Keith Gessen, Joan Scott, and others weigh in on Brooklyn College controversy

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 Hikindhave 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.

Keith Gessen

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.



Joan Scott

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

Benjamin Kunkel

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.

Yours sincerely,

Benjamin Kunkel

Matthew Frye Jacobson

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
Yale University

If you wish to contact the Brooklyn College administration, contact info is here. As always, be polite, civil, and firm.


  1. Demetrius February 2, 2013 at 8:26 pm | #

    This just goes to show that ethnic groups with members that wield real economic or political power are less likely to experience racism or be seen as the scapegoat of the most recent American crisis.

  2. Jon Johanning February 2, 2013 at 8:40 pm | #

    It’s clear to me that people like this on the Right are getting more and more hysterical as they realize, especially since the November election, that the American people are slipping out of their grasp and entertaining heretical beliefs of all sorts. The Right are going to lash out more and more in all sorts of random directions, such as the McCarthyite attacks against Hagel in the Senate hearing as well as this Brooklyn College affair. We just have to expect these attacks to increase in number and force as the Right despairs more and more deeply, and do our best to fend them off.

    • Tom Baine February 3, 2013 at 10:45 am | #

      1) “the American people are slipping out of their grasp and entertaining heretical beliefs of all sorts”??? Not on the question of Israel. On that issue there is a totalitarian uniformity both in congress and among the voting public, including in the most liberal areas of the country like NY.
      2) “in all sorts of random directions”? There is nothing random about this at all. It’s a wide bright blue streak down the road.
      3) “and do our best to fend them off.” I completely agree.

      • zenner41 February 3, 2013 at 12:44 pm | #

        I don’t know what public opinion surveys say about the American public’s views on the Middle East conflict, but I doubt that most Americans, if they stop to think about the subject at all, would agree with the Dershowitz line exactly. (They do tend to be down on Muslims in general, true.)
        I tend to see this kind of explosive anger among right-wingers as a reaction to the recent reawakening (to some degree) of the Left. The Dershowitz types have much shorter fuses that even the Boehner types, but i think these phenomena belong to the same category.

      • zenner41 February 3, 2013 at 1:04 pm | #

        (I’m the same person; don’t know why this comment system signed me in as zenner 41.)


      • Tom Baine February 3, 2013 at 1:33 pm | #

        (replying to zenner41) Well I too would certainly hope they wouldn’t support the Dershowitz line. But I don’t see the slightest sign of that from the behavior of normally liberal politicians in Brooklyn (and certainly not from Democrats in Congress). Also, anger on the right long predates any perceived “reawakening on the left.” As far as I can tell, Karen Gould is being hung out to dry at best by the powers that be.

  3. Hampus February 3, 2013 at 2:54 am | #

    This is really disturbing, but I guess it’s not shocking; Dershowitz is known to willingly run rough-shod over any standard of decency in order to silence discussion about Isreal. I hope you guys stand up to these disgusting bullies, and I wish you guys all the best.

  4. BillR February 3, 2013 at 9:45 am | #

    If only some journalist had the guts to put together quotes of these Israel first racists and get that program aired.

  5. GSMR February 3, 2013 at 4:40 pm | #

    Dear Corey,

    Firstly, I apologize for the length of this message. I hope you have a chance to read it.

    The problem is not the event itself but the involvement of an academic department within the event. Such involvement sends certain messages to dissenting students, and inches dangerously close to an academic environment in which a particular ideology is privileged over others.

    Don’t you see why the department’s support of the event is a thorny problem for students both of the department and of the school who hold dissenting views from the BDS movement? It’s true, the department is not officially “endorsing” the event, but by putting its stamp on it, the department is making an explicitly political statement.

    If the ideas students learn in class dictate their political beliefs and/or level of advocacy, then that’s terrific, and it should be encouraged. But I don’t believe academic institutions are meant to be political. If an academic institution were to become political the environment of free and open inquiry that all academic institutions (should) hold dear, would be compromised.

    Professors have a deeply important right to teach whatever they see fit (within reason) in their classes. In these cases professors speak more as individuals than as members of the institution they work for. Their individual discretion is respected. But when a department signs off on a political event professors are no longer speaking as individuals but as an institutional collective — a representative of their department and their university. The statements they make as a collective reflect on the institution.

    If an administrator or academic department does want to wade into contentious debates, then I do believe both sides ought to be heard, simply because the department and/or institution are then speaking on behalf of its entire student body.

    Think about the message an anti-BDS political science student receives from this event. Now think about the message an SJP member and Brooklyn College political science major would receive from a department sponsored event honoring the IDF. It is an implicit show of support.

    Pro-Israel activists are not the only ones who view campus supported events as tacit approvals of the policies/views expressed within. There are dozens of videos in which Pro-Israel speakers are harassed and shouted down at campus events across the country. The distinction of whether the speakers were invited by the institution is hardly ever made. (Suffice it to say that anti-Israeli activists have a very strong case in opposing institutionally sponsored pro-Israel events.) This concern, a concern shared by those on both sides, should be given its due respect by media commentators, politicians and university administrators.

