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September 29, 2016 / 26 Elul, 5776
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Brooklyn College BDS Event: Just One Example of ‘Hostile Environment’?

The letter lays out a litany of concerns regarding the intimidating atmosphere for students within Brooklyn College's political science department

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Brooklyn College

Brooklyn College



Tonight’s anti-Israel event sponsored and endorsed by the Brooklyn College political science department will take place on that school’s campus, but it now appears certain that the atmosphere of intimidation and distrust generated by that academic department did not begin, and will not end, with this event.

The BDS program tonight will be a one-sided session in which two leaders of the economic and political warfare movement known as BDS (Boycott of, Divestment from, and Sanctions against Israel), will promote that effort as a force for good.

Brooklyn College’s chapter of the anti-Israel organization Students for Justice in Palestine is the organization that brought the event to campus, but despite the disingenuous claim by the head of the BC political science department Paisley Currah, his department is not only co-sponsoring the event, it has endorsed it.

The school’s administration has steadfastly supported the event by describing it as the right of the students and the political science department’s exercise of “academic freedom.”  Brooklyn College’s president, Karen Gould, defined that concept in a letter she sent to the school community.  It is unclear how tonight’s one-sided event fits her definition.  She wrote,

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. As your president, I consistently have demonstrated my commitment to these principles so that our college community may consider complex issues and points of view across the political and cultural spectrum.

The head of the undergraduate student government rejected the administration’s understanding of the term.  Abraham Esses explained in an open letter to the BC community, that just as “the right to free speech, academic freedom rights are not unbounded; the department has basically yelled “fire” on campus, and locked the doors to their department after doing so. By doing so, it has failed to accomplish one of the main benefits of academic freedom rights, that is, the approach of all ideas and issues with an open mind. Such a failure constitutes a gross abuse of such rights.”

In an entry in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Currah rejects the notion that two sides to a story needs be presented in order to satisfy the rigors of academic freedom.  His view is that “debates have their place, but thoroughly understanding an argument requires sustained and concentrated attention.”  And just to be clear about where he and his department stands, Currah encouraged other academics to fight against full picture presentations, writing that “it’s important to argue against mandates that both sides (or all sides) of an issue be represented simultaneously.”

The anti-Israel event has been a magnet for commentary beyond the school community as well.  One practically needs a score card to keep all the players and their positions straight.

There are three main positions: first, that the event can take place on campus and the political science department’s sponsorship and endorsement is fine; second, that the event is permissible and can take place on campus but there should not be an endorsement of or sponsorship by an academic department; and third, the event should not take place on this publicly funded university at all.

In the first category we find the BDS event co-sponsors, endorsers and the school administration, as well as the broader BDS world.  Add New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to this group, as well as the New York Times, and of course the ubiquitous circus act Max Blumenthal.

The second category’s supporters reject the overt participation of and endorsement by the BC political science department.  In their view that endorsement and sponsorship creates an inappropriate and perhaps hostile environment for BC students who support the existence of Israel.  In this category are the BC student government leadership and thousands of students who signed an on-line petition, Prof. Alan Dershowitz, and the Anti-Defamation League. Also in this group is the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which  issued this strongly worded statement last week:

The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York strongly condemns the decision of Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department to lend its name and imprimatur to an event featuring individuals who espouse extremist and hostile views. While we vigorously defend academic freedom, we believe that these freedoms do not extend to faculty and academic bodies exploiting their association with the university to enhance their biased and hateful agenda. At the very least, academic integrity requires a balanced forum representing diverse views. Since that is not the case, we call upon the Political Science Department to remove its name from this one-sided propaganda event.

Pro-Israel student activist Chloé Simone Valdary is also in this category, but she is calling upon the students and the larger community to speak out against tonight’s event in a cri de coeur, here.

Lori Lowenthal Marcus

About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the U.S. correspondent for The Jewish Press. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com


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