A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported Pro Palestinian speakers attract protests outside. The event at Brooklyn college was a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) event focused on delegitimizing Israel. To read the New York Times account, one doesn’t get a sense of what was controversial about the event:
Controversy had grown over the past week at the Midwood college, where nearly a fifth of the undergraduate population is Jewish, over the event organized by a student group, Students for Justice in Palestine. The college’s political science department agreed to co-sponsor the speakers along with more than two dozen other groups.
Jewish leaders on and off campus had criticized the college and its president, Karen L. Gould, for sponsoring the talk, which they said helped legitimize the B.D.S. movement, which refers to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Its goal is to pressure Israel to restore disputed territories and grant equal rights to Palestinians.
Throughout the week, the right to academic freedom served as the backbone to arguments in favor of the college’s sponsorship of the event.
In support of the event there was a New York Times editorial, Litmus tests:
One dispiriting lesson from Chuck Hagel’s nomination for defense secretary is the extent to which the political space for discussing Israel forthrightly is shrinking. Republicans focused on Israel more than anything during his confirmation hearing, but they weren’t seeking to understand his views. All they cared about was bullying him into a rigid position on Israel policy. Enforcing that kind of orthodoxy is not in either America’s or Israel’s interest. Brooklyn College is facing a similar trial for scheduling an event on Thursday night with two speakers who support an international boycott to force Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories. While this page has criticized Israeli settlements, we do not advocate a boycott. We do, however, strongly defend the decision by the college’s president, Karen Gould, to proceed with the event, despite withering criticism by opponents and threats by at least 10 City Council members to cut financing for the college. Such intimidation chills debate and makes a mockery of the ideals of academic freedom.
Really now. There’s no litmus test being demanded to show if someone is pro-Israel or not. However someone who thinks that American governmental institutions controlled by Israel or who thinks that Israel is illegitimate to the point that it must be boycotted like South Africa was, can safely be said not to be pro-Israel. Furthermore to argue that the BDS movement is simply an anti occupation protest, ignores what BDS leaders really say.
Finally, to support the BDS event, the New York Times published an essay by Stanley Fish, Academic Freedom vindicated in Brooklyn:
Among the cultural institutions a boycott might target are those Israeli universities that are judged to be either actively in league with the government’s policies toward the Palestinians, or complicit with those policies by virtue of remaining silent while they are being implemented. To the charge that a boycott of academic institutions is a violation of academic freedom, B.D.S. supporters reply that because the state of Israel abrogates the academic freedom of Palestinian professors and students (by denying them funding, access and mobility), it is an affirmation, not a derogation, of academic freedom to refrain from engaging in intellectual commerce with Israeli universities. You can’t invoke academic freedom, they say, when you’re denying it to others. So the lines of battle are set with both sides claiming to be academic freedom’s champion, and it is easy to see why a college might be thought to be an appropriate venue for a discussion of the matter. But a number of New York city politicians didn’t see it that way, and they proceeded to say the predictable wrong things. On Jan. 29, nine members of the Council of the City of New York wrote in a letter to the president of Brooklyn College, Karen L. Gould, to declare that, along with others, they found it “offensive” that the college was giving “official support and sponsorship to speakers who equate terrorists with progressives and the Israeli people with Nazis.” Indeed so offended were they that they reminded Gould, in a tone of unmistakable threat, that as legislators they had many calls on the funds at their disposal, and that by persisting in its plan to host the event, the college risked financial loss: ‘We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our city…want their tax money to be spent on.” The answer to this is simple: taxpayers, through their representatives, decide whether to support a college, but once that decision has been made in the affirmative, taxpayers and their representatives must allow the institution they have created to carry out its mission, which is not to reflect or ratify the ideas the public favors, but to subject all ideas, including those the public dislikes, to the scrutiny of rational deliberation. It can’t be the case that a program or a course must be approved by popular vote before a college can sponsor it or put it in the catalog. What taxpayers have bought when they fund an institution of higher education is the independent judgment of credentialed teachers and scholars. If they wanted an echo chamber that sent their own views back to them, they could have funded a talk-radio show.
Of course the real question whether this was about a free and open exchange of ideas. Lori Lowenthal Marcus reports that pro-Israel supporters were disinvited and expelled from the event.
PRECEDING THE FEB. 7 EVENT Prior to the event there was much heated debate over whether it was appropriate for Brooklyn College, a publicly-funded university, to host the one-sided BDS event at all and whether the political science department should have endorsed and supported it. The administration issued statements defending the department sponsorship on the basis of academic freedom and the marketplace of ideas. Admitting that the school-sponsored event only offered one side of an extremely controversial and divisive event, these statements claimed there was no suppression of ideas or speech because anyone would be able – and all were encouraged – to “attend, listen and fully debate.” The BDS supporters got the green light from the school and the event took place.
THE CLAIM OF CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATIONS Several pro-Israel students say attempts were made to intentionally block their attendance – some successfully – that non-conforming viewpoints were silenced and that Jewish pro-Israel students were rounded up and thrown out of a “public” event simply for having the “wrong” ideas.
A recording of the event, published by the Algemeiner Journal supports the claim that the pro-Israel students did nothing to disrupt the event.
It appears that those who claim a mantle of academic freedom to promote their anti-Israel agenda, are not so open about debate.
Asaf Romirowsky makes related observations:
Though the political science department referred to the event as a “forum,” only one view – extreme anti-Israel activism – is represented. Professor Butler so despises Israel that she has unapologetically whitewashed Israel’s foes, labeling Hamas and Hezbollah “social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left.” Barghouti, meanwhile, hypocritically urges Americans to boycott all Israeli professors, as he benefits from these same academics as a student at Tel Aviv University. … The BDS double standard smacks of anti-Semitism: Targeting Israel and only Israel, advocates hold the world’s only Jewish state to a far different standard than other democracies, much less Islamic, African, or Latin American dictatorships. Amidst flowery anti-imperialist rhetoric, the movement misleadingly implies that ending specific Israeli policies, generally deemed “apartheid,” would satisfy its backers. In fact, BDS supporters envision the replacement of Israel as a Jewish state with a bi-national, majority Palestinian, entity.
Is calling terrorist organizations “social movements” really an exercise of academic freedom? Recall that Fish readily accepted the view of BDS that they were really promoting academic freedom by punishing Israel when you read of Barghouti’s academic background. Are Palestinians really denied academic freedom by Israel?
Have we seen editorials in the New York Times condemning Abu Dhabi for its arrest of a professor or questioning whether Saudi influence in the sciences deserves scrutiny? Did the New York Times question the motives of Prince Alwaleed in financing academic institutions, such as Georgetown, and the influence he may have? In these three cases at issue was the academic integrity of different institutions. That’s where issues of academic freedom ought to be raised.
In the case of Brooklyn College at issue was an activist, non-academic event supported by the faculty and administration of the institution. Did they, in any way, taint their academic standards by sponsoring a clearly partisan event? Or does the New York Times believe that the only standard for “academic freedom” is if an academic institution supports anti-Israel activities?