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.