Brooklyn BDS Saga Continues: NYC Councilman Lewis Fidler Demands Poli Sci Hire Pro-Israel Faculty

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.


  1. Phil Perspective May 7, 2013 at 12:30 am | #

    So New York City Councilman Lewis Fidler is for apartheid and racism? Who knew?!?

  2. BillR May 7, 2013 at 6:37 am | #

    The Israeli historian Ilan Pappé would be a fine addition to the faculty.

  3. david mizner May 7, 2013 at 6:54 am | #

    Oh Christ. Now are we going to have to hear the mayoral candidates weigh in? I’m really looking forward to Weiner’s take.

  4. Patrick Sullivan May 7, 2013 at 8:22 am | #

    The Brooklyn College BDS saga may well be an issue in the election. Most candidates weighed in again at a debate hosted by the Arab American Association of NY: “Save for Liu, the top candidates doubled-down on their positions.” Thompson pushed the “both sides” argument.

  5. Roquentin May 7, 2013 at 10:21 am | #

    This takes me back to my days at Iowa State, when the campus Republicans got so bent out of shape about Michael Moore giving a lecture that they demanded Ann Coulter be allowed to speak at a later date. The university went through with it and she spoke a week or two later. If it’s any consolation, I don’t think a single political conversion occurred due to either speech. People go to these panels and events to reinforce what they already think is true most of the time, and to have someone tell them what they want to hear so they can feel good about their views. It falls under the heading of Jacques Ellul’s definition of “integration propaganda” which was designed to solidify the views of the already sympathetic.

    • The phenomenon you refer to is also called “confirmation bias”. However, one does have the burden of proving the empirical rightness of one’s claims. I leave it to the reader to investigate which of the two speakers has been more willing to undertake that project, and has had measurable success in doing so.

      • Roquentin May 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm | #

        It isn’t even so much that. People are very rarely persuaded by facts, rational arguments, and the like. Political beliefs should be considered much more like religious beliefs. They’re a package deal, and being part of a political camp involves accepting a basket of beliefs. You could even go so far as to compare these panels and lectures to a church service and sermon. Jacques Ellul, who I mentioned previously, was also a theologian and I would argue that it’s why he understood how belief, political or otherwise, functioned so well. Those who act as if beliefs are arrived at rationally, scientifically, by informed argument are hopelessly naive and understand precious little about how people think.

        I would argue that the reason they are so frightened by the BDS panel is also related to propaganda. For propaganda to really be effective it needs to be quasi-all encompassing. If there isn’t a uniformity in viewpoints, then it makes crystallizing the belief much more difficult. Their anger comes mostly from a having a panel which publicly contradicts their standard ideological narrative. This has nothing at all to do with “equal time,” and everything to do with the drowning out of all opposing viewpoints.

        • Good points. I would suggest that the “frightened” part has less to do with propaganda than with lived social relations. After all, there is a reason why some people may be suggestible on some talking points but not others — likely because such persons may be victims of policy rather than beneficiaries, and thus it would be difficult to get them to participate in their own subjugation by deploying even a well-executed propaganda program.

      • Malcolm Schosha May 7, 2013 at 5:24 pm | #

        A problem for BDS, and its supporters in the Political Science Dept of Brooklyn College, is that Noam Chomsky is not much more supportive of BDS than is Fidler. Norman Finkelstein does not like BDS either.

  6. hophmi May 21, 2013 at 10:45 am | #

    I’m sort of curious as to whether you believe the public is permitted to express an opinion on who should be hired at CUNY. It seems to me that Fidler has a right to express his opinion as anyone else does. Middle East studies involving a mix of the academic and political for many professors; wouldn’t you agree?

Leave a Reply