If you live in Brooklyn, you have probably heard of the threat from members of the New York City Council against Brooklyn College. If you live elsewhere, chances are that, unless you are involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights, or the struggle against them, you’ve missed his one.
In a nutshell, in late January a controversy arose over the political science department at Brooklyn College sponsoring an upcoming appearance there by two advocates of Global BDS. That movement, now in its ninth year, advocates putting pressures upon the increasingly apartheid Israeli state, similar to the sanctions imposed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, against the increasingly apartheid South African state. Here is a description of the controversy, from a friendly point of view:
At Brooklyn College, a student chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine organized a forthcoming panel with Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti to discuss the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The political science department agreed to co-sponsor it. When certain individuals hostile to BDS heard about this event they raised an outcry. The outcry started with Alan Dershowitz, who demanded that the political science department either withdraw its sponsorship or ‘balance’ it with a voice – namely his – that is critical of the panelists. Very quickly this became a city and state-wide issue, and various politicians, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, began to make the same demands. Now, quite disturbingly, the New York City Council is threatening to withhold future funding for CUNY unless the political science department either cancels the event or withdraws its sponsorship.
Advocates for the college’s position have emerged, including constitutional attorney, Glenn Greenwald, Palestinian rights advocate Andrew Sullivan, and – surprisingly – MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes (as described by Phil Weiss):
A “who’s who” list of New York politicians is trying to shut down the conversation. Hayes mentions Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler. “I understand why there’s an outcry” from those who find BDS odious — he says, covering his bases. But Hayes is clear about the academic-freedom principle and about the highly “selective” concern for balance in this instance and not others. What if the University of Alabama tried to disinvite a gay speaker? Hayes says that some of those politicians “browbeating” the college have been on his show. Good liberals. Yes: Progressive Except Palestine, PEP.
Greenwald has written several columns now on the threats against the college. Most recently, he centered on comments by NYC council member, Lew Fidler, whose threats against Brooklyn College funding seem to have been the most explicit yet. Greenwald:
How can anyone not be seriously alarmed by this? These threats are infinitely more destructive than any single academic event could ever possibly be…Plainly, this entire controversy has only one ‘principle’ and one purpose: to threaten, intimidate and bully professors, school administrators and academic institutions out of any involvement in criticisms of Israel.
Fidler’s chilling letter to BC President Karen Gould can be read here (scribd).
One speaker at the upcoming event, prominent feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, has defended herself many times against specious “anti-semitism” charges (Butler is Jewish), most notably, in her profound essay on anti-semitism, in the London Review of Books, eleven years ago:
In holding out for a distinction to be made between Israel and Jews, I am calling for a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate; but I am also opposing anti-semitic reductions of Jewishness to Israeli interests. The ‘Jew’ is no more defined by Israel than by anti-semitism. The ‘Jew’ exceeds both determinations, and is to be found, substantively, as a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos. Once the distinction is made, discussion of both Zionism and anti-semitism can begin, since it will be as important to understand the legacy of Zionism and to debate its future as to oppose anti-semitism wherever we find it.
The other main speaker in the upcoming BC event is Palestinian, Omar Barghouti, echoed Butler in a 2011 interview with The Guardian on Global BDS, which he helped found:
Here is what the petition in support of Brooklyn College’s position states:
We the undersigned write in support of the decision by Brooklyn College’s political science department to co-sponsor a panel discussion with Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti. We urge CUNY President Karen Gould to resist attempts by those who have attempted to intimidate CUNY into canceling, changing, or withdrawing its sponsorship for the panel. We are especially concerned that the New York City Council has threatened to withhold further money for CUNY if it does not either cancel the event or withdraw its sponsorship. This is a grave threat to academic freedom and sets a terrible precedent for the future.
The goal was 500 signatures. It currently as 1,612.
(If you click “SIGN’” button, you can leave the page without hitting the “pay” buttons on the succeeding page. I didn’t pay, and my name now shows up.)
I signed – as a college professor in favor of free speech.
Will you sign?