Brooklyn College's academic freedom increasingly threatened over Israel event

New York politicians join the Alan Dershowitz-led campaign to dictate to colleges what academic events they can hold

Glenn Greenwald, Saturday 2 February 2013 10.35 EST
Jump to comments (195)

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz is leading the campaign against an event featuring Israel critics, sponsored by the Political Science department of Brooklyn College. Photograph: AP/Sergei Chuzakov

On Tuesday, I wrote about a brewing controversy that was threatening the academic freedom of Brooklyn College (see Item 7). The controversy was triggered by the sponsorship of the school's Political Science department of an event, scheduled for 7 February, featuring two advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) aimed at stopping Israeli oppression of the Palestinians [one speaker is a Palestinian (Omar Barghouti) and the other a Jewish American (philosopher Judith Butler)]. The event is being co-sponsored by numerous student and community groups, including Students for Justice in Palestine, the college's LGBT group, pro-Palestinian Jewish organizations, and an Occupy Wall Street group.

When I wrote about this earlier in the week, opposition to the event was confined to the usual suspects devoted to so-called "pro-Israel" advocacy, including many with a long history of trying to destroy anyone critical of the Israeli government. The controversy was largely fueled by BC alumnus Alan Dershowitz, who denounced the event in a New York York Daily News Op-Ed as a "hate orgy". Dershowitz – with whom I had a lengthy and contentious email exchange yesterday on this and other topics (see below) – previously led the successful campaign to pressure DePaul University into denying tenure to long-time Israel critic Norman Finkelstein (after his tenure had been approved by an academic committee), all but destroying Finkelstein's career as an academic.

Dershowitz has been joined in his current crusade by a cast of crazed and fanatical Israel-centric characters such as Brooklyn State Assembly member Dov Hikind. Ignoring the BDS movement's explicit non-violence stance, Hikind publicly (and falsely) claimed that the event speakers (to whom he referred as "Barghouti and…the lady") "think Hamas and Hezbollah are nice organizations, and they probably feel the same way about Al Qaeda".

Hikind called on the college's President, Karen Gould, to resign, recklessly insinuating (needless to say) that she's an anti-Semite: "Perhaps President Gould wasn't bullied; maybe she secretly approves. . . . I can only speculate to what her motivation or lack of motivation is in allowing this irresponsible endorsement of this loathsome event by her College."). In 2011, Hikind led the campaign to force Brooklyn College to fire the young adjunct professor Kristofer Petersen-Overton for the crime of writing a pro-Palestinian paper (after firing him, the college rehired him days later).

One of the key members of Brooklyn College's board of trustees, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, is notorious for having led the 2011 effort to block CUNY from granting an honorary degree to Tony Kushner in light of Kushner's Israel criticisms ("My mother would call Tony Kushner a kapo," Wiesenfeld said of the Jewish playwright). When a New York Times reporter writing about the Kushner controversy asked Wiesenfeld whether one side of the Israel/Palestine debate should be suppressed, Wiesenfeld objected that "the comparison sets up a moral equivalence." When the Times reporter asked him: "equivalence between what and what?", Wiesenfeld replied: "between the Palestinians and Israelis.People who worship death for their children are not human."

Meanwhile, the neocon editorial page of the New York Daily Newsdecreed that "Brooklyn College is no place for an Israel-bashing lecture". Some Jewish students demanded that the Department rescind its sponsorship by cynically conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, complaining that the event will "condone and legitimize anti-Jewish bigotry" and "contribute significantly to a hostile environment for Jewish students on our campus".

In sum, the ugly lynch mob now assembled against Brooklyn College and its academic event is all too familiar in the US when it comes to criticism of and activism against Israeli government policy. Indeed, in the US, there are few more efficient ways to have your reputation and career as a politician or academic destroyed than by saying something perceived as critical of Israel. This is not news. Ask Chas Freeman. Or Ocatavia Nasr. Or Finkelstein. Or Juan Cole. Or Stephen Walt. Or Chuck Hagel.

But this controversy has now significantly escalated in seriousness because numerous New York City elected officials have insinuated themselves into this debate by trying to dictate to the school's professors what type of events they are and are not permitted to hold. Led by Manhattan's fanatical pro-Israel "liberal" Congressman Jerrold Nadler and two leading New York mayoral candidates – Council speaker Christine Quinn and former city comptroller William Thompson – close to two dozen prominent City officials have signed onto a letter to college President Gould pronouncing themselves "concerned that an academic department has decided to formally endorse an event that advocates strongly for one side of a highly-charged issue" and "calling for Brooklyn College's Political Science Department to withdraw their endorsement of this event." As a result, the "scandal" has now landed in The New York Times, and – for obvious reasons – the pressure on school administrators is immense.

Imagine being elected to public office and then deciding to use your time and influence to interfere in the decisions of academics about the types of campus events they want to sponsor. Does anyone have trouble seeing how inappropriate it is – how dangerous it is – to have politicians demanding that professors only sponsor events that are politically palatable to those officials? If you decide to pursue political power, you have no business trying to use your authority to pressure, cajole or manipulate college professors regarding what speakers they can invite to speak on campus.

