In late August and early September 2001, the United Nations held an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa. The event turned into an anti-Israel (and anti-Jew) hate-fest at which so-called human rights activists lamented the fact that Hitler did not “finish the job” and where Arab lawyers handed out booklets with swastikas superimposed over the Jewish Star of David.
Jews who attended the conference, which branded Israel a genocidal, apartheid state and a legitimate target for boycotts, divestment and sanctions, were told that they could not participate in the hearings because they could not be objective about Israel. Officials responsible for the security at the event told Jewish leaders from the United States that their safety could not be assured.
With the help of anti-Israel activists and the school’s political science department, Brooklyn College provided a refresher course about the connection between anti-Zionist activism and anti-Jewish behavior. On Feb. 7, 2013, the school hosted a forum organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, a well-known anti-Israel group, which promoted the cause of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Students at the school raised concerns about the prospect of the event creating a hostile environment for Jews at the campus. In response to these concerns – which proved to be prescient given what happened the night of the event – college officials invoked the rights of free speech and academic freedom to legitimize their decision to host the event and allow the political science department to co-sponsor the event.
Adherence to these principles was thrown out the window when police working for the City University of New York (of which Brooklyn College is a part), reportedly escorted – without explanation – four pro-Israel Jews from the event in full-view of school officials at the event. To make matters worse, a yarmulke-wearing Jew covering the story for the New York Daily News was also denied access to the forum, despite having been given press credentials for the event.
Writing in the Gatestone Institute, Alan Dershowitz responded to the events with the following assessment:
There is, apparently, strong evidence to corroborate the accounts that pro-Israel students, especially those wearing yarmulkes or “looking” Jewish, were deliberately excluded, even though they secured written permission to attend. There is also corroboration of the accusation that pro-Israel students who managed to get into the event were thrown out when they refused to turn over to the organizers anti-BDS leaflets they wished to distribute. When these students complained to an official of the college, he reportedly replied that the anti-Israel students who were running the event were “calling the shots” and he could therefore do nothing.
In sum, the right to free speech and academic freedom, which was invoked to protect the rights of anti-Israel protesters at Brooklyn College, was apparently denied to pro-Israel Jews who were treated like the enemy within whose mere presence at an event was regarded as a threat to discourse itself and whose rights do not matter.
The result was a scene eerily reminiscent of the ghetto-benches established at colleges and universities in pre-World War II Poland, where Jews were forced to sit to one side of the classroom to highlight their presence of Jews in institutions of higher learning in the country.
Sponsored by Political Science Department
The controversy came to light in late January when a group of students at Brooklyn College criticized the school’s political science department for co-sponsoring a pro-BDS event organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, a well-known anti-Israel group. The speakers at the conference were to be Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler, both well-known anti-Israel activists who have gained prominence by demonizing Israel and whitewashing the sins of its adversaries.
According to an article published in Matzav.com on Jan. 24, the students called on the department to rescind its partnership, stating presciently: “We believe that the department’s sponsorship serves to condone and legitimize anti-Jewish bigotry, and that it will contribute significantly to a hostile environment for Jewish students on our campus.”
The story hit the New York Post in an article published on Jan. 27 in which Brooklyn College spokesman Jeremy Thompson stated that the school had not “had any calls for the event to be canceled,” but that people did ask “whether it’s appropriate for the political science department to be sponsoring this event.”
That changed two days later, when several members of the New York City Council sent a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould explicitly asking that the event be canceled.
The authors stated (accurately) that one of the speakers at the planned event (Judith Butler) had described Hamas and Hezbollah as “progressive social movements.” The letter asked Gould to cancel the event, and barring that, “to remove your school’s official support for it.” The letter also reminded Gould that the CUNY system – of which Brooklyn College is a part – receives a significant amount of funding from “the people of the State and City of New York.” The closing paragraph of the letter read as follows:
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. We look forward to your response.
On Jan. 31, 2013 another group of New York politicians issued a letter affirming the right of students and academicians at Brooklyn College to express their views, and presumably hold the conference. At the same time, they expressed concerns that “an academic department has decided to formally endorse an event that advocates strongly for one side of a highly-charged issue…” The lawmakers called on Brooklyn College’s political science program to withdraw its endorsement of the event.
