A Melee Grows in Brooklyn

Last month the political-science department at Brooklyn College, which I chair, was asked to either cosponsor or endorse a panel discussion on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement organized by a student group, Students for Justice in Palestine. We decided to cosponsor the event, which is to take place on Thursday and to feature the philosopher Judith Butler and the Palestinian-rights activist Omar Barghouti. The BDS movement advocates using nonviolent means to pressure Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories.

Our decision landed us in a firestorm. My department and the college president, Karen Gould, have become the targets of a campaign to force the political-science department to rescind its cosponsorship. The usual suspects—New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz—piled on, and the rhetoric escalated. “We’re talking about the potential for a second Holocaust here,” one assemblyman told The Daily Beast. I’ve gotten hate mail and a death threat. I’ve been attacked in the media—I’m a “coward,” says Hikind; I’m an expert not on government or politics but on “transgender rights” (apparently that’s an insult), writes a conservative columnist in the New York Post.

There have also been letters defending our decision and—of course—petitions of support.  All this, truth be told, is par for the course at Brooklyn College. With a student population that is a fifth Jewish, and a substantial and growing number of Muslim students, discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are especially fraught here.

But late last week, the game changed when President Gould received two letters from elected officials. The first, from Congressman Jerrold Nadler and 18 other self-identified “progressive” legislators (including three other members of Congress and leading mayoral candidates) describes the BDS movement as “wrongheaded and destructive” and calls “for Brooklyn College’s political science department to withdraw their endorsement of this event.” The second, from Lewis Fidler, assistant majority leader of the New York City Council and nine other city councilors, is even more chilling:

A significant portion of the funding of CUNY schools comes directly from the tax dollars of the people of the State of New York. Every year, we legislators are asked for additional funding to support programs and initiatives at these schools and we fight hard to secure those funds. Every one of those dollars given to CUNY, and Brooklyn College, means one less dollar going to some other worthy purpose. We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our City—many of who [sic] would feel targeted and demonized by this program—want their tax money to be spent on. 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.

This interference is jaw-dropping. 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!

Much of the controversy revolves around two claims: that it’s inappropriate for an academic department to cosponsor a student-organized panel (and that cosponsorship implies endorsement, even though we explicitly declined to endorse), and that academic freedom requires that opposing viewpoints be represented at the same time.

Let’s start with the first argument. The department has a long history of cosponsoring student-initiated events, regardless of the popularity of the perspectives presented or its perceived political message. Until now no one has found fault with this practice. Given that history, it is troubling that elected officials who have control over the CUNY budget are objecting to this particular event.

By cosponsoring student-initiated events, we’re not endorsing the ideas expressed. We’re not providing money. What we are doing is acknowledging students’ contributions to the intellectual life of the campus and supporting the open and free exchange of ideas.

And there’s no political litmus test. In my 18 years at Brooklyn College, I cannot recollect our department turning down a single cosponsorship request.  Since this controversy broke—despite claims to the contrary—no group has contacted the department requesting cosponsorship of a specific event or actual speaker representing alternative or opposing views on BDS.

The hypocrisy extends beyond elected officials picking and choosing which events are appropriate for cosponsorship and which are not. Alan Dershowitz, who has been leading the onslaught, told the columnist Glenn Greenwald that “if and when I come to Brooklyn College to speak against BDS, I do not expect the event to be cosponsored by the political-science department. … I would oppose a pro-Israel event being sponsored by a department.” That’s odd, because when Dershowitz spoke against the BDS movement at the University of Pennsylvania, in February 2012, his talk was officially hosted by the political-science department there.

The other charge is that the event lacks balance. Congressman Nadler and his fellow signatories accuse the department of “excluding alternative positions,” of rejecting “legitimate offers from prominent individuals [Dershowitz, perhaps?] willing to simultaneously present an alternative view.” Dershowitz makes the same accusation: “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.”

Again, we didn’t plan this event, and the students did not consult us on the choice of speakers. But who says that academic freedom requires that both views be presented at the same time? Certainly Dershowitz doesn’t. In May 2008, he gave a talk—at Brooklyn College, where he is an alumnus and has spoken many times—in which he argued in favor of torture warrants. He was alone at the podium. He did not demand that an alternative position be represented.

Dershowitz’s hypocrisy aside, it’s important to argue against mandates that both sides (or all sides) of an issue be represented simultaneously. Debates have their place, but thoroughly understanding an argument requires sustained and concentrated attention. Focusing on one idea at a time does not entail the suppression of opposing ideas. It’s a very limited vision of education to imagine that it should take the form of a tennis match, with ideas truncated into easily digestible sound bites.

Under great pressure from politicians, donors, alumni, and some students, President Gould has been steadfast in her defense of our decision to cosponsor the event and of the larger principles at stake. For this immediate crisis, the tide may be turning—perhaps. The New York Times has published an editorial stating that the elected officials’ “intimidation chills debate and makes a mockery of the ideals of academic freedom.” Even the editorial page of the Daily News, which has attacked our sponsorship of the BDS event, called the elected officials’ threat “wrongheaded.”

The damage wrought by this controversy, however, could be long-lasting, and the lesson for other colleges is, I think, instructive. Many people have written letters and signed petitions in support of the principle of academic freedom, and my colleagues and I appreciate those efforts. But what we have learned at Brooklyn College is that supporting the principle of academic freedom is one thing; exercising that freedom by organizing or cosponsoring an event on a highly charged subject, like BDS, is another.

Paisley Currah is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College.

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