The February 16th Brooklyn College Student Coalition Protests

On Tuesday, February 16th, in my capacity as departmental delegate for the philosophy department, I attended the monthly Faculty Council Meeting at Brooklyn College. During the meeting, members of the Brooklyn College Student Coalition, who were attending the meeting (as non-voting observers), staged a protest action, which consisted of a reading out of their demands for changes in the City University of New York. As their protest continued, the meeting was adjourned. Some faculty members applauded the students’ action; others simply left. There was no rancor or violence or abuse.

Apparently, that was not the impression others had.

The Jewish Telegraph Agency reported it as follows:

Some 10 Brooklyn College students interrupted a faculty meeting and made anti-Israel demands and statements.

A faculty member who was at the Tuesday afternoon meeting told JTA the students demanded “Zionists off campus.” The educator wished to remain anonymous.

Other demands ranged from calls for better pay for adjunct teachers to ending “racist” class offerings.

Some of the faculty members at the meeting applauded during the students’ vocal protests, but it was not clear which demands the teachers were reacting to.

The faculty member also told JTA that when computer science professor and faculty council head Yedidyah Langsam told the students they were “out of order,” they called him a “Zionist pig.

I certainly did hear a call for “Zionism off-campus” but I did not see or hear any abuse. (This article offers a more qualified report on what happened.) As I described the meeting’s events in an email to Andrew Plessin of The Algemeiner, who wrote to me asking for information about the action:

Yes, there was a student action, which was run in the same fashion as all such actions are: that is, they stood up to speak during the meeting (after one speaker, so they didn’t interrupt any one.) When their intervention was called ‘out of order’, they continued to speak, but they did so very respectfully, with no shouting, no gesticulations etc. They called for many changes in the university e.g., removing CUNY investments in the private prison industry etc. I did not hear or see them abuse or threaten anyone. As they went on speaking, the chair called for an adjournment and the meeting was adjourned. I have contacted one of the students who was involved in the action and asked him for more details; he will soon get back to me, and I will be happy to pass on any information I get to you.

I had not heard back from the student when Plessin went on to write an article titled “Brooklyn College President Calls for Investigation Into Antisemitic Disturbance at Faculty Meeting.” The article included a statement issued by the president of Brooklyn College, Karen Gould, which reads:

A small student protest on February 16, 2016 disrupted a campus meeting of the Brooklyn College Faculty Council, which is the body charged with making decisions on academic policy. The Faculty Council Chair leads the meeting and recognizes who can and cannot speak, including guests, according to Robert’s Rules of Order.  The students, who had not been recognized by the chair, and refused to follow his direction, made a number of demands on a wide range of academic and economic topics.  They also directed hateful anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish comments to members of our community.  We find this disruptive behavior unacceptable and the hateful comments especially abhorrent.  Brooklyn College is committed to fostering a campus environment in which challenging issues and viewpoints can be expressed.  However, such conversations must not impede the Faculty’s right and responsibility to conduct the academic business of the College; nor should these conversations create a climate of exclusion and hostility.   We will be vigilant in our efforts to promote a safe and respectful learning environment.

The President of Brooklyn College [Karen Gould] has instructed the Office of Judicial Affairs and the college’s legal counsel to initiate an investigation of student conduct at the Faculty Council meeting, and to take appropriate actions based on their findings.

The student I contacted later wrote back to me with the Student Coalition’s response to Gould’s statement:

In an email sent out to the entire Brooklyn College campus, President Karen Gould admonished a student-led disruption of the February 16, 2016 Faculty Council meeting. Karen’s email incorrectly accuses Brooklyn College students of making anti-Jewish comments directed towards members of the Brooklyn College community. Anti-Jewish sentiments should not be taken lightly. However, no comment of such a nature was made. Members of the Brooklyn College Student Coalition expressed our grievances surrounding many of the atrocities committed against students, our communities, and the world that Brooklyn College and CUNY administration must be held accountable for. These demands ranged across various issues, including the rising tuition, the presence of undercover New York Police Department agents on campus and lack of public administrative response, the lack of Black and Latina/o faculty, the blatant disrespect directed towards the Puerto Rican and Latino Studies department and Africana Studies department, the lack of a just contract for professors and faculty, CUNY’s investment in security companies that are enlisted to brutalize student protesters in South Africa, and Brooklyn College’s commitment to all forms of imperialism and settler-colonialism, including, but not limited to Zionism. This commitment is monetary, in investments in companies complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the prison industrial complex, etc., but also goes deeper: the case of professor Petersen-Overton a few years ago and the hiring of war criminal David Petraeus are two of the many examples of CUNY’s commitment to reinforcing imperialist and settler-colonialist systems.

Karen’s unfortunate conflation of an anti-Zionist demand with anti-Jewish hate speech is not a new one. This tactic is often used to disparage any opposition to Zionism and seriously minimizes the reality and severity of actual anti-Jewish sentiment. The political nature of Karen’s statement must also be addressed in its larger context.

