The Jewish professionals at campus Hillel organizations, the Israel Action Network and the Israel on Campus Coalition say the evidence is unequivocal: When Israel’s supporters learn about an upcoming event organized by those who would delegitimize the Jewish state, focusing on the country’s detractors hands that very crowd a victory.
“But when we focus our time on our own mission,” highlighting the positives about Israel, “we win,” said Stephen Kuperberg, ICC’s executive director.
“These things play themselves out over and over again,” said Geri Palast, IAN’s managing director. Her argument, like Kuperberg’s, is that making Israel’s detractors the issue only gives them the publicity they’re seeking, extending the life of their movement.
But Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn), whose tenacious, pro-Israel voice makes him a hero to some and a strident, self-serving politician to others, begs to differ.
“When something evil is happening, do you close your eyes?” Hikind asked. “Do you keep silent or do you say something? … I like our enemies to stand up and come out. That doesn’t scare me.”
They and others spoke to The Jewish Week after two weeks of controversy regarding a panel discussion at Brooklyn College organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, a club with chapters throughout the country. The Feb. 7 event brought to the college two advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler. But it began generating opposition even beforehand because of a decision by the college’s political science department to co-sponsor the forum — a move that critics said implied endorsement of the event.
Those protesting the development included Hikind and Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard University law professor. Meanwhile, New York City Councilman Lewis A. Fidler (D-Brooklyn) sent a letter to the college’s president, Karen Gould, demanding that the event be cancelled or that the college revoke its sponsorship. Fidler’s letter, signed by 11 other Council members, said he would withhold his support for extra money for the college if it allowed the event to move forward.
Another, more moderate letter to Gould came from a group of self-described “progressive” elected officials, including Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn); Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn); and three mayoral candidates, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, City Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. Their letter expressed their opposition to the BDS movement, calling it “wrongheaded and destructive,” backed the right of students and academics to openly express their views, but called on members of the college’s political science department “to withdraw their endorsement of this event.”
The same group of progressive officials later sent a second letter commending Gould for saying that the college’s sponsorship of the event doesn’t imply an endorsement of the BDS movement, for affirming the college’s engagement with Israel and Israeli universities, and for saying that she, personally, would never endorse “any action that would imperil the State of Israel or its citizens.”
The event attracted even more attention when Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking to reporters a day before the event, backed the department’s decision to co-sponsor the forum. While saying that he “couldn’t disagree more violently” with the BDS movement, the mayor said a university should be allowed to sponsor a forum on any subject, no matter how “repugnant.” He also had friendly advice for the panel’s critics, suggesting that by speaking out so loudly, they were giving the forum and its organizers more publicity than they would have received otherwise.
The ICC’s Kuperberg and other communal professionals told The Jewish Week that they agree with the mayor. The Washington-based ICC, an independent organization that provides information, resources and training to supporters of Israel, has researched more than 5,000 anti-Israel events during the past two-and-a-half years, learning that it pays to ignore groups agitating against Israel, Kuperberg said.
Staff members at IAN, a New York-based initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America, have published some of the same stories in a booklet of 14 case studies, Palast said. The studies look at anti-Israel activities throughout the world, how Israel’s supporters countered them and the outcome of those efforts.
In the case of Brooklyn College, Palast worked closely with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, an affiliate of IAN’s partner, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. In turn, the JCRC worked with Brooklyn College’s Tanger Hillel through Hindy Poupko, its director of Israel and international affairs.
Poupko and the Hillel’s director, Nadya Drukker, focused on condemning BDS, clarifying the college’s sponsorship policy and trying to ensure that future programming at the college include alternative points of view, both recounted. The message regarding BDS is that it’s a one-sided, destructive movement that seeks to undermine the pursuit of a two-state solution and reduce contacts between Israelis and Palestinians. One idea was for Hillel students to wear buttons saying “Support Peace, Support Israel” and for those who desired to wear labels underneath those buttons with the message “Talk to Me” — an invitation for others on campus to discuss Israel with them.
“The plan was to educate the Hillel students about the BDS movement and to make sure they had the tools to educate other students on the day of the event,” Poupko said.
Once the press latched onto the controversy, Poupko said, supporters of Israel had no choice but to communicate what they believe to be the “true nature” of the BDS movement — words echoed by Palast. But, like Kuperberg, both women would have preferred that developments at Brooklyn College remain out of the media, thus depriving the BDS movement of what Palast called the “oxygen” it needs.
Referring to the involvement of local politicians, Kuperberg said he “wouldn’t blame anyone from outside the campus community for feeling passionate, for wanting to be of help and for being outraged at how the event transpired.”
But Howard Wohl, president of Tanger Hillel, felt no reluctance about lashing into Hikind, who has put himself in the thick of things before. Last year, for instance, Hikind publicly assailed the appointment of a controversial adjunct professor at Brooklyn College, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, referring to him as a supporter of suicide bombings. But that turned out to be inaccurate. Hikind was accused of playing politics, and the college, after initially rejecting the appointment, eventually re-hired the professor.
Discussing Hikind’s involvement in this month’s episode, Wohl said leaders and staff members at Hillel and other Jewish organizations “could have handled this by ourselves.” But events got out of control, he added, because of the interference of politicians seeking “face time” and the chance to prove that they could speak about Israel “more loudly” than anyone else.
Hikind rejected that criticism, telling The Jewish Week that Hillel doesn’t represent all the Jewish students at Brooklyn College, several of whom joined him at a press conference he held a week before the event. He also blasted Hillel for praising Gould’s statement that the college’s sponsorship of the forum wasn’t an endorsement.
“If Hillel accepted that [statement] and was OK with that, then they’re a bunch of idiots,” Hikind said. “The idea that sponsorship doesn’t mean support? If that’s the leadership we have, then that’s pretty pathetic.”
Wohl, though, wouldn’t back off.
“Everyone has a right to free speech,” he said, including Hikind. “But by making this into a media event,” Hikind gave the BDS movement more attention than it deserves, deflected attention from the real issue — that of academic integrity — and “drowned out” the college’s Jewish students.
“Who needs him to become the center of attention?” Wohl asked.