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Attack on NY 'boycott Israel' panel threatens academic freedom

After Alan Dershowitz started a campaign against a BDS panel at Brooklyn College, the institution’s funding was threatened by ‘pro-Israel’ officials. The college stuck to its guns, but the entire fiasco is an excellent example of the double standard ailing the debate on Israel in the U.S.

Israel is once again at the center of a heated debate in the U.S., pitting the so-called “pro-Israel” types against the so-called “anti-Israel” types. This time it’s not Obama, it’s not Chuck Hagel – it’s Brooklyn College.

An event scheduled to take place at the institution tomorrow (Thursday) will feature UC Berkeley professor and Jewish Voice for Peace board member Judith Butler and Palestinian human rights activist Omar Barghouti. Both will discuss the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), whose goal is to apply pressure on Israel with non-violent economic tools, into ending its violations of Palestinian human rights and to abide by international law. Supreme Israel cheerleader Alan Dershowitz, who created the controversy, claims that the problem is not about the event itself but about the fact that it is being co-sponsored by the college’s political science department, which he says amounts to a formal endorsement of BDS. As Dershowitz wrote in the Huffington Post last Friday, “Of course, the event should go forward, but it should be sponsored by students and outside groups, not by a department of the college. The same should be true of pro-Israel events.”

Following his argument, several public officials in New York, among them N.Y. Congressman Jerrold Nadler,*  threatened to pull funds from Brooklyn College if it goes ahead with the event. This of course implicates those opposing the BDS panel in suppressing academic freedom and generally acting like McCarthyesque watchdogs – a trait which has become all too common among so-called Israel supporters in the U.S.

Brooklyn College President Karen Gould wrote a letter stating the event will continue as planned and explaining why she stands behind the decision:

The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event…Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country.  Indeed, this spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system.

Glenn Greenwald has also already explained poignantly and exhaustively why Dershowitz’s argument is unfounded, demonstrating that there are plenty of instances in which departments in various institutions have sponsored controversial events – and they did so without providing a counter panel to “balance” the topic.

For more details on the story, I recommend reading Greenwald’s coverage. The New York Times has also been covering the story.

As far as I, and others who write about the “pro-Israel” paradigm are concerned, the story here is not the panel or the fact that a specific department is sponsoring it – but rather that a panel expressing ideas that seek to undermine current Israeli policies can cause such a storm, to the point that a college’s funding is being threatened (a college that has a substantial Jewish student population and of which Alan Dershowitz is a graduate).

As Dox Waxman pointed out: ”Whatever was actually said at the event is much less significant than simply the fact that it took place at all.”

It reminds me of what a former colleague of mine in New York said to me back in 2005, when the BDS movement just began. BDS’s most effective tool, he explained, is not its ability to actually alter Israeli policy or facts on the ground, but the attention it manages to stir up in the U.S. and around the world about Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.

Regardless of what one thinks of the BDS movement, the Brooklyn College fiasco is an excellent example of the double standard ailing the debate on Israel in the U.S., and how anti-democratic and anti-liberal those who claim to support Israel can be. By trying to censor any independent discussion of a boycott of Israel, they are not discrediting the BDS movement, but themselves.

Congressman Nadler’s aide called to my attention that he is not one  of the NY officials that threatened to cut funds from Brooklyn College, but rather signed onto a letter objecting to the political science department’s co-sponsorship of the event. 

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  • COMMENTS

    1. michael livingston

      Yes and no. There are certainly efforts to inhibit debate about Israel and they are wrong. But I think you are perhaps a bit naive about BDS also. It includes some good faith critics of Israeli policy but some for whom it is simply a respectable way of trying to destroy it. Of course, one has a right to support the latter too, but should be clear if doing so.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        Michael Livingston, you strike me as a reasonable person so I’m surprised to see you taking the same absurd “destroy Israel” line as the likes of XYZ here.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          You see, Ariestiedeies, each and every reasonable, honest and informed person realizes perfectly well that BDS movement seeks no less than destruction of Israel.

          It is clearly said in their statement, specifically, articles A and C:

          a. putting an end to Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and to dismantling the Separation Wall; for

          c. Israeli respect, protection, and promotion of the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

          Since you might not get it by yourself I’ll elaborate: Introducing 7 000 000 Arab citizens to Israel and granting them equal rights would inevitably turn Israel into yet another failed Arab state.

          Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            The Zionist argument against BDS is like arguing against surgery for a cancer. “Without my cancer, I won’t be the same!”

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            And which part of Israel is cancer to be removed?
            Zionism? Judaism? Jews? Arabs maybe?

            Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            Look in the mirror.

            Reply to Comment
          • vildechaye

            Most disingenuous answer to a very good question.

            Reply to Comment
          • Chaz

            It is truly tragic when people believe that the respect, protection, and promotion of the rights of Palestinian refugees is a threat to Israel’s existence.

            Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      Most Israelis would agree with the following:
      Anyone who supports BDS against Israel is an enemy of Israel. Peter Beinart is an enemy of Israel. Saying like Beinart does that “I love Israel so much I want to see it boycotted and condemned” is out and out hypocrisy. Judith Butler, who calls HIZBULLAH and HAMAS “progressive” organizations, hates Israel, and I would go so far as to say she hates humanity, if she supports organizations like those which terrorize and repress their own people.

      Opposition to Israeli policies is legitimate, but supporting BDS is nothing less than a declaration of war against Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Chaz

        A BDS campaign is not “war,” what a ridiculous suggestion.

        Reply to Comment
        • Piotr Berman

          On the face of it, XYZ is not making a suggestion but reporting what Israeli majority thinks.

          Basically, they conceptualize almost everything as “war”, and opponents as “enemies”. Which is one reason why “bilateral talks” cannot go anywhere without outside pressure like BDS.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Even Mayor Bloomberg has take an unequivocal stand supporting Brooklyn College’s right to hold this conference.

      I’ll quote from his press release : “Well look, I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS as they call it, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. As you know I’m a big supporter of Israel, as big a one as you can find in the city, but I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. I mean, 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.”

      Reply to Comment
      • metta2uall

        Nice one though I wish the pro-BDS activists would’ve chosen a strategy that wouldn’t alienate people like Bloomberg so much, for example calling on restrictions on military aid to Israel instead of a general BDS of civilian enterprises.

        Reply to Comment
      • Boxthorn

        Maybe if the organizers threatened to serve soda pop he would have had a different opinion.

        Priorities!

        Reply to Comment
    4. rsgengland

      I had the misfortune to read the Greenwald piece in The Guardian.
      It was an almost hysterical diatribe against anybody that voices support for Israel.
      He accused people like Alan Dershowitz, with whom he disagrees of being crazed and hysterical, but fails to justify his claims.
      He always takes an anti-Israeli and ‘Israel is always wrong’ stance,
      irrespective of the facts or evidence.
      As far as the college is concerned,if the polital science department sponsors a debate on as divisive an issue as Israel, but is only sponsoring one point of view, then that must count as endorsement of that point of view.
      If the college is publicly funded, then it is not entitled to endorse only one viewpoint.
      If the students sponsor a debate with only one viewpoint, and the funding is their own, then there can be no issue.

      Reply to Comment
      • ToivoS

        Sorry rsgengland, but faculty at public universities in the US have rights of academic freedom. They are not required to present every side of any issue. They may choose to do so, but the state cannot compel them to do so. You obviously do not understand the concept of academic freedom. Here is a hint: maybe not in Israel but it is a freedom that is recognized in US law.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Where’s the threat to academic freedom if Congressman Nadler did not, in fact, write or sign a letter demanding that Brooklyn College cancel the event or suffer financial retaliation?

      Reply to Comment
      • ToivoS

        Nadler is within his rights to raise objections to this forum. He is not within his rights (as a representative of the state) to threaten BC for permitting this program to go forward. I accept his disclaimer that he did not do so. That is what academic freedom is all about.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Mikey

      Why does the author call this a “fiasco”? The event took place, the college president and the NY mayor himself took strong stands in support of the department’s right to hold the conference, the city counsel people have backed off their threats and some withdrew their signatures from threatening letters. All in all, this is the opposite of fiasco, this is the triumph of academic freedom.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        Call it a thwarted fiasco. Publicity made the extremists back down – for once.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Mairav Zonszein

      @Eyal Allweil thanks you for pointing out the Bloomberg article.

      @Zbraiter – Congressman Nadler did not call to pull funds but other NY officials did.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Monir

      This is a healthy debate from all sides. I just wonder why there should be a blind full support for Israel from every one? This phenomena, is almost unique to Israel. Who said that all people should support Israel all the time, on every thing it does?! Why does any body who dares to criticize it, is always demonized and labeled with Zionist invented names, then accused of hating the Jews? I don’t have to repeat the labels ,you are all very familiar with them as they are way over used in my opinion, by Israel defenders. Does any one sees anything wrong ,or out of order with that, or is it just me? Do you think, that is going to back fire one day?
      I was very disturbed watching the Hearing (Interrogation) of Senator Hagel nomination. Was he nominated for the defense minister of Israel, or the United States of America? Because according to some sources, Israel ‘s name came up 166 times, in his questioning of his loyalty and commitment to Israel. I must not know where I am. I thought I was in America !?

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        The phenomenon is unique to America.

        Reply to Comment
    9. Avrumele Avramovich

      BDS is not a movement dedicated to “criticizing current Israeli policies” as some of the responders here would have it. It is a movement dedicated to dismantling the State of Israel. Now, one can agree or disagree with that goal, but criticism of BDS is not the same as criticism of an organization like J Street or its predecessors like Breira. I don’t care whether they speak in Brooklyn or not. I do oppose their goal. And I am a firm believer in dismantling settlements and establishing a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. But that’s not what BDS stands for.

      Reply to Comment
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