In the spring of 2013, two academics, Omar Barghouti, and Judith Butler, were invited to Brooklyn College to give a lecture on the topic of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The event stirred up much debate [more here] surrounding questions of free speech and drew heat from political stakeholders and donors. City Council members wrote to the school demanding withdrawal of co-sponsorship of the event, at the threat of decreased funding. Several donors also threatened to pull funding if the event was not cancelled. The lecture went on, to these donors’ and politicians’ disdain. Almost every semester since, politicians have written letters to the school demanding the cancellation of several events critical of the state of Israel, including an event with journalist Ali Abunimah in the spring of 2014 and professor Steven Salaita in the fall of 2014.

Word has gotten out that Karen was pressured to send this e-mail by elected official Dov Hikind. Dov has consistently opposed any critiques of Zionism at Brooklyn College and has run vicious campaigns against departments at Brooklyn College for co-sponsoring events that are critical of Zionism. Karen’s speedy response to Hikind’s pressure starkly contrasts with her (and CUNY Chancellor Milliken’s) lack of response or public condemnation of the NYPD’s illegal and racist surveillance of Muslim students on campus for four years (2011 – 2015) via an undercover cop. The administration seems to be concerned more with the grievances of its donors and government officials than with those of its students and faculty, responding immediately to external pressure but ignoring and sweeping student and faculty demands under the rug.

Aside from the common political rhetoric that has been used to de-legitimize work around Palestinian liberation across the world, Karen’s e-mail also represents a gross exaggeration of the events that occurred at the Faculty Council meeting yesterday. Faculty council is a governing body on campus that serves as a forum for faculty and administration to communicate and set policy for the campus. This forum excludes students from speaking as it does not envision us as being worthy of deciding on campus policy. The student demonstration that occurred at the meeting was about a half an hour long, of which less than a minute was directed at CUNY’s investment in Zionist institutions. We can only assume that the focus on the comment on Zionism in proportion to the many other demands made and repeated by students was intended to detract from the grievances and legitimate concerns of students on campus surrounding the many injustices committed against them. This creates an environment of hostility towards student-led movements on campus and discourages students from expressing their grievances with this very flawed institution.

We, the Brooklyn College Student Coalition, remain committed to fighting for a liberated CUNY for the people. [links added]

The student statement says it all. The reactions of Dov Hikind, a long-standing political embarrassment for Brooklyn, is entirely unsurprising, given his repeated attacks on Brooklyn College in the past. (This disgraceful man, who does not realize what damage he does to Jewish and Israeli interests by his actions and pronouncements, would like nothing more than to shut Brooklyn College down.) More bothersome is the Brooklyn College administrative response, which seeks to lower a legal boom on its own students, an intimidatory move seemingly designed to quell further student activism on campus. And of course, as usual, we see a familiar pattern play out: all kinds of protests are allowed on American university campuses, except for one kind. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism; such a conflation is intellectually dishonest and specious.

5 thoughts on “The February 16th Brooklyn College Student Coalition Protests

  1. Hi Samir.

    In your post you said :
    > I certainly did hear a call for “Zionism off-campus” but I did not see or hear any abuse.

    Would you consider it abuse if you had heard calls such as “Feminists off-campus” or “Pro same sex marriage off-campus”? All of them are calls for people with some form of opinion to be sent off-campus. Isn’t that anti-democratic abuse?

    You also mentioned that:
    > Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism; such a conflation is intellectually dishonest and specious.

    That is certainly QUITE FAR from a consensus opinion. The Financial Times just presented the following opinion article, by Simon Schama:

    The left’s problem with Jews has a long and miserable history – Feb 19, 2016, 6:04 PM – Anti-Israel demonstrations are in danger of morphing into anti-semitism, writes Simon Schama

    I consider it worth a reading. Unfortunately, I could only read that article in my cellphone, not in the browser.



  2. Marcelo, thanks for your comment. “Zionists off-campus” would be more problematic than “Zionism off-campus.” The latter is an attack on an idea; the former on people. As for the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-semitism, some anti-Zionists are anti-semites, no doubt. But many are not. Notice that even Schama makes that distinction in his title when he says that they are “morphing.” If he thought they were the same, he would just say ‘anti-Israel demonstrations are anti-Semitic.” BTW, thanks for that pointer, I will chase the article down.

  3. Hi Samir,

    Professor Langsam reports that he was addressed as “You Zionist (blank)”. Even if one were to accept your distinction between “Zionists out” and “Zionism out”, that distinction is untenable when the statement is aimed at Jews who have been identified as Zionists.

    I’m astonished by your claim that “all kinds of protests are allowed on American university campuses, except for one kind.” You have good reason to know that there are many anti-Israel protests on American university campuses, and they are given at least as much leeway as other sorts of protest. This one was exceptional because of its intrusive and disruptive nature and the reported antisemitic chants.

    Finally, I can’t imagine what you mean by Dov Hikind’s “damage … to Jewish and Israeli interests” in this context. Leaving Israel aside, what Jewish interest do you perceive to be at stake ? I hope you don’t mean that his behavior encourages anti-Semitism; the idea that “bad” Jews create anti-Semitism is archaic and frankly offensive. It’s like saying that misogyny is created by “bad” women, or homophobia by “bad” gays.

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