Panel on Middle East issues sparks academic freedom debate
Protestors on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lined Campus Road outside Brooklyn College Thursday night before a controversial panel in the student center.
“Down with Hamas,” cried a voice from the crowd of more than 60 protesters behind Israel’s blue and white flag.
Closer to the student center’s entrance, about half a dozen self-described socialists and a dozen ultra-orthodox Jews chanted, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be freed."
Brooklyn’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) brought the conflict to campus when they invited two speakers, Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, to teach students and guests in a one-sided panel about what is known as the B.D.S. campaign.
B.D.S. stands for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. Supporters say it’s a nonviolent campaign to end Israeli occupation, stop racial discrimination and help Palestinians return to their homeland after ethnic cleansing. Skeptics say it’s an extreme movement dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
But beyond surfacing deep-seated feelings about conflict the Middle East, the panel sparked state-wide controversy about academic freedom and political bias in higher education when Brooklyn’s political science department decided to sponsor it.
Ten members of the New York City Council signed a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould on Jan. 29, urging the college cancel the event, or withdraw the academic department’s sponsorship.
Gould responded in a Feb. 4 statement refusing the Council’s requests in the name of academic freedom, citing the freedom of scholars to study diverse views without fear of institutional censorship or discipline. Gould’s statement attracted the support of journalists, free speech advocates and even New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
But Assistant Majority Leader Lewis Fidler, who authored the City Council’s letter, says there is nothing in the letter that suggests the Council wanted to bribe Brooklyn College into compliance. Instead, Fidler is concerned that academic integrity is in jeopardy at the college, where anti-Israeli sentiment dominates an “extremely politicized” political science department. He says Thursday’s panel was merely symptomatic of a larger problem: Professors indoctrinating students with radical views on complex issues.
“(Brooklyn has) taken an extreme view on a controversial topic,” Fidler said.
Nadya Drukker, assistant director of a group called Tanger Hillel that supports Brooklyn’s 3,500 Jewish student population, says students she serves feel as though they cannot express themselves in political science classrooms for fear that their professors may lower their grades.
Sophomore political science major Joey Saban, a Jewish member of Hillel who started his own club last year for college students in support of Israel, says his political science professors implemented “a very fine line” of thinking in class that discouraged scholarly disagreement and debate.
“The implementation of that line in class made me feel like I needed to remain quiet when I otherwise would have spoken out,” Saban said.
Although he supports Israel, Saban calls himself pro-Palestine, as well. But he disagrees with B.D.S. because he says their stance provokes violence to achieve one Palestinian state rather than a peaceful, two-state solution.
“There’s a big difference between being pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel,” Saban said. “Being anti-Israel brings us back instead of moving us forward.”
But fellow political science major, Brooklyn freshman and SJP member Sarah Aly does not agree. Donning a scarf over her head outside the student center Thursday night, Aly walks the lines of students waiting to hear the panel, telling news reporters and naysayers the B.D.S. does not promote hate speech. Instead, she says it provides a perspective less prominent in American foreign policy.
“We’re critical of Israel and of its violations against the Palestinians, but that doesn’t mean that we’re anti-Semites in any way,” Aly said. “That doesn’t mean we hate Jews. I have a lot of really dear Jewish friends. We’re just critical of Israel and its policies and the way it treats the Palestinian people.”
Brooklyn’s Political Science department chair Paisley Currah did not comment. But on Feb. 2, he published a statement clarifying the department’s stance on sponsorship, and its willingness to consider sponsoring events of alternative views.
“We welcome--indeed encourage--requests to co-sponsor speakers and events from all student groups, departments, and programs,” Currah wrote. “Each and every request will be given equal consideration.”
Drukker says Tanger Hillel has not asked the political science department to co-sponsor any events.
Sara Dogan, campus director of Students for Academic Freedom at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, says she hopes the department will make good on their promise and invite pro-Israel speakers to campus.