    To be clear, I’m not saying professors should be completely apolitical, that’s an impossible request. But when acting on behalf of an institution, divisive and controversial events should be organized by students, not professors and/or administrators. This is a slippery slope, and I understand the definition of what is “controversial” is problematic, but by examining this particular situation, it’s clear that BDS is divisive on BC’s campus and that many students on do not support it.

    I am fine with individual professors endorsing or helping to organize student-run political events. Just as long as those professors are supporting the event on their own behalf as individuals OR on behalf of a student run organization.

    For example, my campus’ MESA (Middle Eastern Students Association) chapter recently invited the Palestinian activist Sa’ed Atshan to speak. There was no “counter-event” and no students attempted to “balance” the event’s narrative. Multiple professors who were faculty advisers to MESA helped organize the event. This as they say, was perfectly kosher.

    Events such as these occur with numbing regularity. A two day BDS conference, an event far larger than BC’s single lecture, was held at the University of Pennsylvania. While many disagreed with the views expressed by involved speakers, the event itself went off without a hitch. The conference was organized by a student organization, PennBDS, and not the university itself. This is the key distinction.

    I see two reasonable courses of action:

    1) Hold the event as it is now but take the departmental sponsorship off.


    2) Keep the departmental sponsorship on and include opposing view-points.

    We may have reasonable disagreements. But to paint any opponent of this event as a neo-McCarthyite as Glenn Greenwald does, or as “slugs” as said by MJ Rosenberg, is intellectually dishonest. Such name calling skirts a serious debate. The same of course also goes for those who make disgusting remarks that compare BDSers to Nazis. Invective on both sides is counterproductive, but unsurprisingly ubiquitous.

    This is a thorny issue and neither side should be demonized. The debate over academic freedom and whether it applies only to individuals or to collectives that speak for an institution is an important and complex issue. We seem to have blown past that discussion and have gleefully situated ourselves in our respective ideological camps, with no intention to venture out in the near future.

    Naive as it may be, I hope this post can turn the clock back a couple of weeks and we can start this debate afresh.

    Best regards,

    • neffer February 4, 2013 at 1:02 am | #

      ” This is a thorny issue and neither side should be demonized. ”

      Yes and no. BDS really is a hate group. But we should avoid demonizing people. But making clear what BDS is does not demonize. Like hate groups always do, they are proud of their views. They see nothing wrong with what they are doing. They do not care that they are demonizing Jews, who mostly support Israel’s right to exist and have a lot at stake if Israel falls – a return to the way Jews were traditionally treated. After all, BDS its a higher cause.

      • Lalatech February 4, 2013 at 3:26 am | #

        And yet, somehow, I’m not surprised that Corey refused to respond to the above comment. What good is moral righteousness when it’s punctured by reasoned debate?

        How bout’ it professor?

    • Jackson February 4, 2013 at 9:07 pm | #

      Thanks GSMR. I didn’t realize until after I read your letter that Brooklyn College students are incapable of thinking independently. Your concern is touching.

      • GSMR February 6, 2013 at 12:39 am | #

        Your snark indicates the poverty of your own argument.

  6. Displaced Person February 3, 2013 at 5:14 pm | #

    Once again, the academy is reacting to an initiative from the Right, in this case a case of an organized “Heckler’s veto” (in First Amendment law terms) following well-established patterns of the Likud Party lobby. It is always right and good to defend academic freedom, but that leaves the initiative with the opponents of that freedom. I propose that your department organize a panel on the Likud Party Lobby this fall, relying on the evidence and statements of the individuals in this matter – all part of the record that they cannot deny. From Dershowitz down, you can ask the individuals to defend their lies and threats and explain their behavior. Let us see how many show up to participate. That would be an educational forum.

  7. If this panel can’t run at Brooklyn College then academic freedom is over in the CUNY system. It’s that’s simple. Faculty throughout all the CUNY campuses should go on strike over this issue. Palestine/Israel issues can’t be discussed at a public institution? This is a total disgrace and the end of freedom of speech and a liberal education as we know it.

    • adjunct February 4, 2013 at 4:30 am | #

      You might be right in a counterfactual world in which the debate was about whether this panel should be allowed to run. But that is not what the debate is about. The debate is about whether this panel should be co-sponsored by the political science department or whether it should be sponsored solely by the student organizations interested in conducting the panel. That’s a very different debate, as far as I can tell.

      I used the word ‘might’ above due to one small qualification: one might be concerned that there is something paradoxical in a demand for free speech for a panel whose aim is to silence the speech of others. If the BDS folk get their way, then a panel by Israeli academics would not be allowed to convene at CUNY. How would free speech be fairing then?
      I’m not arguing that these are sufficient grounds to silence these folks, but if free speech is the argument, the hypocrisy should be pointed out.

  8. sh February 4, 2013 at 11:40 am | #

    Hey corey good luck getting tenure

  9. Ben Fenster February 4, 2013 at 6:10 pm | #

    It is strange that a group promoting a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement would object to being subject to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

Comments are closed.