BDS at Brooklyn College: A Sobering ‘Success’ of Sorts

All is well or so it would seem. Corey Robin reports on the latest developments in the BDS-at-Brooklyn brouhaha:

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. [second letter in Robin’s post]

That it took a billionaire mayor to explain these simple matters to our progressive leaders is, well, what can one say? This entire episode has been an instructive example in courage and cowardice, shame and shamelessness. Much congratulations go to the mayor, to President Gould, to the students who organized this panel, and above all to my colleagues in political science, who stood absolutely firm on principle throughout an extraordinarily difficult time, and to our chair Paisley Currah, who led us throughout it all.

The BDS panel, featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti will go on tomorrow as planned. The panel is still c0-sponsored by the Political Science department. Again, as I said above, all is well.

Or so it would seem. While this turn of events is rightly viewed by those who fought hard to turn back the Dershowtiz-Hikind-invertebrate City Council politician combine as occasion for celebration, what this entire business portends for the future of academic freedom on the American campus is, I think, a little more grim.

Consider this. Massive amounts of political pressure utilizing media resources was brought to bear on an academic department of a public university to ensure ostensibly, the ‘mere withdrawal of sponsorship’ from a panel discussion on campus. It was never that, of course. The pressure brought on Brooklyn College from the outside was an attempt to regulate discourse on campus. And in that, I fear it has succeeded in many ways.

For one, this event does not make the controversial panel discussion on campus more likely. It makes it more unlikely. Which department or university administration wants to go through this fiasco again? Will university administrators now ask academic departments to clear their sponsorships with them? (Academic freedom you say, but I can see administrators gearing up to couch such ‘requests’ in as vague but demanding language as possible.) Turning back this latest assault on Brooklyn College took a very determined group of faculty; will every university facing a similar crackdown be able to count on such resilience? Even at Brooklyn College, no other department dared co-sponsor the event in solidarity with the political science department; will any of them try to sponsor anything similar down the line? I do not know if the coalition acting against Brooklyn College seriously thought they could shut the BDS panel down; what they might have done is merely played the long game, knowing that even if this panel goes forward, there is little chance anything like it will happen for a long time at Brooklyn College, or anywhere else, for that matter.

18 thoughts on “BDS at Brooklyn College: A Sobering ‘Success’ of Sorts

  1. I don’t know about this Samir. Your sanctimonious grandstanding notwithstanding this debate was never about shutting down this discussion, but was about the conduct of the Political Science department, their decision to sponsor the event, and their evasion of ever offering a persuasive answer as to why sponsoring the event was justified or what precisely the criteria for such sponsorship are or were. I’ll grant you, arguendo, that city council overstepped their bounds, I’m not seeing how this tale of exasperating heroism and resistance bears any resemblance to reality. Basically, every media source and journalist came down on your side immediately, and bought into the dishonest version of the story which portrayed this as censorship, rather than criticism of the political science department’s sponsorship. Freedom of speech became the rallying cry, and got thousands of supporters to sign a petition, although freedom of speech was not the issue. Dershowitz’s explicit claims to the contrary notwithstanding, your side here dishonestly misrepresented his view as an attempt to censor and rallied behind a principle that was not questioned.

    Academic freedom is perhaps relevant to this case, but its applicability is less straightforward (does academic freedom apply to sponsorship decisions by departments? Perhaps, but it’s less clear that it does; does academic freedom mean that colleges are immune to criticism from their financial sponsors? Not so obvious. That’s an interesting and worthwhile discussion, but it was never had). Even if the principle of academic freedom suggests that the Political Science department has the right to make this decision, that says nothing about the propriety of that decision, and yet legitimate questions about that propriety were shouted down by a hysterical coalition of dishonesty. And seeing how some of the protagonists here conducted themselves and their rhetoric makes me more than skeptical about the claim that discussions of these matters (or in political science at BC in general) are, have been, and will be conducted in a respectful, productive, honest, truth-seeking, and dare I say academic manner.

    I highly doubt that the cause of academic freedom has been harmed here (except perhaps in that some people watching this from the sidelines may be losing faith in its importance, if these are the consequences). It seems pretty clear that poli sci won this battle. Let’s hope that we can take them at their word that this battle for them really was just the principle. But the basic question as to what degree of involvement an academic department should have with various activist causes has not been addressed. Looking over the political science department’s website and facebook page (at the research orientations of the faculty and the activities they sponsor – including a petition they circulated against the NYPD last year on their facebook page) doesn’t give one great confidence.

    1. As far as I know, there were never any calls for censorship, or questioning of BDS legal rights. The issue was, it appears to me, over the ethics of the Political Science Dept endorsing a BDS event. Ethical is not necessarily the same thing as legal. The bouncing out of pro-Israel Jewish students from the event itself suggests that BDS does not give a flying rat’s ass about freedom of speech….if it is not their own free-speech.

