Brooklyn College launched a probe into allegations that Jewish students were wrongly ejected from an event hosted by the school in support of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Karen Gould, the college’s president, on Feb. 13 ordered officials to conduct a “thorough independent review” of allegations that four members of the Jewish student group Hillel were told to leave the gathering organized by a pro-Palestinian group on campus last week. The college’s political science faculty was an official co-sponsor of the event.
The students claim they were escorted by security out of the room where a lecture by pro-Palestinian speakers was set to take place for no apparent reason other than being supporters of Israel.
The Hillel students had pro-Israel leaflets with them in the lecture hall. They told the New York Daily News that they were asked by an event organizer to give up the leaflets, and when they refused they were told to leave.
“If we learn that these students were denied that opportunity without cause, as they allege, the decision to have them removed will have been inappropriate and the college will issue a formal apology,” Gould wrote in a statement.
The primary host of the event was the Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that says it is aimed at “helping end Israeli apartheid and the illegal occupation of Palestine.” Some objected that a BDS event was being held on a college campus with the college’s imprimatur.
Meanwhile, officials at the City University of New York are “investigating the selective exclusion of media” from the event, said Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor for university relations. The decision to exclude the media came from the event’s primary sponsor, Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine.
The Feb. 7 incident took place about 20 minutes after the discussion began, according to accounts provided by the four students and the college’s administration. But the stories diverge after that.
As described by one of the students, 21-year-old Melanie Goldberg, she was sitting quietly at the forum, holding anti-BDS flyers in her lap but not distributing them, when Carlos Guzman, an organizer of the discussion, approached her and gave her an ultimatum: either surrender her flyers or be “forcibly removed” from the room.
After Goldberg declined to do so, Guzman summoned CUNY security guards to remove her and three of her friends, two of whom were also carrying flyers, Goldberg told The Jewish Week.
Once they left the room, Goldberg said, she noticed Milga Morales, the college’s vice president for student affairs. She approached Morales, claiming that her academic freedom was being violated and asking why she was being removed.
But as Goldberg tells it, Morales simply waved her off, suggesting that Students for Justice in Palestine — and not the college — was responsible for how the event was conducted.
“This is their event, and they’re calling the shots,” Goldberg quoted Morales as saying.
Goldberg, an intern with the Israel Campus Coalition, offered those details shortly after the incident and in the presence of Michael and Ari Ziegler, 21 and 23 respectively, brothers and two of the others ousted from the event. The version provided by the Zieglers matched Goldberg’s details.
But Jeremy Thompson, a spokesman for the college, said Friday that their story was “very different from the one being reported to me by university officials on the scene.” His “understanding,” he said, is that the four students “were talking relatively loudly” while the panelist, Judith Butler, was speaking and that they “passing the leaflets” to others near them.
“They were asked to quiet down, to be respectful of others at the event, and they didn’t comply with the request,” Thompson said, adding that the Hillel members were asked to step outside of the room. Even outside the room, though, they continued to speak loudly, drawing a reproach from Morales, he said, and leading to the intervention of CUNY security guards.
Guzman, head of Hunter College Students for Justice in Palestine, failed to respond Friday to two messages left on his cell phone by a reporter. Meanwhile, Sundus Seif, founder and president of Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine, told The Jewish Week that she was in the front of the room during most of the event and wasn’t aware of the incident only a few feet away from her.
Even before the incident, some of the college’s pro-Israel students faced a tough time getting into the event, Goldberg said. In her case, she continued, she registered for the event three weeks beforehand, received two e-mails confirming her registration, but was initially turned away Thursday night after her name couldn’t be found on the list. She got into the event only after she called Nadya Drukker, executive director of Tanger Hillel, and Drukker called Morales.
The Zieglers, both of whom wear kippot, experienced similar problems, they said, but five other students affiliated with Hillel were admitted without any trouble and remained at the forum until the end.
The handling of Thursday’s event also distressed members of the press, who were barred from the invitation-only event.
Asked about that, Thompson, the college spokesman, said the number of RSVPs gathered by the event’s organizers had exceeded the room’s capacity of about 200 several days before the forum. Moreover, he said, Students for Justice in Palestine — and not the college — was hosting the event, despite the fact that one of the forum’s co-sponsors was the college’s political science department.
“We, institutionally, are not going to tell them to keep out students, faculty or members of the campus community to accommodate members of the media,” Thompson said. “This has been a media circus, and the event has been one on which the students were working hard.”
The event began drawing fierce criticism about two weeks ago, after reports that it would be co-sponsored by the political science department. Several members of the City Council threatened to cut the school’s funding, saying that, as a public institution, Brooklyn College should maintain political neutrality.
But Karen Gould, the college’s president, said in a statement that the sponsorship didn’t imply that the department or the administration agreed with BDS. She also said that the forum would present a good opportunity for those opposed to BDS to ask challenging questions. Among those who supported the college’s stance was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who, earlier in the week, told reporters that while he “couldn’t disagree more violently” with the BDS movement, he believed that controversial and even “repugnant” ideas deserve a platform on college campuses and the government shouldn’t try to muzzle them.