Academia and the Palestine Question: Civil liberties vs. political coercion at Brooklyn College

Brooklyn College is at the center of a major ongoing debate over academic freedom, one that involves Palestine, Judith Butler and what must be a mind-boggling amount of hate mail. As Corey Robin, who is both an excellent politics blogger and a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, explains, the college is under attack for its choice to co-sponsor a panel on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a panel which would feature notables like Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler. The political science department was approached by the college’s Students for Justice in Palestine organization about the event, which will be held this Thursday. 

The controversy that has erupted has heavily featured Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz and Assemblyman Dov Hikind as detractors (or something much more determined and vociferous than even that word implies). The City Council is threatening to withdraw financial support if the event is not cancelled or the department’s co-sponsorship removed. On the other side of the debate are the college itself, CUNY (BC’s parent) and people like Keith Gessen and Benjamin Kunkel of n+1, notable faculty members of various institutions and others. 

Those against the event are outraged at the apparent one sidedness of giving an academic platform to two prominent and nationally known members of the BDS political movement, claiming that the event (and college events in general) should present opposing viewpoints. Former city comptroller and current mayoral candidate William C. Thompson Jr. declared that while the BDS position “should be heard,” it should not be at Brooklyn College: “You do not have a right, and should not put the name of Brooklyn College on hate.” 

While obviously complicated by the extremes to which the Israel-Palestine question has the power to push debates and by the ongoing efforts of what amount to outright and unabashed political coercion, the position of Brooklyn College is not one of hate. It’s worth, given the flurry of accusations and high-octane political anger, taking a moment to consider what the BDS movement actually is. The group hardly qualifies as a purveyor of hate or hate speech, framing itself in specific language as non-violent in its practice. 

From the 2005 Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS:

We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.

These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law…

To accuse Brooklyn College of fostering hate speech for hosting this panel on Thursday is a false and specious claim, one which rings more hollowly in the face of the genuinely vicious attacks on the college and its political science department. It should be far from controversial for a political science department to host a panel on a highly relevant issue, one which includes one of the most notable academics of the modern U.S. (Judith Butler) and which is completely forthcoming about the positions espoused by the panelists. Yet the department, its chair Paisley Currah, and the college president Karen Gould, are being subjected to not just incredible pressure to limit academic freedom and shut out pro-Palestinian voices on the campus, but to hyperbolic character assassinations and hypocrisy on the subjects of freedom of speech. Alan Dershowitz stated:

It is Professor Currah and his department that are denying the students of Brooklyn College the ability to hear the free expression of contrary ideas on equal basis and with equal endorsement by the department of political science.

The department is, of course, not by any stretch endorsing the movement by co-sponsoring the panel, but merely acknowledging its relevance to contemporary discussions to political science and acknowledging potential interest in the student body. It would be ridiculous to hold academia to a balancing scales standard of platforms given to viewpoints. Corey Robin points out that the commencement address at the college is given by Sen. Schumer virtually every year, yet it’s doubtful that calls would be successfully made for a Republican co-speaker to balance out the stage. The college has certainly seen its share of Israel/Palestine controversy, as Glenn Greenwald describes in his op-ed for The GuardianThey were pressured by Dov Hikind to fire a professor over a pro-Palestinian paper (re-hiring him a few days later). Brooklyn College has also in the past hosted the highly conservative and pro-Israel David Horowitz as a speaker (undoubtedly without need of a pro-Palestinian lefty to even things out). 

To assume that freedom of speech tilts only in favor of those espousing pro-Israeli sentiment, or that those who don’t express pro-Israeli sentiment are violent, anti-Semitic or supporters of Hamas, involve far-flung leaps of logic, incredible inconsistency and unwillingness to extend to those with whom you disagree basic First Amendment freedoms. There are two levels at which the political harassment and antagonism of the college and department are wrong. They rest their case on a toxic and faulty conflation of the notion of anti-Israel political beliefs and anti-Semitism (the real presence of which is overshadowed by hyperbolic arguments like the ones in question). And they violate unabashedly the notion of academic freedom (this incident should make it quite evident that pro-Israeli sentiment does not suffer a great deal of silencing) as laid out in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges:

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. 1 The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

This not only lays out the purpose of higher education as that of unencumbered search for truth, but separates the notion of an institution’s interests from the information an institution offers to its students.

Brooklyn College’s commitment and integrity on the matter in the face of such fired up charges of anti-Semitism, or endorsing terrorist sympathizers is commendable.

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    It is so depressing that this “controversy” is still ongoing. Threatening to defund the college over speakers it hosts?...
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