  2. The focus of the academy on itself and the threat to its own perquisites is narcissistic and absurd.
    The leader of the American Nazi party would never have been sponsored. Ten years ago, any Palestinian who dared to argue for sanctions against Israel would have been seen within the academy and without, as equivalent. The NY Times editorial from 3 days ago would never have been written. That is the change.

    The small victory is for the Palestinians, and for substantive politics.

    “adjunct”s complaint is predicated on the assumption that we’re still in 2003. Your concerns are predicated on the assumption that the academy is fully separate from the rest of society. Neither are the case.

  3. I think you’re being pessimistic here. In 1999, Giuliani tried to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art for the Sensations exhibit – the one that had elephant dung on a painting of the Virgin Mary. The accusations about the offensiveness of the exhibit were, I think, less serious than what BDS has been accused of, and yet the response of the mayor of the time was to directly try to shut it down. This time the mayor defended Brooklyn College from censorship. I’d be optimistic to say this is progress — I think this sort of thing is cyclical.

    But I’ll add in this: I hope the BC Political Science Dept doesn’t view sponsoring an anti-BDS event as a form of copitulation to those who demand neutrality, because it really wouldn’t be even if it might look that way.

  4. There are many uncounted folks like me who find it encouraging that anyone is allowing or even interested in a compassionate and rational dialog about Palestine.
    The success in divide and conquer efforts is frightening. For me to want to protect a Palestinian child does not mean I’d like to kill an Israeli child. Being anti-war does not make me a terrorist. We simply must decide to move forward with respect to our common ground. Not all days find me with a sense of hope.
    Best wishes to us all.

  5. “does academic freedom mean that colleges are immune to criticism from their financial sponsors? Not so obvious.”

    Actually, it’s blindingly obvious that that is the essence of academic freedom.

    1. I’m not so sure. Academic freedom concerns the relationship between the institution and the faculty. This means that professors (and perhaps students) are protected from interference or sanctions from the administration. But that doesn’t bears anything obvious on third parties, who are under no duties of this sort towards faculty.

      Financial sponsors obviously have the right to decide whether or not to sponsor an academic institution, and it seems to me that it would follow that they have the right to make their contributions conditional on all sorts of requests. Of course, that sponsors have the right doesn’t mean that institutions have the right to then impose such requests on faculty. In other words, the rights concerned in academic freedom are relational between faculty and administration.

      That is not to say that there is nothing unseemly or worthy of criticism of politicians (or even private benefactors, although less obviously so) who play this game. One can criticize their very interference (but not, I think, because it violates the rights concerned: more because of what precedents it sets) and certainly one can criticize the substance of their interference (if such substance is objectionable).

      But of course, the same holds for the bearers of academic freedom. That professors (and maybe departments – although, as said, I think this is less clear) have a right to something entitles them to immunity from interference, but not to immunity from criticism.

      I think academia would be a better place and would actually possess (and deserve to possess) more public respect if we academics recognized that the funding we get is not a mere entitlement to do as we damn please. I don’t think there is anything wrong in the public questioning just how much it identifies with the projects and missions we are pursuing.

      Of course, there are dangers here, but they need to be addressed responsibly, rather than ignored. I don’t see how it helps matters to simply insist on carte blanche for academic departments; rather it is worthwhile trying to specify just what we think is and what isn’t a justifiable use of other people’s money in the name of academic freedom. Insisting on carte blanche is an invitation to the public to rescind that funding.

    2. In defending third-party threats to cut funding as a form of critical debate, Mr. adjunct seems to be arguing money is speech.

      Of course, the politicians who have spoken out hardly represent, proportionally, the main sources of Brooklyn’s funding. They do not “own” this pool of money, either; they simply administer it. (Quite different from the Citizens United case). And, at any rate, I doubt they wield the power to cut it. They just happen to be running for office.

      But let me see if I have this right:

      If the Political Science Department were to sponsor a debate entitled: “Gay Marriage Strategy & Tactics: State-by-State Legislation or Supreme Court Challenge,” we could anticipate these progressive [sic] pols to threaten the college with funding cuts unless the panel included a person to present the position–widely held nationally, perhaps in the overall majority–against any and all forms of gay marriage, for…balance?

      Or a Clovis archaeological conference to invite pe-Clovis speakers, schedule panels on Monte Verde, etc, etc, or risk being shut down?