Alan Dershowitz, an alumnus of Brooklyn College weighed in on the issue with a piece in the Huffington Post on Feb. 1 2013. In the article, Dershowitz stated explicitly he had no problem with “a BDS campaign being conducted by radical students at Brooklyn College or anywhere else. Students have a right to promote immoral causes on college campuses… My sole objection is to the official sponsorship and endorsement of BDS by an official department of a public (or for that matter private) college.”
On Feb. 4, 2013, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould issued a statement about the conference that said the school did not endorse the opinions expressed by the speakers at the upcoming conference. The school, did however, “uphold their right to speak, and the rights of our students and faculty to attend, listen, and fully debate.” The statement continued:
We also encourage our students and faculty to explore these issues from multiple viewpoints and in a variety of forums so that no single perspective serves as the sole source of information or basis for consideration.
In addition, as I have said on several occasions, our college community values mutual respect and civil discourse. We ask all students, faculty, staff, and guests on our campus to conduct themselves accordingly so that Brooklyn College continues to be a learning environment where all may discuss and debate issues of importance to our world.
Paisley Currah, chair of Brooklyn College’s political science department, responded to the controversy in a Feb. 5, 2013 in an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the professor said the department cosponsors events at the school in an effort to support “the free exchange of ideas.” Currah also expressed outrage over the letter from members of the New York City Council that reminded BC’s president Karen Gould who paid the freight at the school. “This interference is jaw-dropping,” he wrote. “Elected officials are demanding that a department withdraw its cosponsorship of a panel on a college campus because they find the issue under discussion ‘odious and wrong.’ They back that demand with an explicit threat to the funding of the City University of New York, and to Brooklyn College. All in the name of protecting academic freedom.”
That same day, The New York Times published an editorial defending the decision by BC’s president Karen Gould to proceed with the event. The editorial also condemned the members of New York’s City Council for threatening to withhold funds from the school. “Such intimidation chills debate and makes a mockery of the ideals of academic freedom,” the New York Times opined.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg weighed in on the controversy. On Feb. 7 – the day of the forum itself – Bloomberg defended Brooklyn College’s decision to host the event: “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 upshot is that the Brooklyn College allowed the event to take place – with the sponsorship of the political science department – on the grounds that to do otherwise would be to violate the right to free speech and the principle of academic freedom at the school.
Sadly, (and predictably) enough, these principles were forgotten when it came time to protect the rights of pro-Israel students who attended the event. The New York Daily News reported the following:
Senior Melanie Goldberg and three classmates were escorted out of the event, which featured the founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, by security officers shortly after it began.
“The whole point of having this debate was that it would be an open academic forum where I would be allowed to ask questions,” said Goldberg, who is studying journalism. “So I came prepared to ask questions.”
But when Goldberg took out her questions on handouts for the main speaker, BDS founder Omar Barghouti, she was asked by a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, which organized the event, to hand them over.
“Someone came to me and said, ‘Give me all your papers, or you’ll be forcibly removed from the event,’ ” she recalled. “Not only was it a violation of my freedom of speech, but they made sure to silence me.”
The story includes another troubling detail: “Members of media outlets — including a Daily News reporter who was wearing a yarmulke — were also removed from the event despite reserving places to cover the forum.”
Goldberg’s personal testimony, available here, provides more troubling information. She reports that she was expelled from the event, in violation of her academic freedom, in full view of an official from Brooklyn College, who did not intervene.
Afterwards, a public relations officer for the school stated that the students were removed from the event because they were being disruptive. (Later the school backtracked, and announced it was going to investigate what actually happened the night of the event. School President Karen Gould said “If we learn that these students were denied that opportunity without cause, as they allege, the decision to have them removed will have been inappropriate and the college will issue a formal apology.”)
The controversy – which broke the day after the event – did not appear on the radar of New York Times columnist Stanley Fish. In the piece published on the paper’s blog on Feb. 11 – three days after the event, Fish lauded the school for defending the principles of free speech and academic freedom, stating that “[b]y the time the event occurred and went off smoothly,” some of the school’s earlier critics had either taken their names off a letter they had signed “and others had softened their stance.”
The fact is, the event did not go off “smoothly,” unless of course there is something “smooth” about pro-Israel Jews being singularly removed – with the force of the state – without explanation.
The controversy raises an obvious question: Why did Brooklyn College administrators and professors protect the rights to free speech and academic freedom of the anti-Israel organizers at the school but failed to protect the rights of Israel’s Jewish supporters at the school?