These elected officials are cynically wrapping themselves in the banner of "academic freedom" as they wage war on that same concept. They thus argue in their letter: "by excluding alternative positions from an event they are sponsoring, the Political Science Department has actually stifled free speech by preventing honest, open debate." But if that term means anything, it means that academia is free of interference from the state when it comes to the ideas that are aired on campuses.

The danger posed by these politicians is manifest. Brooklyn College relies upon substantial grants and other forms of funding from the state. These politicians, by design, are making it mandatory for these college administrators to capitulate – to ensure that no campus events run afoul of the orthodoxies of state officials – because obtaining funding for Brooklyn College in the climate that has purposely been created is all but impossible.

There are undoubtedly numerous motive driving these politicians' campaign against this event. It is all but impossible to succeed in New York City politics – or US national politics – without faithfully embracing pro-Israel orthodoxies. That's the nature of politics in general: it requires subservience to empowered factions and majoritarian sentiment. That's what politicians do by their nature: they flatter and affirm convention. That's exactly the reason politicians have no legitimate role to play in influencing or dictating the content of academic events. It's because academia, at least in theory, has the exact opposite role: it is designed to challenge, question and subvert orthodoxies.

That value is utterly obliterated if school administrators live in fear of offending state officials. That is exactly what is happening here, by intent: making every college administrator petrified of alienating these same pro-Israel factions by making an example out of Brooklyn College. That's why anyone who values academic freedom and independence – regardless of one's views of the BDS movement – should be deeply offended and alarmed, as well as mobilized, by what is being done here.

The primary defense being offered by these would-be censors – we just want both sides of the issue to be included in this event – is patently disingenuous. In his lengthy email exchange with me yesterday – printed in full here – Dershowitz told me that his objections were not to the holding of the event itself, but to the sponsorship of it by the Political Science Department, especially given the lack of any BDS opponents. For those reasons, Dershowitz claims, "it is crystal clear that the political science department's co-sponsorship and endorsement of these extremist speakers does constitute an endorsement of BDS."

But nobody proves the disingenuousness of this excuse more than Dershowitz himself. Like the BDS movement, Dershowitz is a highly controversial and polarizing figure who inspires intense animosity around the world. That's due to many reasons, including his defense of virtually every Israeli attack, his advocacy of "torture warrants" whereby courts secretly authorize state torture, his grotesque attempt to dilute what a "civilian" is and replace it with "the continuum of civilianality" in order to justify Israeli aggression, and his chronic smearing of Israel critics such as author Alice Walker as "bigots".

Despite how controversial he is, Dershowitz routinely appears on college campuses to speak without opposition. Indeed, as the Gawker writer who writes under the pen name Mobutu Sese Seko first documented, Dershowitz himself has spoken at Brooklyn College on several occasions without opposition. That includes – as the college's Political Science Professor Corey Robin noted – when he was chosen by the school's Political Science department to deliver the Konefsky lecture in which he spoke at length – and without opposition. He also delivered a 2008 speech at Brooklyn College, alone, in which he discussed a wide variety of controversial views, including torture. As Professor Robin noted, when Dershowitz agreed to speak at the school, "he didn't insist that we invite someone to rebut him or to represent the opposing view."

Nor did any of the New York City politicians objecting to this BDS event as "one-sided" object to Dershowitz's speech given without opposition. Why is that?

In fact, it is incredibly common for academic departments to sponsor controversial speakers without opposition. I speak frequently at colleges and universities, and always express opinions which many people find highly objectionable. As but one example, I spoke at the University of Missouri School of Law last September, in an event sponsored by the law school itself. As this news account from the school's newspaper notes, I spoke at length about the highly controversial ideas in my last book, and that speech was followed by a panel discussion of like-minded civil liberties and civil rights advocates.

The way that happens is exactly how it happened here: a student group decides it wants to invite speakers or host an event and then seeks organizing support from one of the school's departments. That does not remotely connote departmental agreement with all or any of the ideas to be aired; it simply reflects a willingness to help students organize events they think will be beneficial. As Professor Robin told me about the BDS event: "The student group explicitly asked us if we would like to 'endorse' or 'co-sponsor' the event; we explicitly opted for 'co-sponsor.'"

Indeed, by extreme coincidence, the very same Brooklyn College Political Science department selected me to deliver this year's Konefsky lecture – the same lecture previously given by Dershowitz (alone). I'm going to express all sorts of views on civil liberties and other political conflicts that are vehemently rejected by large numbers of people. But nobody ever remotely thought that there was anything inappropriate about my appearing alone.

That's because it's extremely common for academic departments to sponsor events at which controversial speakers appear either alone or with generally like-minded speakers. As Robin told me about Dershowitz's absurd claim that departmental sponsorship of controversial speakers is unusual:

"When I was a grad student at Yale, I organized quite a few talks — the one I remember most was of Robert Meeropol defending the innocence of his parents the Rosenbergs. I got not only co-sponsorship but money from several academic departments to host this event. This is simply routine. He doesn't know what he's talking about."

