It has become a safe assumption that otherwise liberal and open-minded New York politicians will make an exception for Israel. Case in point: 10 members of the New York City Council have declared that they support academic freedom, just not the freedom of public universities to host events that do not toe the party line on the Middle East.
Don’t take our word for it, this comes from the Councilmembers themselves. Just look at the letter they sent last week to President Karen L. Gould of Brooklyn College.
But first, a little backstory. When word got out that Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department was hosting an event on February 7 with a pair of guest speakers representing the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,” (B.D.S.), anti-Israel movement, New York’s elected representatives flew into their predictable rage. The crusade on the City Council is being led by Assistant Majority Leader Lewis Fidler.
The letter, signed by Fidler and nine other Councilmembers–including usually progressive Democrats such as Letitia James and Stephen Levin–complains that the two scheduled speakers on Thursday–Omar Barghouti, an Arab who holds a master’s from Tel Aviv University, and Judith Butler, a Jewish-American professor at U.C. Berkeley–have expressed views, such as comparing Israelis to Nazis, that many New Yorkers would consider offensive and anti-Semitic. “We are asking you to either cancel this event or, if it should proceed, then remove your school’s official support for it,” they write. [Correction: While James was a signatory to the letter, by the time this post was published she had reversed herself and withdrawn her backing.]
They go on to proclaim: “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.” The first sentence directly contradicts the second. The meaning of academic freedom is tolerating the expression of views one finds to be odious and wrong. Tolerating only those views that everyone on the City Council agrees with would not grant Brooklyn College much freedom at all.
And Fidler is backing up his demands with real threats. The New York Times reports, “In an interview [Fidler] said that he had supported nearly $25 million worth of capital improvement projects for the college as a council member, but that he would be hard-pressed to do so now.”
Meanwhile, an even more liberal group of heavier hitters–convened by Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Councilman Brad Lander, and including Council Speaker Christine Quinn, NYC Comptroller John Liu, NYC Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, and former Comptroller Bill Thompson–sent a similar letter sent a different letter, asking only for removal of the College’s perceived endorsement of the event. In an Orwellian twist, the group, which includes all the major likely Democratic mayoral candidates, asserts, “By excluding alternative positions from an event they are sponsoring, the Political Science Department has actually stifled free speech by preventing honest, open debate. Brooklyn College must stand firmly against this thwarting of academic freedom.”
Of course, it is hard to stifle the other side of that debate when no one is actually offering to make it. That’s why the Brooklyn College Political Science Department posted a statement on its website on Saturday, noting, “Since this controversy broke, no group has contacted the political science chair requesting the department’s co-sponsorship of a specific event or actual speaker representing alternative or opposing views.”
Omnipresent ur-Zionist, Harvard law professor, veteran of O.J. Simpson’s legal Dream Team, and Brooklyn College alumni Alan Dershowitz, has joined the chorus of criticism. With characteristic understatement, he took to The Daily News op-ed page to call the event a “propaganda hate orgy.”
President Gould shows no signs of caving in to such pressure. She has clarified that she herself opposes B.D.S., while refusing to cancel the event. On Tuesday, The New York Times editorial page declared its support for Brooklyn College, comparing its persecution to that of Chuck Hagel, the Vietnam veteran and former Republican senator who has been nominated to serve as Secretary of Defense, and subsequently has been accused of anti-Israel bias by his former Senate Republican colleagues. The Times staunchly defends Israel’s right to exist and opposes B.D.S., although they also oppose settlement construction in the West Bank. They note that, “Intimidation chills debate and makes a mockery of the ideals of academic freedom…. 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.”
Complaints about B.D.S.–which last made headlines in New York when the Park Slope Food Co-op considered adopting its boycott on Israeli products–are also a manifestation of free speech. If City Councilmembers and congressional representatives want to shlep out to Midwood to hold a protest, they should do so.
Interestingly, though, they have shown no such interest in on-campus speeches from pro-Israel speakers. Dershowitz is himself a controversial figure on Middle East politics. (He has, for example, advanced the questionable assertion that Palestinians played a major role in the Holocaust.) And yet, as Glenn Greenwald points out in The Guardian, “[Dershowitz] has spoken without opposition at this very same Brooklyn College at the invitation of the Political Science department and not one of these city officials spoke out against that or threatened the college’s funding over it.”
But Israel is a special case, and for many politicians, especially from New York, it seems to warrant the application of double standards. This is not the first time the City’s public colleges have been targeted for wandering into politically dangerous territory on the Middle East. In 2010, a conservative blogger wrote Brooklyn College out of his will for assigning freshman to read a study of Arab-Americans. In 2011, an adjunct professor of Middle Eastern politics at Brooklyn College was temporarily disinvited for being deemed anti-Israel by critics. (Why is Brooklyn College such a flashpoint? Perhaps because it sits near Brooklyn’s large Orthodox Jewish communities in Midwood and Borough Park. This is the congressional district that, at Ed Koch’s behest, replaced Anthony Weiner with a Republican to protest President Obama’s insufficiently adamant support of Israel.) Later that year, playwright Tony Kushner had an honorary degree from John Jay College revoked, and then reinstated, after one member of the City University of New York (CUNY) board protested that Kushner is a “Jewish anti-Semite” because of his criticisms of Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories. (Kushner supports Israel’s right to exist.)
Are you noticing a pattern? More than once, CUNY institutions have caved to pressure from ardent backers of Israel’s policies, only to later reverse themselves. This time, they appear to be skipping the first step, and just standing firm. For now.