The organizer of this month’s controversial forum at Brooklyn College who ordered four pro-Israel students ousted from the event said he acted because the students “didn’t belong” in the room, despite having been escorted there by a vice president of the school.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Carlos Guzman said he also acted because it seemed to him that the students “were preparing” to circulate flyers to others in the room — not because they were doing so, as a college spokesman previously alleged.
Meanwhile, the four students — three of them affiliated with the college’s Tanger Hillel — have decided to seek the advice of an attorney, Jay Lefkowitz, who previously held several positions in President George W. Bush’s administration.
The forum, a panel discussion about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, took place Feb. 7. But it continues to generate heat over the removal of the four students and the selective exclusion of members of the media. The three students affiliated with Hillel — Melanie Goldberg and brothers Ari and Michael Ziegler — were wearing kippot, as was a Daily News reporter who was removed from the room.
Referring to those incidents, Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York, ordered an investigation last week by CUNY’s legal affairs office, saying it was “wrong” if they were asked to leave the room without cause. Goldstein said the investigation was requested by Karen Gould, president of the college, which is part of CUNY.
In a separate statement, the college’s spokesman, Jeremy Thompson, said the school stands by its previous statements “that the college should be a place where all may express their views.” If the ousted students “were denied that opportunity without cause, as they allege,” Thompson continued, “the college will issue a formal apology.”
Guzman, one of the event’s organizers and a vice president of the Hunter College chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, spoke to The Jewish Week by phone several days ago, before Goldstein and Thompson issued their statements.
His comments seem to contradict Thompson’s earlier comments to the press, in which he said that college officials attending the Feb. 7 forum witnessed the four students distributing flyers and being disruptive. Goldberg and the Zieglers each told The Jewish Week that they registered for the event, following procedures outlined by the club, and received e-mails confirming that their spot was being reserved. But when they showed up for the event, members of the club told them that their names weren’t on the list.
Goldberg at that point called Nadya Drukker, executive director of the campus Hillel, who, in turn, called Milga Morales, the college’s vice president for student affairs. Morales escorted the students into the room following that conversation, but Guzman later told The Jewish Week that college administrators “broke the rules. … They basically snuck them in without our knowledge, into the room.”
Although the four students were passing flyers among themselves, Guzman said he suspected they would soon distribute flyers to others in the room based on how pro-Israel students at other campuses have behaved. Goldberg and the Zieglers said they planned to distribute the flyers only after the event and outside the room.
The students sought legal advice because they want their voices heard as CUNY conducts its investigation and as they and others press the college for a review of procedures, Avi Ziegler told The Jewish Week. One source with knowledge of the situation noted that receiving legal counsel is different from hiring or retaining a lawyer and said the students don’t want to go to court.
Their intention, like the intention of others, “is to de-escalate the situation,” while ensuring that the college administration continues to take them seriously, this source said. People also wanted to help take pressure off the students, who were being bombarded by questions from the press.
Meanwhile, an informal group that includes Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a CUNY trustee and an activist in Jewish and Republican circles, and Neal Sher, a prominent attorney, held a news conference last week raising the possibility of a lawsuit unless CUNY makes certain changes.
Wiesenfeld is calling on CUNY to bar from campus any group that has a history of undemocratic or violent behavior and to allow college presidents, rather than professors, to choose department chairs. Sher, a former executive director of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), told The Jewish Week that, unless CUNY makes those changes, it could be in violation of Title Six of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars a “hostile environment” for minorities at schools and universities.
Wiesenfeld told The Jewish Week that he and his colleagues contacted 15 Brooklyn College students, including the four who were ousted from the Feb. 7 event, to urge them to attend the press conference. But none of those attended, Wiesenfeld said, suggesting that they were too intimidated by the college to get involved publicly.
The source close to the situation who commented on the students’ quest for legal advice, dismissed Wiesenfeld’s comments as nonsense.
The four students wrote a press release after their ouster from the Brooklyn College event, got it distributed to members of the media, and one even wrote an op-ed piece for the Daily News, the source said. “Does that sound to you like they felt intimidated? It doesn’t sound that way to me.”