Tag Archives: Judith Butler

Who Really Supports Hate Speech at Brooklyn College?

8 Feb

In all the back and forth on academic freedom, on the procedural ins and outs of sponsorship and co-sponsorship, endorsement and balance, one issue never really got taken up on this blog or in the public conversation: the question of hate speech.

The critics of my department never ceased to call BDS proponents (and by implication, and sometimes not even implication, my department) anti-Semitic and the BDS position “hate speech.” I think the claim is risible, and I won’t even bother refuting it here: I’d merely ask anyone who’s read Judith Butler’s remarks or listened to Omar Barghouti’s talk (I haven’t yet seen a transcript or a video of his talk, but here’s a video of virtually an identical talk he gave at Yale the day before he spoke at Brooklyn College) to show me one sentence, one phrase, one word, that could be characterized as hate speech or anti-Semitism.

Then, I ask you to consider this. In March 2011, David Horowitz spoke at Brooklyn College. Someone yesterday brought to my attention this report from the event. A few highlights:

Given this context, it was all the more disturbing last night when I looked across the crowd and saw tears run down the face of a member of the Palestine Club as Horowitz said to the group of mostly nodding heads, “All through history people have been oppressed but no people has done what the Palestinians have done—no people has shown itself so morally sick as the Palestinians have.”

Horowitz, who admitted he had actually never even been to Israel, proceeded to give everyone a lesson in Middle East politics: according to him, Muslims in the Middle East are “Islamic Nazi’s” who “want to kill Jews, that’s their agenda.” He added later, “all Muslim associations are fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The most revealing moment came when a young Arab-American woman directed a question to Horowitz and the audience: “You talk about Muslims as if you know them—We have a Muslim American Society, we have a Palestine Club [on campus]. I want to raise the question to any of the Jews in this room, and students, have you guys ever been threatened by a Muslim on campus or an Arab?” To this, the crowd almost unanimously spun around in their seats to face the young woman and replied “yes.” Someone shouted, “and we’re scared when we see Muslims on buses and airplanes too.”

Horowitz encouraged anti-Muslim hate by telling the crowd, “no other people have sunk so low as the Palestinians have and yet everybody is afraid to say this,” claiming that Muslims are a “protected species in this country” and that he’s “wait[ing] for the day when the good Muslims step forward.”

(NB: I have not checked the account of Horowitz’s remarks above against the video of the event itself, which can be found here. If anyone brings to my attention any errors in that account of what Horowitz said, I will immediately correct them here.)

Horowitz delivered those remarks in the Woody Tanger Auditorium, which is in the Brooklyn College Library, the crown jewel of our campus. The event was introduced by a Brooklyn College librarian, a professor who delivered her remarks from the podium, which was emblazoned with “The Woody Tanger Auditorium.” This is what she said:

I want to welcome everyone to the Brooklyn College library. First I would like to thank Mr. Horowitz for joining us. I’m sure it will be an interesting, thought-provoking and spirited discussion. It is appropriate that tonight’s event is taking place in the library. Libraries play an important role in our society. They offer free access to ideas, a place where people may consider different points of view. Brooklyn College and the Brooklyn College library have a strong commitment to the open exchange of ideas. It is in this spirit that we welcome you tonight. We ask that each of you be respectful to our guest, and respectful of everyone’s right to express their opinions, and that you not speak out of order.

Again, I’d like to move beyond the procedural questions that have dominated the discussion for the last week or so to the more substantive question of hate speech: Who engages in it and who does not?

And to ask two follow-up questions:

First, how is it that the comments of Horowitz can be so easily admitted into the mansion of “the open exchange of ideas” while the comments of Butler and Barghouti seem to threaten the very foundation of that edifice?

And, second, what is it about this culture that people would get so exercised by the humanistic sentiments voiced by Butler and Barghouti, even with the co-sponsorship of the political science department, while giving the vile and vicious comments of Horowitz—and the blessings of its host, the Brooklyn College Library (“interesting, thought-provoking and spirited”)—a pass?

Tonight at Brooklyn College

8 Feb

“What does one do with one’s words but reach for a place beyond war?” So said Judith Butler tonight at Brooklyn College, in one of the most moving statements of the evening.

Three quick observations from the event.

First, all predictions to the contrary, the republic, the Jewish people, and Brooklyn College survived.

Second, Butler and Barghouti both—but really Butler in particular—evinced a genuine sense of place in their remarks. Butler clearly had spent the week thinking about this controversy. She drilled down and spoke directly to it, using it as an opportunity to reflect upon words and their power—an old theme for Butler, but given a new cast and urgency by the events leading up to tonight’s talk.

Third, what got lost in this entire controversy is that Brooklyn College is a real place with real students—many of whom never get a chance to hear an Omar Barghouti or a Judith Butler. At more elite universities, such events are routine (in just the last three days, Barghouti has spoken at Penn, Yale, and UC Irvine). At a place like Brooklyn College, they are precious and rare. They provide our students with something that students elsewhere take for granted: a chance to reflect and think about politics and culture with someone who doesn’t talk down to them, who models in her speech what politics at its best can be about, who makes demands on her audience, who shows that there is a world of words beyond war.

I’ve heard lots of criticism of our decision to co-sponsor, but none tonight seems more fatuous and ill-conceived—none more out of touch with the reality on the ground—than the claim that somehow we in the political science department were betraying our educational mission by attaching our name to this event. The word educate derives from the Latin educare: to draw out, to bring out, of the self. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who attended this event tonight, and who witnessed the students who put it on and the students who sat in the audience, not seeing how they were pulled out of themselves and drawn into the wider world. Whether it was the moderator warming up to her role (“Please ask your question”), the anti-BDS student working toward formulating his critique, or the audience wrestling with what they were hearing.

I don’t expect our critics ever to understand any of this: they bang about in a world of permanent polemic (and none more so than those who think that they don’t). But for everyone else, and especially my department, tonight should be remembered as one of Brooklyn College’s finest moments.

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