Blog post

Who's Afraid of BDS? New York City politicians harass Brooklyn College

Alyssa Goldstein 4 February 2013

It’s not hard to imagine that anyone who skimmed the news this week might get the impression that something uniquely terrible is about to happen in Midwood, Brooklyn. “We’re talking about the potential for a second Holocaust here,” Assemblyman Alan Maisel warns. Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler and other New York City politicians write a letter to the Brooklyn College president threatening the school’s funding and claiming that their constituents feel “targeted and demonized.” “Jew-bashing grows in Brooklyn,” the New York Post proclaims. “Brooklyn College, a once-esteemed campus in the City University system, this week joins a long list of enemies — from lefty denizens of the Park Slope Food Co-op to Iranian madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who crave wiping the state of Israel from the map.”

Mental images of Ahmadinejad picking up some kombucha at the Park Slope Food Co-op aside, the level of hyperbole might make one wonder if Brooklyn College is hosting a neo-Nazi revival weekend or passing nuclear secrets to Iran. 

So what’s causing all the fuss? It’s a talk by philosopher Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. It’s an event that undoubtedly would have been well-attended, but not on the radar of anyone outside of Brooklyn College or the New York Palestinian solidarity community, had celebrity lawyer and self-appointed Crusader for Justice Alan Dershowitz not decided to get involved. Dershowitz said:

“I am not opposed to students sponsoring an event like this ... What I'm opposed to is the political department sponsoring and endorsing the BDS. The BDS includes the blacklisting of Jewish professors from Israel, and that's illegal, immoral and racist. An academic department should not be taking sides in this debate…This department would never invite me, for example, to speak and state my opposing point of view.”

Firstly, Dershowitz’s claim that “the BDS” mandates the blacklisting of Jewish professors is simply untrue. The BDS movement calls for the rejection of joint projects with Israeli academic institutions, not individuals. (Anyone interested in a thorough introduction to what BDS is all about should check out The Case For Sanctions.) But despite his persecuted tone, the Brooklyn College political science department has invited Dershowitz to speak before. Alone.  

Is it possible that the “one-sidedness” of this event isn’t really the issue? When Alex Kane of Mondoweiss asked Councilman Brad Lander about the many other “one-sided” Brooklyn College department-sponsored events (including Dershowitz’s talk) that Lander did not see fit to condemn, Lander answered, “Fair enough that I have particular concerns about BDS and I can’t tell you that I’ve looked to see whether they sponsor on every issue a balanced point of view. BDS to me represents particular concerns.” 

The Fidler letter doesn’t concern itself with “balance.” instead, it states outright that since the signatories find Barghouti and Butler’s views to be “odious and wrong,” they will reconsider Brooklyn College’s funding unless the event is cancelled or the college withdraws its sponsorship. As Glenn Greenwald asks, “Does anyone have trouble seeing how inappropriate it is - how dangerous it is - to have politicians demanding that professors only sponsor events that are politically palatable to those officials?” Even the staunchest opponents of BDS should be able to agree that these politicians’ threats are an assault on academic freedom.   

Click here to sign the petition in support of Brooklyn College's freedom of speech. 

(CORRECTION: This blog post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Brad Lander did not sign Lewis Fidler's letter threatening Brooklyn College's funding. Brad Lander signed Congressman Jerrold Nadler's subsequent letter to Brooklyn College, which calls for the political science department 'to withdraw their endorsement of this event'. Edited Wednesday, February 6 at 2pm.)