexual freedom, cultural freedom, political freedom. We are the freest city in the world, and that’s why we’re the greatest city in the world.
That’s a very strong endorsement of my department’s position.
In 1942, Brooklyn College hired a young instructor to teach a summer course on Modern European history. Though academically trained, the instructor was primarily known as the author of a series of incendiary articles in the Jewish press on Jewish politics and Zionism.
An active though ambivalent Zionist, the instructor did not shy from scorching criticism of the movement for Jewish settlement in Palestine. She had already come to some unsettling conclusions in private. In an unpublished essay, she compared the Zionists to the Nazis, arguing that both movements assumed that the Jews were “totally foreign” to other peoples based on their “inalterable substance.” She wrote in a letter that she found “this territorial experiment” of the Jews in Palestine “increasingly problematic.” By the spring of 1942, she was more public in her criticisms. In March, she wrote that the Irgun—the Jewish paramilitary group whose most prominent commander was Menachem Begin—was a “fascist organization” that “employed terrorist methods in their fight against Arabs in Palestine.”
In the coming years, despite her continuing involvement in Zionist politics, she would grow even more critical of the movement. The very idea of the State of Israel, she would write in 1943, was “based on the idea that tomorrow’s majority [the Jews] will concede minority rights to today’s majority [the Palestinians], which indeed would be something brand-new in the history of nation-states.” In 1944, she accused a circle of Jewish fighters of believing “not only that ends justify means but also that only an end that can be achieved by terror is worth their effort.” By the end of that year, she had come to the conclusion that the extreme position within Zionism, which she consistently associated with fascism, was now the mainstream position of David Ben Gurion, and that that fascist tendency had been latent within Theodor Herzl’s original vision all along. By 1948, the year the State of Israel was founded, she would write: “The general mood of the country, moreover, has been such that terrorism and the growth of totalitarian methods are silently tolerated and secretly applauded.”
The name of that instructor was Hannah Arendt.
If Brooklyn College could tolerate the instructor who wrote those words in 1942—and would go onto write those words of 1944 and 1948—surely it, and the City of New York, can tolerate the co-sponsorship by the political science department of a panel on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2013.
My department at Brooklyn College—political science—is Ground Zero of a controversy over Israel/Palestine, academic freedom, and free speech. Early in January, we were asked by a student group, Students for Justice in Palestine, to co-sponsor a panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). The panel features Omar Barghouti and world-renowned philosopher Judith Butler. We agreed to co-sponsor.
Since then, things have exploded. The usual suspects—people like Alan Dershowitz and Dov Hikind—have weighed in; we’re being called anti-Semites, comparisons to the Holocaust are being made, and I got this lovely bit of hate mail: “Just writing to wish you and your family the worst…You are being a piece of f*cking trash, and you’re on the side of the antisemites and Islamic jihadists now.”
What’s different in this case is that progressive elected officials, including all three top mayoral candidates and four members of Congress, are also weighing in, trying to get the president of Brooklyn College to force my department to withdraw our co-sponsorship of this discussion. We’re talking people who control the purse strings of CUNY and people with real state power. This is straightforward political coercion.
Rather than give my account of the story, I’m going to give you some good links to catch yourself up. I also want to post here some letters from various supporters.
Glenn Greenwald probably has the most exhaustive treatment, including exposes of Dershowitz’s hypocrisy that will take your breath away. Make sure to read his update; it’s, well, I don’t even know how to describe it.
Erika Eichelberger at Mother Jones goes after the members of Congress, who claim that any speaker on a college campus should be balanced with another speaker of opposite views. (Will be curious whether next time the senior senator of NY speaks at Brooklyn College commencement, as Charles Schumer does virtually every year, they ask the College president to put someone on stage to offer the opposing view.)
Amy Schiller at Daily Beast gathers these unbelievable nuggets from Dov Hikind:
Hikind called for the department vote on sponsoring the panel to be public: “Is someone hiding behind someone’s skirt? Release the vote to the public! Those who want to sponsor the event, put your names down!” He noted just prior to the press conference that the college president Gould has cancelled her upcoming trip to Albany to request increased funds for the university. Hikind added that he was disappointed that she would not be able to advocate for additional funding: “You don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that I said I would make her life a little miserable?”
