Students at Brooklyn College are conducting an online petition drive to have an academic department at Brooklyn College withdraw its sponsorship of what many members of the Jewish community consider an anti-Israel forum there next week.
The campaign, which has gathered nearly 600 signatures from students at the school and from members of the wider community, requests that the college administration “rescind its sponsorship” of the forum, “BDS Movement Against Israel,” which is to take place Thursday, Feb. 7 on the Flatbush campus.
Main speakers at the event, which is co-sponsored by the school’s political science department and various campus and outside organizations, are described by the petition as “virulently anti-Israel.” They are Omar Barghouti, the Qatar-born, West Bank-raised founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Campus Boycott of Israel, and Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California’s Berkeley campus and a supporter of the BDS (boycott, divestments and sanctions) movement that seeks to weaken and isolate Israel.
“Both Barghouti and Butler are publicly on record calling for the elimination of the Jewish state,” the petition states. “There is no doubt that the purpose of this event is to promote campaigns to boycott Israel, campaigns which the U.S. Department of State considers to be anti-Semitic, and the Jewish community considers to be an assault on the Jewish people.
“We believe that the department’s sponsorship serves to condone and legitimize anti-Jewish bigotry, and that it will contribute significantly to a hostile environment for Jewish students on our campus,” the petition states.
“Many Jewish students are upset that … [the] political science department is co-sponsoring an event they feel is antagonistic to their beliefs,” said Nadya Drukker, executive director of Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College. “They expect a college’s administration to be a facilitator of dialogue, rather than a promoter of one side of the dialogue. Our Board is concerned that academic freedoms are being abused at the expense of academic responsibility.”
Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York system, has an estimated Jewish student population of 3,500.
A Jewish professor at the school who often counsels Jewish students said he has received several e-mail messages from students who are concerned about the “one-sided” forum.
“The students I have spoken with are highly offended and deeply hurt that a college they considered home and have felt secure in” is agreeing to the forum’s sponsorship, said a Brooklyn College senior who requested not to be identified. The student coordinated the petition drive when it became clear that the political science department “was willing to put [the college’s name] on such a hateful event.”
The department declined to remove its name from the forum, the student told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview. “The administration has not yet responded to the petition.
“We are in no way asking for the event to be cancelled,” the student said. “There is free speech … a private student group has every right to bring any speaker they want. … The only thing we are asking for is that the event not be sponsored by the college via their academic department.”
Drukker said the campus’ Hillel chapter has coordinated the petition drive, discussed the situation with campus officials and “reached out” to Brooklyn College’s president, Karen Gould.
“Our students are working on a variety of efforts aimed at educating the student body on the true nature of the BDS movement,” Drukker said. “This may take the form of op-eds in the student paper or a thoughtful handout to the students who attend the event. We ask that well-meaning pro-Israel activists [from outside the school] refrain from coming to our campus that day. We have the utmost of faith in our students and our capacity to appropriately respond to the event.”
“What’s troubling here is the [implied] university involvement” in the political science department’s co-sponsorship, said a representative of a New York Jewish communal organization. “It does imply, in some people’s minds, some kind of approval” of the speakers’ point of view.
Representatives of the school cast the controversy as one of free speech and academic freedom. While it is common for student groups at universities to sponsor speeches on controversial topics, academic departments do so less frequently.
A Facebook page that promotes the forum describes the BDS movement as “a strategy that allows people of conscience to play an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice,” and calls the event a means to “help END Israeli apartheid and the illegal occupation of Palestine.”
Hindy Poupko, director of Israel and international affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council, called the school’s decision to let the forum carry the sponsorship by the political science department “deeply disappointing.”
The sponsorship of the forum by one of the college’s academic departments “does not indicate an endorsement,” said Jeremy Thompson, a Brooklyn College spokesperson. “As a college, we are committed to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. We do not tell student groups or academic departments what topics can be discussed.”
The event was initiated by a campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, Thompson said. “We have not had any calls for the event to be cancelled.”
In an open letter to the college community this week, Gould wrote, “Some may believe that our steadfast commitment to free speech signals an institutional endorsement of a particular point of view. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brooklyn College does not endorse the views of the speakers visiting our campus … just as it has not endorsed those of previous visitors to our campus with opposing views.
“As an institution of higher education, it is incumbent upon us to uphold the tenets of academic freedom and allow our students and faculty to engage in dialogue and debate on topics they may choose, even those with which members of our campus and broader community may vehemently disagree,” Gould wrote.
The political science department did not respond to a request by The Jewish Week for comment on the controversy.
CUNY Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a onetime adviser to Gov. George Pataki, this week urged Brooklyn College to withdraw its sponsorship of the forum; such sponsorship by a campus academic department entitles the event to free use of space and of college support staff.
Wiesenfeld said the backers of the forum should be made to pay for a room on campus or move to an off-campus location. “Taxpayers’ dollars should not fund illegitimate, racist and anti-Semitic activities by any academic department,” Wiesenfeld said in a prepared statement.
In recent years, Brooklyn College has drawn attention for several incidents that members of the Jewish community indicated a tenor on campus hostile to Jewish or Israeli concerns.
In 2010 a book by an associate professor at the school that featured contributions by many critics of Israel’s “apartheid” policies toward residents of the territory under control of the Palestinian Authority was assigned as mandatory reading to incoming transfer students. But defenders of the book by Moustafa Bayoumi said its focus was the lives of young Arabs in the United States, not attacks on Israel.
In 2011 the college dismissed, then subsequently rehired, an adjunct political science professor whom critics said held decidedly pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist views; the school rehired the professor with the explanation that critics’ “political agenda” had led to his original firing. The same year a rally celebrating the rehiring of that adjunct of a critic of Israel featured several anti-Israel speeches, but the teacher, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, expressed disappointment at the event’s anti-Israel flavor.
And following charges last year that the school’s provost discriminated against Orthodox faculty members — in terms of their being hired or being granted tenure — several dozen professors at the college, among them Orthodox Jews, came out in defense of the administration.
This series of events points to an increasing acceptance of an anti-Israel atmosphere on campus, said Carrie Idler, who has written several members of the administration to protest next week’s forum.
“We’ve tolerated other things on campus in the name of free speech,” said Carrie Idler, a graduate of Brooklyn College and adjunct professor there. “This [forum] goes too far. I don’t believe that boycotting [a country] based on race or religion is free speech.
“I want the event cancelled,” Idler said. “I find it really, really sad that this is what the school has come to.”
Brooklyn College, located near several heavily Jewish neighborhoods, has educated a large number of Jewish students, including those from the former Soviet Union, for a few generations.
Idler’s siblings, husband and children all went there.
Idler said she plans to take part in a protest rally at the school when the forum takes place. “One hundred percent. And my husband and my siblings and my friends [who attended Brooklyn College] are all in agreement.”