There is value in a full-on debate. But there's also value in enabling an idea to be expressed and developed without having some cable-news-type "debate" with someone who rejects every premise of the argument. There's also value in having tactical and strategic debates among people devoted to the same political cause. As Hunter College Political Science Professor Scott Lemieux noted about the Brooklyn event: "You know who else is at best skeptical of boycotting Israeli scholars? Judith Butler, which may suggest that the discussion will be more critical and complex than its critics assume."

(Dershowitz claimed to me that he "recently told someone who invited me to give a talk on Israel that the talk should not be sponsored by the school or a department." But when I asked him to identify where this happened so I could follow-up and write about it, he ignored my inquiry. But if this happened, the fact that he had to specify this shows how common such sponsorships are even of the most controversial speakers like Dershowitz.)

Manifestly, this controversy has nothing whatsoever to do with objecting to one-sided academic events sponsored by academic institutions. Such events occur constantly without anyone uttering a peep of protest. This has to do with one thing and one thing only: trying to create specially oppressive rules that govern only critics of Israel and criticisms of that nation's government. As Lemieux put it: "So, apparently, colleges have a moral obligation to have 'balanced' panels . . . in cases where the speakers might disagree with Alan Dershowitz."

It's fitting that this controversy erupted in the same week when Obama's nominee to lead the Pentagon, Chuck Hagel, has been subjected to an extremely ugly McCarthyite-like attack from the US Senate over very mild statements he has made in the past about Israel and the domestic Israel lobby. As Esquire's Charles Pierce observed, one GOP Senator, Ted Cruz, "took almost his entire opportunity to fit Hagel for a kaffiyeh" by all but accusing him of being a Terrorist based on his mild Israel criticisms.

In the ultimate irony, at the very same time that Hagel was forced to renounce his view that there is a powerful Israel Lobby that constricts debate and shapes government policy over Israel – there is no such thing! Perish the thought! – he has had to desperately run away from his past criticisms of Israel in order to have any hope of being confirmed. That ritual left a stammering mess of a nominee, petrified of affirming his own beliefs on Israel lest he be further smeared and rendered radioactive. Slate's Dave Weigel put it best when he wrote about the Hagel hearing:

"[GOP Senator] Lindsey Graham had wanted to know who had ever been spooked by The Lobby and what stupid things they'd done out of panic. The answer was right in front of him, at the witness table.

Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, the much-pilloried author of The Israel Lobby – the book documenting how that lobby stifles debate in the US and dictates Israeli policy to Congress – was right to claim vindicationafter watching the ugly Hagel debacle. Noting that the entire Hagel hearing focused overwhelmingly on Israel and Iran – rather than issues of US security for which Hagel will actually be responsible – Walt declared: "I want to thank the Emergency Committee for Israel, Sheldon Adelson, and the Senate Armed Service Committee for providing such a compelling vindication of our views."

The controversy over the BDS panel at Brooklyn College is nothing more than the latest manifestation of the attempt to squelch criticism of Israel and delegitimize its critics. It is intended to create special rules that apply to Israel critics but to nothing else: you can never allow them to speak without having someone there to attack them. It is designed to put into further fear any faculty members or school administrators who would dare run afoul of pro-Israel orthodoxies. The campaign devoted to stopping this event is so wildly disproportionate to the importance of the event itself because its objectives extend far beyond this BC event. That's why this campaign is a severe threat to academic freedom and free debate.

When I wrote about this controversy on Tuesday, I said that if this BDS event is cancelled, then "I'd strongly consider asking them to cancel mine as well, as I assume when I accept invitations to speak in academic venues that I'm going somewhere that fosters rather than suffocates the free exchange of ideas." I'm going to make that more definite: if this event is cancelled, or if the Political Science department is forced to change it to include speakers they never wanted to invite, then I will absolutely refuse to speak at Brooklyn College. Others should use this updated list to contact school administrators and make your views known.

The side that favors academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas does not remotely have the financial resources and political organizing clout as the side that tries to control political debates in the name of pro-Israel advocacy. But we can at least do what we can do in pursuit of these principles. Preserving the ability of academic institutions to host the events and invite the speakers they want – without having to heed the demands of "pro-Israel" advocates and the cowardly state officials who serve them – is of vital importance.

Other Dershowitz inaccuracies

According to Professor Robin, two of Dershowitz's others claims made to me are factually inaccurate. The first is Dershowitz's claim that the Konefsky family choose him as lecturer, not the Political Science department. Writes Robin:

"That is not at all how Konefsky lecturers are chosen; the political science department selects those speakers without any interference from the Konefsky family. (Can you imagine if we had to vet your lecture with the family?) In fact, I am shocked that he thinks private donors can choose speakers at an officially sponsored college event at all. That in fact betrays far more about his conception of academic freedom – not only that he thinks that is what happened but that he thinks it's acceptable and just a normal way of doing business – than anything else."

Also inaccurate, according to Robin, is Dershowitz's claim that "the best proof is that they have refused to endorse anti-BDS events or even pro-Israel speakers who advocate the two state solution and an end to the settlements." As Robin explains, "the chair went through all of his emails today and has not found a single request from a student or student group for us to host an anti-BDS event."