Threat To Academic Freedom At Brooklyn College

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

Brookllyn_College_LogoThe Political Science Department at Brooklyn College voted to co-sponsor a forum on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. The BDS movement claims to be a campaign “to stop Israel’s rapacious occupation, colonization, and apartheid against the Palestinian people.” The all-but-unknown BDS movement has gained no traction in the U.S., but thanks to Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, it has achieved a new amount of publicity.

Dershowitz has written an editorial in the Daily News and blog post at HuffPo denouncing BDS and his alma mater. Dershowitz writes: “Freedom of speech, and academic freedom require equal access to both sides of a controversy.” However, it seems to be Dershowitz and the numerous NYC politicians that threaten free speech and academic freedom when they demand “Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department to withdraw their endorsement of this event.”

Brooklyn College president Karen L. Gould responds:

Unfortunately, some may believe that our steadfast commitment to free speech signals an institutional endorsement of a particular point of view. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brooklyn College does not endorse the views of the speakers visiting our campus next week, just as it has not endorsed those of previous visitors to our campus with opposing views.

A similar situation occurred when the University of Pennsylvania hosted a BDS conference last year. To counter the BDS conference, pro-Israel groups set up their own event that featured keynote speaker Alan Dershowitz. Penn’s Political Science department, which refused to co-sponsor the BDS conference, co-hosted Dershowitz’s lecture.

Dershowitz claimed that the “Brooklyn College political science department should get out of the business of sponsoring one-sided political propaganda.” It’s just a guess, but I’m assuming that Dershowitz’s concerns about Brooklyn College Political Science department’s co-sponsorship of their BDS conference where not present when Penn’s Political Science department co-hosted his “speech.”

Dershowitz’s claim that Israel is being “singled out” is quite bizarre. Implicit in this claim is a moral equivalence between Israel and other nations deserving the BDS treatment. While I agree that many nations have an appalling record regarding human rights and deserve the BDS treatment, it is unusual to find Dershowitz admit that Israel is one of them.

Criticism of Israel’s current occupation and its treatment of Palestinians has drawn claims of anti-Semitism, a classic ad hominem fallacy. Such claims have a, desired, chilling effect on political discourse. When criticizing Israeli policies, those making the fallacious argument of anti-Semitism demonstrate a fear that the criticism is valid.

H/T: Glenn Greenwald, Brian Leiter, Samir Chopra, John Protevi, Philip Weiss, Max Blumenthal, Kieran Healy.

27 thoughts on “Threat To Academic Freedom At Brooklyn College”

  1. Glenn Greewald, today – “Brooklyn College update”

    “I wrote several times in the last week about the growing censorship campaign aimed at Brooklyn College over an event some of its students organized and its Political Science department sponsored regarding Israel and the BDS movement. There is now very good news to report: namely, both Brooklyn College and academic freedom – as a result of serious public protest over the censorship efforts – have triumphed over the bullying campaign directed at the college.

    The censorship campaign began to unravel when two City Council members who originally signed onto the letter threatening the College’s funding renounced the letter and withdrew their support; one of them, Stephen Levin, began sending an apologetic email to constituents angry about his signing onto that letter. Then, the college’s President issued a defiant and principled defense of academic freedom, and the school’s Political Science Department chair did the same.

    Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, while emphasizing what a stalwart defender of Israel he is, delivered a steadfast defense of Brooklyn College’s right to hold whatever events it wishes, and strongly condemned the threats to its funding. Said the Mayor:

    “The last thing that we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run, and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students.”

    Then, the political officials who signed the original letter demanding the withdrawal of the department’s sponsorship of the event completely reversed course and backed down, trying to save face by pronouncing themselves satisfied with the school’s stated willingness to host anti-BDS speakers in the future (something they were willing to do from the start).

    This important and surprising victory demonstrates what principled leadership combined with public activism can achieve. It can defeat even the most monied and organized factions, as it did here. All of you who made yourselves heard should be proud of the role you played in this victory (I was on Democracy Now yesterday with one of the event speakers, Omar Barghouti, talking about this controversy; the transcript and video are here.”:

  2. Corey Robin:

    It’s over. The politicians have backed down. We won.

    Now that the mayor, the New York Times, and just about everyone else have come down hard on all the government officials and politicians who tried to force my department to withdraw its co-sponsorship of the BDS panel, the “progressive” politicians have issued a second letter (their first is here) to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, in which they backpedal, backpedal, backpedal pull back from their earlier position. No longer, it seems, must we “balance” this panel or withdraw our co-sponsorship.

  3. More Bloomberg

    The last thing we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students.

    If you want to promote views that you find abhorrent, this is exactly the way to do it. What the protesters have done is given a lot of attention to the very idea they keep saying they don’t want people to talk about! They just don’t think before they open their mouths.

    H/T: Brian Leiter.

  4. Bloomberg to City Council: Back the F*ck Off!

    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.

  5. NY TImes:

    Litmus Tests

    The sad truth is that there is more honest discussion about American-Israeli policy in Israel than in this country. Too often in the United States, supporting Israel has come to mean meeting narrow ideological litmus tests. J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that was formed as a counterpoint to conservative groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has argued for vibrant debate and said “criticism of Israeli policy does not threaten the health of the state of Israel.” In fact, it is essential.

  6. Watched a documentary some time ago, the American Radical, or some such title. It was about Dr. Finkelstein. It made such an impression on me that I emailed the man to send him my respect.

    That Brooklyn College allowed itself to be intimidated into denying him tenure was a cowardice and betrayal of whatever ideals it may have claimed to stand for. No pity from me now.

    How Dershowtiz can look at himself in the mirror after that “schooling” he took at the good Dr’s hands is also beyond me. I bet he never did pay that $10,000 wager he lost. Not a sporting man, that one, and in my eyes not even a man.

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