Attack on NY ‘boycott Israel’ panel threatens academic freedom

After Alan Dershowitz started a campaign against a BDS panel at Brooklyn College, the institution’s funding was threatened by ‘pro-Israel’ officials. The college stuck to its guns, but the entire fiasco is an excellent example of the double standard ailing the debate on Israel in the U.S.

Israel is once again at the center of a heated debate in the U.S., pitting the so-called “pro-Israel” types against the so-called “anti-Israel” types. This time it’s not Obama, it’s not Chuck Hagel – it’s Brooklyn College.

An event scheduled to take place at the institution tomorrow (Thursday) will feature UC Berkeley professor and Jewish Voice for Peace board member Judith Butler and Palestinian human rights activist Omar Barghouti. Both will discuss the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), whose goal is to apply pressure on Israel with non-violent economic tools, into ending its violations of Palestinian human rights and to abide by international law. Supreme Israel cheerleader Alan Dershowitz, who created the controversy, claims that the problem is not about the event itself but about the fact that it is being co-sponsored by the college’s political science department, which he says amounts to a formal endorsement of BDS. As Dershowitz wrote in the Huffington Post last Friday, “Of course, the event should go forward, but it should be sponsored by students and outside groups, not by a department of the college. The same should be true of pro-Israel events.”

Following his argument, several public officials in New York, among them N.Y. Congressman Jerrold Nadler,*  threatened to pull funds from Brooklyn College if it goes ahead with the event. This of course implicates those opposing the BDS panel in suppressing academic freedom and generally acting like McCarthyesque watchdogs – a trait which has become all too common among so-called Israel supporters in the U.S.

Brooklyn College President Karen Gould wrote a letter stating the event will continue as planned and explaining why she stands behind the decision:

The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event…Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country.  Indeed, this spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system.

Glenn Greenwald has also already explained poignantly and exhaustively why Dershowitz’s argument is unfounded, demonstrating that there are plenty of instances in which departments in various institutions have sponsored controversial events – and they did so without providing a counter panel to “balance” the topic.

For more details on the story, I recommend reading Greenwald’s coverage. The New York Times has also been covering the story.

As far as I, and others who write about the “pro-Israel” paradigm are concerned, the story here is not the panel or the fact that a specific department is sponsoring it – but rather that a panel expressing ideas that seek to undermine current Israeli policies can cause such a storm, to the point that a college’s funding is being threatened (a college that has a substantial Jewish student population and of which Alan Dershowitz is a graduate).

As Dox Waxman pointed out: “Whatever was actually said at the event is much less significant than simply the fact that it took place at all.”

It reminds me of what a former colleague of mine in New York said to me back in 2005, when the BDS movement just began. BDS’s most effective tool, he explained, is not its ability to actually alter Israeli policy or facts on the ground, but the attention it manages to stir up in the U.S. and around the world about Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.

Regardless of what one thinks of the BDS movement, the Brooklyn College fiasco is an excellent example of the double standard ailing the debate on Israel in the U.S., and how anti-democratic and anti-liberal those who claim to support Israel can be. By trying to censor any independent discussion of a boycott of Israel, they are not discrediting the BDS movement, but themselves.

Congressman Nadler’s aide called to my attention that he is not one  of the NY officials that threatened to cut funds from Brooklyn College, but rather signed onto a letter objecting to the political science department’s co-sponsorship of the event.