      1. Poppy, actually, I don’t think my point is committed to the claim that money is speech in the sense of Citizens United, rather that people are free to not contribute to a charitable cause (no claim here about maximal limits to contributions). Furthermore, I think you have this wrong conceptually regarding City Council members: they are a legislative body that among other things allocates public funds to various organizations and administrative units. Of course they have the right to decide how those funds are to be allocated: that’s what they were elected to do!
        I think we’re forgetting to ask here, when talking about academic freedom, on whom the duties to respect or promote academic freedom apply. Just because one is not under any legal obligation or just because something doesn’t fall under the rubric of a notion like academic freedom, in no way means that one’s discretionary decision is beyond reproach. So nothing in my comments suggests that city council members ought to threaten the college with funding cuts, much less so in your scenario…
        But let me add one more thing about the scenario you and countless others keep presenting:
        The balance argument is being turned into a strawman. I agree that a claim that every talk needs to reflect all views is silly. Similarly, that a panel needs to reflect all views is silly. But that is not what is objectionable with the Political Science department’s decision. This was not an academic panel that simply failed to cover one or several views. The panel was an activist panel, both in form and in content. As such, the question is whether such a panel is worthy of academic sponsorship in the first place. It would be like sponsoring a campaign event. On the other hand, there is some merit to ‘history of garbage is scholarship’ like claims: so political science might want to sponsor some of these. At this point, I think the balance claim makes sense: a panel whose content is non-academic might obtain academic merit/interest if it is a debate between 2 sides (or more). Another possibility is long term balance: so if the political science department sponsors campaign events for several parties, perhaps that would be better; similarly, sponsoring lots of activist events with an eye to fostering ‘dialogue’ might make sense. But here context is key: how balanced is this process over time? What are the biases of the department and how are they being reflected in the choice of events? Personally, I don’t think departments should really engage in any of this: let student bodies sponsor their academic events. Why give them departmental sanction unnecessarily?
        But what is troublesome to me here is that the political science department (and its defenders) don’t think they should give any account whatsoever of when such decisions are appropriate. As if this is simply a matter of academic freedom, end of story.

  6. Chris Bertram [he’ll have to forgive me]: “The editorial board of Fathom includes at least one person – Anthony Julius – who has co-written anti-boycott articles with Alan Dershowitz and other people from outfits like the neo-con Henry Jackson Society. (This isn’t an argument of course, just background information, but if Dershowitz did have a blog, it might well get hosted at Fathom.)”

      1. You’re right, I was too generous, especially considering Bertram banned me for referring to him as “a Zionist concern troll”.
        Peter Beinart is the editor of Open Zion, a liberal forum on the issue.
        Read this one

        This is Beinart on his own:
        ” I’m not asking Israel to be Utopian. I’m not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state. What I am asking is that Israel not do things that foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, because if it is does that it will become–and I’m quoting Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak here–an “apartheid state.”

        Beinart wants a Jewish state for a jewish people and to pressure non Jews to leave. Even the leftist Uri Avnery has said that Jews, like Greta Garbo, “want to be alone”.

        I am not a Garveyite, or a black nationalist. I am not a nativist or a separatist. Every “liberal Zionist” is at the very least a part time defender of nativist morality, and in this case of nativist morality on land taken by conquest, in 1947 and 20 years later.
        The philosopher who defends the need for Israel as a means of escape says this:
        “as a German Jew living in the Netherlands and working in Belgium, I really do not need your lectures on these matters.” Eric Schliesser, not only ex-Refuseniks referred to elsewhere, is still living with fear. Does Bertram understand this? Would he admit it if he did? Corey Robin is facebook friends with the creme de la creme of American, Jewish and Arab, anti Zionists. He never links to them in public. He castigates white moderates while being a moderate behind a mask of angry… left-liberalism[?] You can’t call him a radical. I’m not one either of course.
        But I grew up around academics who risked everything for their principles, and I’m being lectured by those who risk nothing.

        “The majority of the Jewish public, 59 percent, wants preference for Jews over Arabs in admission to jobs in government ministries. Almost half the Jews, 49 percent, want the state to treat Jewish citizens better than Arab ones; 42 percent don’t want to live in the same building with Arabs and 42 percent don’t want their children in the same class with Arab children. A third of the Jewish public wants a law barring Israeli Arabs from voting for the Knesset and a large majority of 69 percent objects to giving 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote if Israel annexes the West Bank.

        A sweeping 74 percent majority is in favor of separate roads for Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. A quarter – 24 percent – believe separate roads are “a good situation” and 50 percent believe they are “a necessary situation.”

        Almost half – 47 percent – want part of Israel’s Arab population to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority and 36 percent support transferring some of the Arab towns from Israel to the PA, in exchange for keeping some of the West Bank settlements.”

  7. Seth, it appears that Beinart can not count. You quote him as saying: “I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state.” In fact, the present population of Israel is 75.4 Jewish, 20.6 percent Arab. Israel would maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority even if the West Bank were annexed and Israeli citizenship given to its Arab population.

    If you read the beginning of the article you linked to you will see that the question asked was concerning the hypothetical annexing of the West Bank. But even that is because Israeli’s have been misinformed, and believe going that would result in a Jewish minority.

  8. “Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.”

    “In contrast, when private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period. But these private censorship campaigns are best countered by groups and individuals speaking out and organizing in defense of the threatened expression.”

    Based on this definition of censorship, from the ASLU, it is obvious that what BDS does is try to use censorship, and does thatwith the goal of forcing changes they think are just upon Israel. But it is an effort at censorship. Clearly, BDS has a legal right to try to enforce its blacklists, even if the ethical right to do that is doubtful.

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