Finally, I myself had an interesting exchange with New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who issued a public letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, in which he asked for her “intervention with [Political Science] 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.” Here’s the kicker: Williams is a former student of mine. The class he took with me? Civil liberties.
Our department, whose policy on co-sponsoring talks and panels you can find here, has had an outpouring of public support. Here are just a few of the many letters that have been sent to President Gould on our behalf.
Dear President Gould,
My name is Keith Gessen; I’m an editor at the Brooklyn-based literary and political magazine n+1, as well as a writer and translator here in Brooklyn.
As a fan of Brooklyn College, I’m writing to express my support for the Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti event, and to say how disturbing I find all the political pressure that’s being brought to bear on the College. I was particularly concerned by the letter from “progressive politicians” proposing to instruct you on the meaning of academic freedom. That Brooklyn’s politicians do not know who Judith Butler is does not mean that people in the community do not know that she is one of the most admired, subtle, and interesting philosophers in our country, and that having her speak in Brooklyn on such a vexed and painful issue as divestment in Israel is a significant intellectual and political event.
In short, I hope you’ll continue to hold fast, and will let us in the community know if there’s anything we can do to be helpful in our support. I look forward to attending the event.
Dear President Gould,
I write to applaud the courageous statement you issued last week in defense of academic freedom at Brooklyn College. As a former chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, I can say I haven’t seen a finer defense of the right of students and faculty to engage in critical examination of difficult issues. On this question, the supporters of Israel have been notoriously remiss, being willing to violate deeply held principles of academic freedom in order to cynically support their political cause. Only their views, it seems, have the right to free expression; those they disagree with they would ban from any public hearing. You have said it more eloquently than I can–this is not a situation universities should countenance. I urge you to stand fast, to reiterate what you’ve said on this question, and to permit the meeting on BDS to go forward as planned. Too many university administrators have been cowed by the thuggish tactics of these lobbyists on behalf of the current right-wing Israeli government. I hope you will provide the leadership we need to prevent that from happening at Brooklyn College.
Joan W. Scott
Dear President Gould,
As a writer and an admirer of Brooklyn College and its remarkable faculty, I’m contacting you to urge you not to submit to pressure from local politicians and encourage or compel the political science department to rescind its co-sponsorship of the upcoming panel on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Clearly such co-sponsorship does not constitute the endorsement of a political position that deserves to be aired without eliciting threats of financial or political reprisal.
The attempted political bullying of committed researchers and serious thinkers is of course beyond your control. But it rests with administrators like you to resist such tactics and take a stand for academic freedom. I don’t doubt you will do just that. But encouragement in the right course can be useful in situations like the one you face, and please know that you have mine.
Dear President Gould,
I am writing in my capacity as President of the American Studies Association to urge you to stand up against the pressure to force the Political Science Department at Brooklyn College to withdraw their co-sponsorship of the upcoming event on BDS. Though couched in the language of “academic freedom,” much of the opposition to this event–including the recent letter from a group of New York office-holders–is odious in its conflation of the department’s merely co-sponsoring a discussion on the one hand with the university’s “officially endorsing” certain views on the other. This proposition corrodes the spirit and the very mission of a university, whose raison d’être is to create space for expressions without having to worry about the appearance of “officially endorsing” them. It is especially disturbing when voiced by elected officials in direct violation of the intellectual autonomy of a university in their jurisdiction. Surely these office-holders know that their constituents, including New Yorkers in general and Brooklyn College students in particular, have easy access to the strong arguments, views, analyses, and passions arrayed against BDS. Their “equal time” argument is itself a familiar tactic for shutting down discussion; their attention to “academic freedom,” disingenuous at best, a ruse at worst.
Neither I nor the American Studies Association are concerned here with a position on BDS; but we do know the dangers in elected officials trying to dictate the content of university centered discussions, courses, or events. BDS represents precisely the sort of minoritarian speech that academic freedom is meant to protect, and I urge you to reject the specious arguments to the contrary.
Matthew Frye Jacobson
William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History
If you wish to contact the Brooklyn College administration, contact info is here. As always, be polite, civil, and firm.