The dean of Brooklyn College insists that the school “values tolerance, diversity and respect for differing points of view,” but several faculty members are openly questioning that assertion given the school’s common reading selection this coming semester.
The book, “How Does it Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America,” is a collection of personal stories by and about seven Arabs from Brooklyn that was edited by Moustafa Bayoumi, an assistant professor of English at the school.
“Nobody wants to suppress anybody’s freedom of speech, but this book is advocacy,” said Jonathan Helfand of the college’s Department of Judaic Studies. “The final chapter takes up the Palestinian cause and blames their problems on the Americans and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Thus, Helfand argued, “the book is problematic if given without an alternative vision.”
Bayoumi is also the author of a recently published book about the attempt by Turkish ships to run an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip established to prevent arms smuggling. A publisher’s blurb said that book contains writings from “a range of activists, journalists and analysts [that reveal] why the attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla may just turn out to be Israel’s Selma, Alabama: the beginning of the end for an apartheid Palestine.”
Among those who contributed to the book are prominent critics of Israel, among them Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and Stephen Walt.
Bayoumi is also editor of the “Edward Said Reader,” which features writings of the late Columbia University literary theorist who was a harsh critic of Israel.
Bayoumi did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview or to a phone message left at his office. He was slated to appear this week before all the freshmen and transfer students who read his book to discuss it.
Hefland pointed out that many colleges that ask students to read controversial items provide students with a second reading that offers another point of view.
“What happened here is that one voice is being heard to the exclusion of other voices, and that is indoctrination, not education,” Helfand insisted. “No one is saying [Bayoumi] can’t speak or that his book should not be read. But to make it the exclusive exposure, places a pall on open discourse.”
Brooklyn College President Karen Gould did not respond to requests for an interview, but Pat Willard, interim director of communications and marketing, sent an e-mail explaining that the idea of having all freshman and transfer students read a common book for their English 101 class has been a practice for the last seven years.
“The professors choose books that are set in New York City and, because many of our students are first generation, often reflect an immigrant experience,” the statement said. “The selected book is meant to encourage the sharing of different backgrounds, cultures and language in preparation for the students’ own ‘writing a personal memoir’ assignment for the class.”
These books, Willard wrote, have led to “productive discussions of how others identify themselves and has led to self-discovery by entry-level students who were striving to improve their writing skills.” Bayoumi’s book was chosen because it received “rave literary reviews” and contributes to a discussion about the many immigrant communities in Brooklyn, Willard added.
Publishers Weekly described the book as a “quintessentially American picture of 21st century citizens ‘absorbing and refracting all the ethnicities and histories surrounding [them].’ However, the testimonies from these young adults — summary seizures from their homes, harassment from strangers, being fired for having an Arab or Muslim name — have a weight and a sorrow that is ‘often invisible to the general public.’”
Helfand said he has no intention of bringing the matter before the faculty senate because “we have a very liberal faculty that would not recognize that this is trampling on the diversity they hold so dear. … I don’t want anybody brainwashing or indoctrinating students.”
A former professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College, Abigail Rosenthal, wrote to Gould that Bayoumi is a “spokesman for one side of a current political struggle” in the Middle East. She noted that he is the “author of a blatantly one-sided collection on the Gaza flotilla incident.”
Allowing Bayoumi this platform, Rosenthal wrote, “will intimidate incoming students with a different point of view … sending the message that only one side will be approved on this college campus.”
Another former faculty member, Edward Alexander, wrote to Gould saying that the idea of having all 2,000 freshmen and transfer students read the same book at the beginning of the school year is, “at first glance, an attractive idea.”
“But given the way in which this idea is now being exploited at Brooklyn College, I think that a return to intercollegiate football would be a far better way of bringing students together,” he wrote.
Alexander called Bayoumi’s book a “well-written and ostensibly non-political yet highly partisan and contentious work. … How are your freshmen not only limited to this one point of view but soon to have it relentlessly hammered home by the personal presence of the author at the front of their classroom … ?”
In his own letter to Gould, Helfand wrote that in his 38 years of teaching at Brooklyn College he has “always encouraged my students to think for themselves, to question assignment readings, and to challenge theories and interpretations. This program, on the other hand, introduces the kind of ideological homogenization that I have resisted all my academic life.”