Free Speech Fracas at CUNY

Alex Kane Feb 22, 2013

Anti-Israel hatefest,” said Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz.

A “kill-Israel frolic,” screamed the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser.

“The potential for a second Holocaust,” warned Brooklyn assemblyman Alan Maisel.

When the Israel discourse enforcers fired the opening salvo against Brooklyn College in advance of a Feb. 7 panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation, there was a distinct feeling of dèjá vu. It was the third time in less than two years that the City University of New York (CUNY), of which Brooklyn College is a part, has been attacked for engaging with real or imagined critics of Israel.

In May 2011, the CUNY Board of Trustees voted to deny Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree due to his past criticism of the Israeli occupation. The board reversed its decision a week later after coming under fierce criticism. Last year, Brooklyn College Provost William Tramontono yanked the departmental appointment of CUNY graduate student Kristofer Petersen- Overton to teach a seminar on Middle East politics when a student complained about the syllabus to a local politician. An outpouring of protest forced Tramontono to return Petersen- Overton to his class.

The BDS movement seeks to rally international opposition to Israeli policies and settlements. The attacks against the Feb. 7 forum, which featured two leading BDS proponents and was sponsored by the Political Science Department, escalated when a gaggle of local elected officials signed a letter calling on the school not to associate itself with the event. Among their ranks were the four leading Democratic candidates for Mayor as well as a number of “progressives” on the City Council.

A second letter penned by City Council Assistant Majority Leader Lewis Fidler threatened to cut funding for CUNY and Brooklyn College if the school did not cancel the event or withdraw its sponsorship.

“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,”
wrote Guardian (UK) columnist Glenn Greenwald.

As it turned out, Israel backers had overreached, and their campaign failed miserably.

Backers of academic freedom at CUNY were prepared for the onslaught after the Kushner and Petersen-Overton cases and used their social media networks to mobilize support for their cause.

This time Brooklyn College President Karen Gould remained steadfast from the beginning in defending the right of the Political Science Department and student groups to hold an event of their choosing to discuss the BDS movement. CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, who was missing in action when the CUNY board pilloried Kushner, backed Gould with a strong statement of support for academic freedom. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered the final blow, saying, “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”

Before it was over, many of the elected officials who had threatened to punish CUNY disavowed their words and promised that they too supported academic freedom.

Why do these campaigns keep happening?

The most salient reason is that criticism of Israel is slowly creeping into the mainstream — the Jewish state’s systematic denial of Palestinian rights and its belligerent policies toward its neighbors make this inevitable. BDS, a nonviolent movement initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005, has been gradually able to capitalize on dismay with Israel and build a following on college campuses — the most recent one being University of California, Irvine, where the student government passed a resolution calling for divestment from companies that provide the Israeli military and state with crucial components to maintain their hold over Palestinians.

Unable to defend an apartheid state on its own merits, many of Israel’s backers choose to double down on an “Israel right or wrong” version of the world, insisting that critics be denied a public hearing and the respectability that comes with it. Hence the knee-jerk reactions — they hate Israel; they’re anti-Semitic; they support terrorism; it’s hate speech — and the assault on the university as an open space for debating controversial issues.

It’s self-defeating behavior that damages the perpetrators more than their intended targets. But with growing support for BDS, we’re likely to see more of this at CUNY and beyond.

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